/ 18 August 2011

Opposition declares war on strikers’ violence

Opposition Declares War On Strikers' Violence

As striking municipal workers laid waste to central Cape Town this week, the Democratic Alliance renewed long-standing calls for legislation to ensure that unions are held responsible for damage caused by members during marches and strikes.

Ian Ollis, the party’s labour spokesperson, said he had proposed a Bill in October last year that would provide redress for strike violence and he would now ask the private members’ committee in Parliament to explain why “they had been sitting on the Bill”.

Ollis said he believed there was a legal precedent for such legislation and referred to a ruling last year by Cape Judge President John Hlophe in which eight individuals were awarded R70 000 for damage caused to cars and shop fronts by strikers. The ruling was against the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.

Ollis said he expected the appeal — being heard at the end of the month — to be upheld in the complainants’ favour.

Tahir Sema, spokesperson for the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu), said on Thursday that while he condemned the violence the union could not be held responsible for its members’ actions. He said the union “understood” why its members trashed streets, as it led to them being heard.

Labour economist Andrew Levy told the Mail & Guardian that the damage to property by strikers raised the question of “whether marchers who behaved in a manner that was lawless should begin to lose the constitutional right to strike protection”.

He said it was not acceptable that unions repeatedly said they could not control their members.

Twenty people in Cape Town were charged with public violence following a rampage through the city centre where they looted vendors’ stalls, smashed car windows and set ­rubbish bags on fire.

On Thursday the Samwu lambasted the police for arresting its members in Cape Town and Gugulethu, saying its members were participating in lawful pickets.

Provincial secretary André Adams said the union had every right to strike under the Labour Relations Act and it would approach the courts to stop the police from arresting picketing members.

In response South African Police Service spokesperson Vish Naidoo said the police had arrested 85 people in seven provinces by Thursday morning and were showing “zero tolerance” of illegal marches, public violence and damage to property. He invited the union to approach the courts if it was unhappy with the arrest of its members.

On Wednesday Samwu strikers stoned buses in Pretoria, bringing them to a standstill, and marchers overturned dustbins and trashed the Durban city centre.

This week Samwu’s Gauteng chairperson, Koena Ramotlou, struggled to explain the low turnout of strikers in the province. He believed that while workers were reporting for work, they were not carrying out their duties.

Samwu’s Sema said: “Every single year when the union goes on strike, the employer always plays down the numbers. When we have tens of thousands on the street, the employer will say there are only 1 000 missing per municipality.”

The union is demanding an 18% increase or R2 000, whichever is greater. The South African Local Government Association is offering 6.08%. Levy said the sluggish start to the strike in Gauteng gave him a sense that there was “less appetite” for a strike among workers. He said members had not recovered financially from last year’s municipal strike, as well as the Pikitup strike in April. He suggested it was time for unions to hold secret ballots to gauge support for industrial action.

An employee at the revenue customer centre of the Johannesburg municipality told the M&G on Thursday that the “shop stewards told us that we are not going to strike this year”.

The employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was tired of strikes because they never resulted in the increases workers had demanded. Workers were left out of pocket by the no-work, no-pay rule, he said.

Strike fever has once again hit South Africa. For more news click here.