A major takeout from the month-long bus strike earlier this year is that workers were prepared to strike for a protracted period until their main demands were met, including that they be paid for the month that they did not work as a result of the protest action.
Currently, MyCiti bus drivers are demanding better salaries and working conditions and are engaging in an unprotected strike in support of their demands. They are also demanding that they be employed directly by the City of Cape Town and not the Vehicle Operating Company in the hope that this will improve their circumstances.
Even if employers are able to accede to workers’ immediate demands this does not address the underlying reason for most strikes.
The fact is that workers’ demands are intimately tied up with their socio-economic circumstances.
Growing inequality of earnings, tough economic conditions and service delivery failures by government all contribute to demands by workers for increased wages and the provision of social benefits such as medical aid, housing and transport allowances.
According to the World Bank, South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Inequality takes on racial and gender dimensions, with the greatest income gap between white males and black females – despite affirmative action legislation. Wealth inequality is even more extreme with an estimated 10 percent of the population owning between 90 and 95 percent of all assets.
With the exception of public service and local government workers who arguably have made significant gains as far as wages and conditions of service are concerned, the wage structure in South Africa remains stratified and unequal. The end result is that workers largely continue to live in poverty and often receive wages way below the household subsistence. This situation seems to apply regardless of whether or not workers are unionised.
Nothing or little to lose
The reality is that employers are the only tangible targets for workers when it comes to venting their frustrations and demanding a better life.
Where employers are reluctant to even pay a living wage, or grant a decent increase, the likelihood of them being prepared to accede to ‘social’ demands is slim.
It might appear workers were asking for huge increases, which meant the focus of strikes was often on the numbers. What are the opening demands of the unions? What are employers saying they can afford to pay? How have the parties revised their positions over the duration of the strike and where have they finally ended up?
Yet, while this was understandable, it does not take into consideration what drove workers’ demands for better wages, and why they were prepared to continue striking even though it took a substantial amount of time before an agreed increase could wipe out the loss of income suffered during the strike based on the no work-no pay principle.
These are also a huge issue for low paid workers and casual workers who receive the lowest non-wage benefits in the workforce.
There is also the fact that they receive limited social benefits such as pensions, health care, transport and housing assistance. While it can be argued that these benefits need to be provided by government, in the absence of government doing so, is it not understandable that workers will look to their employers to assist with these services directly or indirectly through increased wages?
Not just about the numbers
If the above is the socio-economic context within which strikes are taking place, then focusing mainly on the numbers in wage negotiations will always only result in the temporary resolution of strike disputes. As this is not in the interest of employers, workers or the country as a whole, we need to work collectively towards addressing the underlying socio-economic conditions.