As President Jacob Zuma took to the podium to deliver his State of the Nation address (Sona) on Tuesday, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) listened intently, waiting to hear if he would confirm the rumours.
There was talk in alliance circles, the union’s parliamentary officer Woody Aroun told the Mail & Guardian, that government was thinking about legislating the length of strikes. This, as the platinum strike – South Africa’s longest-running strike – begins to wane, and government attempts to find ways to deal more assertively with possible future protest action like it.
Any moves to limit the length of time a strike could continue before parties were forced into arbitration would be a direct limit on the constitutional right to strike, and Numsa would have none of it, Aroun said.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has heard the rumours, too. NUM general secretary Frans Baleni told the M&G: “We have heard that government officials are starting to ask these questions at Nedlac [National Economic Development and Labour Council]; questions like: ‘What do we do when there’s no end to a strike?’ That tells you that there is something coming.”
The NUM is preparing to discuss this at a meeting in July, although it has not taken steps to raise its concerns externally, or with the ANC, yet. It is waiting to see what government’s next move will be.
‘Threat to all organised labour’
“It is a threat to all organised labour,” Baleni said. “The problem with this [platinum] strike was not the duration, it was the violence that was the problem. In any case, in the United Kingdom there are strikes that go on for a year. It is not ideal, of course, but duration is not the problem.”
Zuma did not show his hand on Tuesday, and only those who may have been listening for it would have heard him talk about the “duration” of strikes: “The economy has grown below its potential over the last three years and many households are going through difficulties.
“The slow growth has been caused in part by the global economic slowdown and secondly by domestic conditions, such as the prolonged and at times violent strikes, and also the shortage of energy.
“Given the impact of the untenable labour relations environment on the economy, it is critical for social partners to meet and deliberate on the violent nature and duration of the strikes,” said Zuma.
Reacting to the Sona this week, Numsa, who did not endorse the ANC in the 2014 elections, said Zuma’s speech was filled with the “idealogical fog of ‘a good story to tell'”.
The union said the speech had confirmed their suspicions. “While calling for the social partners to resolve what he calls an ‘untenable labour relations environment’, the president has reinforced some of the remarks made recently by his colleagues presumably over the duration of the mining strike.
“Both the minister of labour and the newly appointed minister of mineral resources have raised issues over the right to strike; fuelling our suspicion that government intends to limit this right by making further amendments to the Labour Relations Act.”
After Sona, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe reportedly said there would be nothing wrong with putting a two-week limit on the length of strikes. This would require amending the Labour Relations Act.
“There would be nothing wrong with allowing a strike to go for two weeks and after two weeks you say there must be mediation … there must be arbitration to settle this strike so that a strike cannot be used to break the economy down and actually deepen the crisis,” Mantashe said.
Suspend industrial action
Aroun said this thinking was based on the Australian model, where a government commission may suspend industrial action. In limited circumstances, parties can be forced into arbitration.
Apart from Mantashe’s comments, if the ANC is thinking about legislating the length of strikes, it isn’t saying so explicitly.
Head of the ANC national executive committee’s subcommittee on economic transformation, Enoch Godongwana, said the issue had tangentially been discussed at the party’s recent lekgotla.
It was not mulled in great detail, he said, but the discussion is gaining traction at government level. He said the discussion is less about limiting strike times specifically, and more about trying to get parties to the negotiating table, sooner.
Broadly, government policy gurus know that the collective bargaining system needs to be made more efficient.
“Among other things [being discussed] is, how do you deal with the level of violence and how do you deal with a situation when people aren’t talking to each other. This is when parties become desperate and violent. So what mechanisms do we have at our disposal to assist them?” he said, explaining the context of the talks.
Time limit on strikes
He said there were “other jurisdictions” that had systems in place that South Africa could consider. Baleni said the last time a time limit on strikes was discussed was in the pre-1994 negotiations.
“We discussed this thing for two weeks: whether or not the right to strike should be in the Constitution. And the other side argued that it could potentially be abused by right-wing elements wanting to overthrow the democratically-elected government,” he said.
In the end, the right to strike was written into the Constitution, and has been closely guarded ever since. Steven Friedman, director for the Centre for the Study of Democracy, writing in Business Day on Thursday, said changing the Labour Relations Act would not address the core issues that drove workers to strike.
“As previous columns have pointed out, conflict in the workplace happens not because the law allows or encourages it, but because factors rooted in our past ensure that relations between workers and employers are often no less hostile than they were 20 years ago. If we want fewer strikes, we need to examine why this is so and what can be done to change it,” he said.