Samwu: Nobody listens to us unless there is violence

The South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) has condemned acts of violence committed by its striking members, but says it “understands” why they resort to aggressive behaviour.

Samwu members across the country have been on strike since Monday, with workers demanding an across the board wage increase of 18% or R2 000 a month—whichever is higher. The South African Local Government Agency (Salga) is offering 6%.

On Tuesday, workers in Cape Town looted stalls belonging to informal traders, smashed car windows and set rubbish on fire in the streets.

Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille slammed the strikers’ behaviour and promised to take action against the union. Thirteen protesters have already been arrested and are expected to be charged with public violence.

“This administration respects the right of workers to strike as a fundamental labour right in our democracy.
We do not respect the exploitation of those rights to cause damage and threaten others” said De Lille.

Responsibility and consequences
The leader of the opposition in the city council, councillor Tony Ehrenreich on Wednesday said that before the city took action against the looters it had to determine who was responsible for the violence.

“It could be union members, agents or criminals—or it could even be that the union tells people to do that. Nobody knows.”

Ehrenreich said that after the city had determined who was responsible, those to blame should face the “full weight of the law”.

But he said City of Cape Town should shoulder responsibility for the unrest, saying it was first and foremost the city’s responsibility “to ensure that all citizens are safe during protest action”.

The city must deploy enough police to prevent opportunistic criminal behaviour during protests, he said, adding that the city had “failed to defend the stall owners and needed to compensate them”.

But he added that perhaps “the city could recover money from whoever was found to be ultimately responsible [for the violence]”.

Union ‘can’t be held accountable’
Samwu spokesperson Tahir Sema said: “It is unfortunate that incidents take place but the union cannot be held responsible for individual members’ behaviour.”

Sema said if the City of Cape Town sued Samwu for damages, the city would not win the case because a union could not be held responsible for the actions of individual members.

He explained that Samwu had used marshalls to manage the workers while they were marching and also urged members to remain peaceful.

When asked why strike action is usually associated with damage to property, Sema admitted that the “trade union movement [also] has to ask the question, why is there is violence?”

“It is difficult to understand why this is happening,” he said.

Nobody listens unless there’s violence
But he also added that nobody listens until workers trash the streets.

Talks between Salga and Samwu had languished in a deadlock, he said.

“When the street sweeper wants to be heard, no one listens. When the street sweeper messes the streets, they are heard!”

“We hope to reach a point [where] violence and trashing doesn’t serve the unions.”

In Tshwane, on Tuesday, about 100 marchers protested and trashed streets in the city centre despite being told by the metro police to stay away from the centre of town.

In Durban, marchers trashed rubbish bins on their way to hand over a memorandum at the city hall on Wednesday. Shops on the route they were walking stayed closed.

Little impact in Gauteng
Meanwhile, in Johannesburg rubbish has been collected from residents and 90% of municipal workers have been reported present at work. Buses have been running in Tshwane, and similar rates of attendance have been reported there.

But the Samwu’s Gauteng branch denied that their members were boycotting the municipal workers’ strike.

Samwu’s Gauteng provincial chairperson, Koena Ramotlou, argued with members of the media who pointed out that in Johannesburg buses were running and staff had been seen at work.

He went so far as to say that those members who had attended work “were not working”, and that even if the pace of the strike in Johannesburg was slow, workers had downed tools in other parts of Gauteng.

Ramotlou also denied reports that workers had refused to join in the industrial action because of corruption in the Gauteng branches of the union. The media was blamed “for peddling reports that the union was divided”.

Ramotlou said Samwu would hold a mass march on Friday to bring Johannesburg and provinces to a standstill.

Strikers out in force on Friday’
The Friday march will confirm all our members are on strike, he told reporters. “We have a full complement of members on strike”.

Samwu says the municipalities could afford the 18% wage increase if they stopped outsourcing services.

The union says municipalities use an outside company to buy clothing, stationery and computers and have called for the middle man to be cut out. Services are being duplicated: service providers are asked to do the same thing as workers.

By way of example, the union says external service providers are paid to change light bulbs, when existing staff could do that just as well.—Additional reporting by Sapa

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