'Strike season' comes to South Africa

In what has become an annual event, South African unions are set to strike for better wages. While the unions claim wage hikes will reduce inequality, critics say they cause youth unemployment.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Workers take part in a march in the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 4, 2011. South Africa is entering its annual 'strike season,' when unions around the country strike for better wages.

South Africa’s powerful trade unions are gearing up this week for what in common parlance has become known as strike season – the annual mid-year period of wage negotiations that invariably lead to wage disputes, strike action, and often, deep public irritation.

This week, South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers declared formal wage disputes with several platinum, diamond, and coal mining companies. The declaration of a formal wage dispute is a precursor to strike action.

Strike season has become such a common occurrence in South African society that many South Africans compare the strikes of each year in the same way that New Yorkers compare years of heavy snowfall. Last year, just weeks before the World Cup tournament, municipal workers and teachers went on strike, closing schools and leaving garbage bags piled up on residential streets for weeks. Today, with workers from manufacturing and petro-chemicals industries already embarked on strikes, 2011 has all the makings of a memorable year.

The effects of a hard strike season go beyond the usual shortages of fuel at petrol stations or the piling up of garbage; they go into the politics of who rules South Africa, and the future economic competitiveness of a developing country that desperately wants to attract foreign capital and create new jobs. And in a society with one of the widest disparities between rich and poor, labor strikes can also be a gauge of public discontent for the poor majority.

“Trade unions, by elevating wages and keeping older people in jobs, prevent youngsters from joining the workforce, so youth unemployment is largely a creation of the trade unions in South Africa,” said labor analyst Loane Sharp, in an interview on Summit TV. In global terms, South Africa ranks poorly in labor-market efficiency, Mr. Sharp added. According to the Global Competitive Index, South Africa ranks 97th out of the 139 countries surveyed.

Higher wages to fight inequality

Yet raising wages is precisely what trade unions intend to do. The unions seek both wage increases ranging from 10 to 14 percent and a ban on the use of “labor brokers” – a practice of gathering informal, non-salaried day-laborers as a way of bypassing powerful unions. Trade unions like the powerful Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU), which is a formal partner in the African National Congress (ANC) government, have in the past described labor brokering as modern-day slavery. Employer associations, however, say that the unions’ wage demands are unreasonable and that banning labor brokers would result in massive unemployment.

The unions are claiming the moral high ground. They say that South Africa is the most unequal society in the world and that their demands seek to fix that. COSATU Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi reportedly said at a trade union march in Durban on Tuesday that it is a disgrace that 57 percent of South Africans lived on less than 325 rand ($47) a month while company executives earn an average 59 million rand ($8.6 million) a year.

According to the South African Institute of Race Relations, youth unemployment in South Africa is as much as 51 percent and at least two-thirds of unemployed youths are African women.

Not a 'South African spring'

Mr. Vavi has in the past predicted Egypt-style uprisings in South Africa if the inequality problems were to continue. He has also predicted that this strike season will be the biggest yet as workers reassert their right to a living wage.

Such statements are nothing more than posturing, says Steven Friedman, political analyst and director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg.

“Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, South Africa is a democracy. When people are unhappy, they can vote the government out, which will likely happen if the ANC does not get its act together,” Friedman says. “The protests we have seen and will see in South Africa have more to do with people trying to get government’s attention, not with trying to overthrow it.”

Some economists blame COSATU and its member unions for actually increasing unemployment through high-wage demands, but COSATU remains a powerful institution, with strong support from working-class South Africans for its efforts in dismantling the racist apartheid system in 1994. COSATU also has exerted its agenda within the ANC government, throwing its crucial support behind Jacob Zuma’s bid for leadership of the ANC in 2007, and his successful bid for the presidency in 2008.

Caught in the middle is the South African public, who Mr. Friedman says are anything from agnostic to supportive of trade unions as long as industrial action does not affect them directly.

Trade unions will have to go beyond their “struggle credentials” to win over public sentiment, Friedman says, especially if they plan the kind of protracted strikes that they have threatened in recent weeks.

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