I WOULD have thought by now we would have evolved from the violence that occurred during strikes in the days of apartheid. The repressive conditions under which unions operated since inception are not acceptable in this day and age.
So many people, including trade unionists, have fought and died for liberation and for democracy. Today, they seem to have lost sight of their goals and objectives. We have a democracy and one of the best constitutions in the world, but many of our people still have no rights. Many have no concept of the meaning of democracy.
Liza van Wyk, in an article I read some time ago, said: “When democracy dawned there were expectations that the growth of workers’ rights would do away with strike violence and the high levels of mass militancy.” Not so. More and more strikes are occurring and protesting workers demand more and more.
Making demands is tantamount to commanding, insisting and setting ultimatums. Of late, this has been painfully and tragically evident and has in fact contributed to the loss of life at Marikana.
Making demands and giving an ultimatum can never lead to constructive and meaningful communication. The loss of life, the destruction of property, intimidation and assault do not contribute to constructive communication or help in any way in gaining support and understanding. As Van Wyk suggested: “If the parties involved in peaceful discussion, negotiation and communication try to understand each other’s point of view and treat each other with mutual respect, they can avoid violent confrontations.”
The parties involved must understand labour laws. They must work towards the common goal of arriving at a solution that is acceptable to all and, most importantly, one that will benefit all. What we are seeing is a change of focus by workers in that they are now saying they will negotiate with management without the back-up and support of the unions. Furthermore the unions are losing face and are seen to be working for and supporting employers and unions aligned to political parties cannot remain impartial – they are guided by issues other than those contained in the Labour Relations Act (LRA).
The LRA has made provision for workplace forums, specifically for the purpose of negotiation and communication between employees and employers. Perhaps more companies and employees should make use of such forums. Workplace forums will give all employees an opportunity of discussing with employers what they are unhappy about.
Workplace forums are more conducive to open communication on specific issues that are of concern to employees. There are no hidden agendas and there is no room for personal objectives. The current failure of all parties to engage in meaningful, constructive communication will lead to more violence, more strikes, more injury, loss of life and unfortunately loss of jobs. Yes, communication is a problem not only in terms of the current labour situation, but also in South Africa as a whole.
Communication requires ability, understanding, a willingness to listen to the opinions of others and above all, allowing others to express their opinions. Trust is essential in effective communication, but trust cannot exist in negotiations when parties come to the table with hidden agendas, preconceived ideas and an attitude of “we will not give in”.
My plea would be for all unions to call off all strike action, for all workers to go back to work, all parties to cease hostility and intimidation and for employers to sit and listen once and for all to the problems of their employees. Money is important, but it is not the “be all and end all” of industrial action.
There are other underlying causes and needs that workers have. Unfortunately, union representatives do not represent workers when it comes to such issues. The way in which we have negotiated historically and made demands must stop. We must now communicate and listen. There is a need for openness and honesty.
Des Squire is a managing member at AMSI and Associates. Call 082 800 9057.