It’s been a tale of two cities during this year’s municipal workers’ strike.
Striking workers from the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) were on a rampage in Cape Town as they looted vendors, smashed car windows and set rubbish on fire in the city’s streets on Tuesday.
In contrast the streets of Johannesburg were calm and clean, with up to 90% of workers boycotting the strike.
Gauteng’s strike has been largely a quiet non-event compared to the raging in the Western Cape, complete with emotionally-loaded statements from workers that strayed far from the usual dry facts of who earns what.
Rats jumping in their faces, dead babies in bins and infections that spread through their fingers were some of the tales told by a rubbish collector in Cape Town on Monday.
Why the discrepancy? Samwu insists it has nothing to do with the politics of the various provinces, with the Western Cape run by the opposition and Samwu affiliated to the ruling party through Cosatu. In fact Samwu denied that strikers in Johannesburg were even staying away.
Samwu provincial spokesperson Koena Ramotlou had passionately argued with journalists on Wednesday that the media was guilty of “peddling” false reports of division in the Gauteng branch, while workers were actually striking in Johannesburg.
And if they were at work, “they weren’t actually working”. That comment had a few people wondering, given that evidence spoke clearly to the contrary. Streets were clean, buses were running and most workers who spoke to journalists said they were not striking.
That looked set to change after a march was proposed on Friday to bring “Johannesburg to a standstill”, according to Ramotlou.
Buses in Johannesburg stopped running from 10am to 2pm as Metro Bus was worried about commuters’ safety given the violence usually associated with municipal strikers. One news website’s newsletter even warned people to stay away from Braamfontein.
Last laugh for the media
Ramotlou told journalists that he would prove to the media they were wrong about the strike not kicking off and show all on Friday that Samwu members were really striking.
But on Friday nothing happened. The march started two hours late with only 300 people arriving for an event where journalists appeared to outnumber the protesters.
So why the non-strike in Gauteng? It’s still not entirely clear, but there have been several possible explanations.
Municipal workers told a Mail & Guardian reporter that their shop stewards had told them to work, possibly because of grumblings of corruption and dissatisfaction with union leadership.
But there’s another simple reason why workers actually went to work. It’s plain old rand and cents.
Labour economist Andrew Levy said he believed that there was less of an appetite for strikes this time around. Workers hadn’t recovered from last year’s municipal strike and this year’s municipal strike in April, so yet another third municipal strike was too much.
The no work, no pay principle was at work.
One worker also told the M&G they never get the increase they want, and they lose so much money when they strike that he didn’t see the point of it all.
But Samwu spokesperson Tahir Sema said the frustration about no work, no pay was one of the reasons Cape Town strikers went crazy. Then he said something that made headlines: That he “understood” why strikers trash the streets.
“If the street sweeper wants to be heard, nobody listens, if the street sweeper trashes the street, everybody listens.”
It was a telling statement that went to the heart of the problems plaguing unions.
Of course the union condemns violence, he noted. Unions always say that. But chaos makes people listen is kind of what he meant. Naturally this bit of honesty from a union official was met with horror — as well as scorn.
Levy’s response? “What rubbish.” The labour economist explained from London that 80% of all negotiations are settled without strikes.
And it’s about time the unions stopped “saying they could not control their members”, he added.
He also said Sema and his union could be in for a lawsuit for possibly condoning violence with his statement.
Indeed. De Lille had already said she wants to sue both parties who caused damage to vendors property and the union. The City of Cape Town will institute civil claims against those responsible as vendors lost huge amounts of money when the strikers looted.
And of course the DA had something to say about the chaos in their city.
The party’s spokesperson for labour Ian Ollis insisted unions be held responsible for members’ violence, pointing to his proposed Bill to that effect, which he said the private members committee in Parliament were sitting on.
There may be a legal precedent for such action. Cape judge John Hlophe ruled last year that Satawu and Minister Nathi Mthethwa — who was safety and security minister at the time — had to pay R70 000 in damages to eight people whose cars and shopfronts were damaged in 2006 in a strike.
If the appeal is won by the eight complainants, there would be legal precedents to start targeting unions for their members’ behaviour.
The irony of the situation however is that the South African Local Government Association and Samwu signed a three-year agreement in 2009 to prevent the public having to endure any more strikes and trashed streets.
The agreement said that municipal workers would get a raise worked out at inflation plus 2% for three years — if inflation fell between 5% and 10%. But inflation hit 4% and the union used that fact to start negotiations demanding an 18% increase.
This has lead to the present chaos everywhere but Johannesburg. Struggling to make sense of it all? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. The politics of strikes are complicated and tense enough to drive our most able leaders up the wall. But for now, it’s a dry strike season for everyone concerned.