Despite the hype, the number of work hours lost has been declining since 2010.
As strike season reaches a climax and with workers downing tools in at least three sectors, the voices of analysts become tinged with panic and headlines take on an urgent tone.
But contrary to what media coverage may convey, the number of working days lost due to strikes has decreased steadily since 2010.
The numbers only tell a part of the story, however. Fewer work-hours may have been lost to work stoppages but their effect on investor sentiment and the “reactive” components of the economy, such as the rand price, have been felt more keenly than before.
The past two weeks have seen the culmination of this year’s much-anticipated wage negotiations. About 30 000 workers in the automotive sector downed tools on Monday August 19, affecting most of the big-name motor manufacturers, including Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes.
They had failed to reach an agreement by Wednesday evening, with workers rejecting the employers’ offer of a 10% pay increase over the next three years.
At the behest of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), about 90 000 workers in the construction industry went on strike on Monday, snubbing the 7% wage increase offer and demanding a 12% rise across the board.
Their demand echoes that of 600 technical employees of SAA who are members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union. They are demanding a 12% increase, rejecting the 6.5% offered by their state-owned employer.
Meanwhile, the gold sector hovers on the brink of unrest: negotiations between the unions and the collective bargaining body, the Chamber of Mines, have broken down.
On Thursday August 22, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration issued the NUM and the United Association of South Africa (Uasa) with a certificate of nonresolution — a cue that the two unions could embark on a legally sanctioned strike.
The textile industry is in a similar position, with the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union threatening a nationwide strike if their demands of a 7% increase are not met.
With the highly publicised breakdown of negotiations between unions and employers, it is easy to think that the strikes of the past two years have been more prevalent than ever before. But, according to employment research analysts, the numbers say otherwise.
“Every year, people think that that year is a particularly bad one,” said Jackie Kelly, a research analyst at Andrew Levy Employment.
Number of working days lost
In reality, the number of working days lost was highest in 2010. The year in which the country hosted the Soccer World Cup saw 20 674 737 working days lost due to strikes, according to the 2011 Industrial Action Report published by the department of labour.
However, said Kelly, the startlingly high figure was an anomaly and reflected the protracted public sector strike that took place that year.
In 2011, the number of days lost to strikes decreased by 86% to 2 806 656 working days, according to the department. In 2011, for every 1 000 working South Africans, about 208 working days were lost due to strikes, compared with 1 593 in 2010.
But Andrew Levy Employment, which aggregates data that is voluntarily reported by the industry, pitches the 2011 figure at double as high, about six million working days lost.
The department of labour has not released the report outlining statistics from 2012 and would not comment on any figures before it is published.
But, according to Kelly and Loane Sharp, a labour economist at the country’s largest labour broker, Adcorp Holdings, the number of working days lost in last year’s strikes was significantly lower than in 2011.
Mining sector strikes
“The number decreased from six million [working days] in 2011 to about 3.5-million last year,” Kelly said. But, despite the steep drop, the statistics of last year’s strikes do not reflect their impact, she said.
Of the top 10 largest strikes, nine of them were in the mining sector, and include those involving the Marikana tragedy.
The strikes led to the rapid ascension of the now-dominant union in the platinum sector, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and the equally rapid decline of the NUM in the same quarter.
Last year’s strikes were “very much in the public eye and were accompanied by very high levels of violence,” Kelly said. This led to the perception that the extent of the strikes was greater than reality.
Sharp said: “If you look at the headlines and the media coverage, it appears the union movement is on the rampage, consolidating power, when in fact the opposite is true.”
He said that, although there has been an increase in the number of strikes, their intensity has diminished.
“Union members in the participation of strikes have declined,” said Sharp. “Only about 4% of union members actually attend strikes.”
But, he said, the declining participation accounts for the increased levels of violence manifested by those who do take off work, in an effort to coerce others to join them.
“There is a crisis of relevance in the union movement,” he said. “Nonpolitically aligned unions are facing a drastic decrease in numbers. All the union bosses can do is call more strikes in a desperate bid to present themselves as relevant.”
Sharp predicts that the number of working days lost in strikes this year will be less than last year. “I expect 2.1- or 2.2-million work days will be lost this year, which will mean much less damage to the economy.”
Patrick Craven, the spokesperson for trade union federation Cosatu, agreed that the number of strikes is likely to be somewhat lower than last year.
However, he said, more disputes are being settled before workers go on strike and so the lower number is not an indication that unions are becoming less relevant to workers.
“We think that recent events have proved that unions are more relevant than ever,” he said.
Incidences of violence
He rubbished Sharp’s claim that only 4% of union members take part in strikes. “That sounds like a thumb suck. No proper survey has ever been carried out in that area.”
Craven acknowledged that there had been “isolated” incidences of violence arising from strikes but said “they are always in the minority”.
“If [striking] is done through a union, it is always better organised and contained. For example, the current strike in the automotive sector has been completely peaceful, because it is being led by a strong union that is capable of keeping a firm grip,” he said.
He dismissed Sharp’s claim that union bosses called strikes in order to boost their public profiles. He said that the “pressure comes from below”.
According to Craven, a minimum wage would reduce the number of working days lost to strikes because aggrieved employees could approach the courts to enforce their wage demands and overall economic growth would be boosted.
But Sharp said that higher wages demanded by unions are not in the interests of the workforce in general.
“Those higher wages exclude young blacks from getting a job. Under apartheid we had the tyranny of job reservation for whites; under democracy we have the tyranny of job reservation for [older] blacks, so to speak,” he said.