The battles for higher wages by angry striking miners must be chosen carefully to avoid setbacks for the workers, writes Ebrahim Harvey.
When aggrieved and angry striking miners turned violently on Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi as he tried to address them three weeks ago, it was the clearest sign yet that the spate of wildcat strikes in the mining industry had distinct dangers that could lead to a serious weakening of both unionised and non-unionised workers and further bedevil already fragile industrial relations.
Although these strikes have begun to end over the past two weeks, what are the lessons for those strikers who lost their jobs following mass dismissals?
In fact, the illegality of wildcat strikes is one of the most serious factors to consider because it raises valid questions about how feasible and sustainable unprotected strikes are. They can prove to be dangerously counterproductive, as the evidence shows.
Spontaneous, militant and angry strike action is very important as the raw element with which to wage a just struggle for higher wages against the mine owners, but for such action to succeed, many questions need both to be posed and answered.
To persist with wildcat strikes that are often disorganised and leaderless is very dangerous, as we can see from mass dismissals at some mines. Whether we like it or not, the weapon of the law is a powerful instrument in the hands of mine owners and one that workers ignore, often at their peril.
But inevitably wildcat strikes will dissipate. Workers cannot begin and sustain them only on the basis of anger and resentment. Without thinking through very carefully their actions and the likely consequences, these strikers are teetering on the precipice. Mass dismissals are a very negative consequence that will not only affect new employment and current jobs, but also seriously affect potential union organisation in the future. Therefore, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about wildcat strikes.
There are many international examples in the labour movement that show very clearly that unless striking workers seriously assess the prospects for success in winning demands, they can end up with many setbacks and even defeats. This is particularly true in a volatile situation in which the costs are high on both sides of a clear class divide.
They must understand the balance of forces, the feasibility of prolonging militant strike action and how far they can push the boundaries of industrial relations realistically. What the illegal and unprotected strike action did was to raise the stakes far higher.
In a mining industry that has already been severely affected by the South African and international economic crises, these lesions are aggravated. To know when to stop and reassess the concrete conditions on the ground is a cardinally important strategic and tactical issue in all strikes, especially in unprotected strikes, because they are much more vulnerable to mass dismissals, which will, in turn, seriously compromise both jobs and unionisation.
I firmly believed that such a critical point was reached in South Africa recently.
A strike is meant to strengthen the struggles and organisation of workers and not to weaken them, which is what in some instances the wildcat strikes did.
Not even the indisputable facts – that the mining industry has been seriously lagging behind the political transformation since 1994, that for too long it has not done enough to deal with the poor living and working conditions of miners, and that wages are low – can be allowed to provoke unprotected strike action that seriously harms all sides and leads to a raging and spreading conflict.
Therefore, never before has the union movement been in as much need of strong leadership to rein in and guide, when necessary, unbridled wildcat strikes in order to find a resolution in the shortest possible time. Under such circumstances the risks are high on both sides, but for legally unprotected strikers to think that they can sustain wildcat strikes indefinitely is potentially very dangerous.
The wildcat strikers wanted to ride on the back of what management allowed at the Lonmin mine in Marikana – unprotected strikers to win high wage increases. For the wildcat strikers it was not only unwise and unsustainable, it also showed how quickly it can become dangerously counterproductive, as is evident with mass dismissals at some mines.
Even the most powerful worker militancy can quickly end in defeat if, sooner rather than later, the strikers don't sit down, take stock of the overall situation and resist further opportunistic calls to action, which can be ruinous, especially given the biggest risk of all – mass dismissals.
Those unionists or non-unionists who continued regardless to stoke the fires of wildcat strikes were potentially doing the affected workers a huge disservice. Now is the time for a fundamental review of these strikes. It must be aimed at reaching a deeper and more informed understanding sooner, drawing on the lessons learnt and moving on.
Ebrahim Harvey is a former Cosatu unionist and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe's biographer