COSATU briefing on strikes and picketing

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Meeting report

SELECT COMMITTEE ON LABOUR AND PUBLIC ENTERPRISES
30 August 2006
COSATU BRIEFING ON STRIKES AND PICKETING


Chairperson: Ms MP Temba (ANC, Mpumalanga)

Documents handed out:
Cosatu statement to Parliament on the violence linked to strikes and protest
Analysis of 2005 Version of Superior Courts Bill (SCB) [please email info@pmg.org.za]
Letter from Mr Herbert Mkhize and the NEDLAC report on the SCB

SUMMARY
The Committee received a briefing from Cosatu and other trade union representatives on violence linked to strikes and other forms of industrial action. In general, the union officials questioned the police's conduct and alleged that the police sided with employers. These were identified as major causes of problems during strikes. The Committee stressed the need for a comprehensive code of conduct for strikes and picketing that all parties would have to abide by to avoid violence during labour protests.

MINUTES

Ms Temba welcomed everyone to the meeting, especially the representatives from the respective South African trade unions. She asked in particular whether they could articulate the mechanisms that are necessary to minimise violence during strikes and whether they can point out which policies are currently in place.

Confederation of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) briefing

Mr Tony Ehrenreich, Provincial Secretary of Cosatu, stated that it was just as concerned about the violence during strikes as the Committee. However, he illustrated that there are a number of environmental factors that cumulatively increase the probability of violence during strikes. One prominent factor is the growing levels of inequality in South Africa. The bottom 60% of society currently receives less than they did in 1996. Greater equality and social solidarity is necessary to uphold a sustainable and coherent future for all South Africans. Government therefore plays a crucial role in promoting equality. In the case of Pick ‘n Pay, the distinction in the pay differences between the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) (such as Sean Summers) and the casualised supermarket workers is an example of the widening wage gap, which is at its worst in the Western Cape. The marginalisation of minimum wage workers will simply aggravate the situation. Another example that Mr Ehrenreich presented was of construction workers that would confirm that their salary income has dropped during the last five years, whereas the houses, which they are building for the old white and new black elite were increasingly more extravagant. Therefore, the wage gap and other inequalities create a major source of frustration for members of the workers class. Furthermore, criminal elements have been infiltrating the strikes and have used the protest action as a means to cover their own illegal activities, such as robberies, assaults, and other criminal activities related to the strikes. In relation to the security guard strike, many of the owners of the security companies are ex-policemen who have their roots in the apartheid establishment. Thereby they simply respond to industrial relations in the only way that they learned under the apartheid regime, which is to foster divisions and violence. He felt that this issue demands a fair amount of attention from the government.

Mr Ehrenreich continued by pointing out that strikes could not be successful if they did not have popular support. They have nothing to gain from violence. He stated that there are explicit instructions from all of the unions to the members to refrain from violence. He hoped that they could collaborate with the police more effectively to prevent the strikes from becoming violent. However, this would imply that the police have to be more effective in the manner in which they deal with strikes. What he found troublesome was the fact that established public order policing is being removed from protest action in Cape Town and the city employs the municipal police who have no experience in public order policing. Due to a lack of training, the conduct of the police is often brutal, harsh, and excessive and gives rise to increased frustration amongst the marchers. This has contributed to some of the difficulties that they have experienced and needs immediate response. Instead of ensuring security and peace, arrests of march organisers on the particular day that the march takes place further breaks down the levels of the control of the march and the ability to respond to the difficulties that may arise. Furthermore, it is of the greatest importance to establish a clear protocol that would guide the conduct of the police as well as the leaders and participants of the march and it should stipulate how difficulties during strikes should be dealt with. The legitimate democratic rights of the protesters and the community must be protected and upheld. He emphasised that closer collaboration is necessary between the strike participants, strike leaders and the police.

The use of scab labour has in many instances indicated that the Labour Relations Act must be revisited. Mr Ehrenreich pointed out that those who strike did not do it for fun, but to provide for their families and to attain the ANC’s slogan: a better life for all. Striking becomes meaningless if the employer has the right to employ scabs when other workers are out to strike, especially for the less skilled workers. The Minister of Labour must intervene. During the security guard strike, it took them three months to get the Minister to intervene. That intervention made a significant contribution to the resolution. He asked the Committee to appeal to the Minister to take a view on this matter. He could not believe that the government could condone a 23 cents an hour increase on top of a wage salary that in many instances is less than R1000, in other words less than R250 per week or just about R50 per day. This is almost equivalent to the cost of transport to get to work. Wage bargaining is currently being undermined, but it is the only way whereby redistribution could take place. This must be supported and endorsed by government to bring about greater social justice. Although wage bargaining should be key to the expression of one’s democratic rights, violence in strike action must never be tolerated. Members of Cosatu who are unwilling to comply with that policy are dismissed.

Lastly, Mr Ehrenreich raised the issue of the police’s response to public protests that have taken place. Cosatu’s view was that the current laws on public violence were inappropriate to use in the event of any cases flowing out of protest action where there may have been instances of unlawful conduct. For instance, if someone breaks a car window, it must not be seen as public violence, but rather as malicious damage to property. He illustrated that public violence was seen in the same light as during Apartheid. He believed that the law is unconstitutional in the manner in which it is applied. He appealed to the Committee to review the Public Violence Act. However, one should be careful not to outlaw legitimate peaceful protest action where citizens give expression to their democratic right to protest. Yet, this must not be confused with criminal acts. Protesters must not be turned into political opponents. Protesters must have the freedom to express their demands for better wages and greater social solidarity.

The police’s conduct has been a concern to Cosatu. Mr Ehrenreich asked Mr C Booi, Secretary of the SA Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu), to describe various instances that would clarify that statement.

Mr Booi firstly referred to the current strike at Shoprite Checkers, which was a conflict between management, the South African Police Services (SAPS) and the workers on strike. It was Saccawu’s view that the police was clearly siding with management, instead of upholding its objective position. In the case of picketing, the police are supposed to comply with a code of conduct that should ensure that the protest continues peacefully. They have met with the LAC and the Provincial Commissioner of Police where Saccawu gave a detailed report on all the previous incidences. The previous Friday, they met with Shoprite Checkers’ management to talk about what had happened, such as union members being chased by the police during a peaceful protest near Khayelitsha the day before. He suggested that all parties should gather in order to clarify the picketing rules, thereby achieving consensus regarding conduct policies. The CEO of Shoprite Checkers received R9 million as a bonus in 2005, compared to some workers that have been there for over 20 years and still earn R1000 per month. 80% of workers are part-time workers. The annual Women’s Award wastes millions of rands every year, whereas the employees at Shoprite Checkers were mostly women who did not receive any benefits such as childcare facilities. They are also compelled to work late hours and thereby often exposed to criminal activities such as robberies and sodomy. He mentioned that they have these cases on record at Saccawu. Mr Booi concluded that the current strike is a just and fair struggle to obtain benefits.

Mr Booi said the Board of Directors of Shoprite Checkers still consists of unreformed Whites, who are predominantly men. He remarked that this board did not seem to care about their employees who they are exploiting for cheap labor. He emphasised the need to take this matter seriously.

An official from the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), Mr F Carelse, referred to several other examples. They have had some trouble with a particular company that manufactured aircraft seats in Strand. Numsa officials together with the company’s employees wanted to speak with the management to discuss pressing issues. Management refused. Later, they agreed to attend the meeting and thereafter Numsa found a notice that indicated that employees were prohibited from striking. Security guards notified him that the company’s employees wanted to know why they could not strike. Soon after this incident, the police arrived who said that the Numsa officials had to leave the premises immediately, yet no explanation was given. This led to a strike. He agreed with Mr Booi that the police as well as the company were being provocative.

Another trade union official identified two different approaches to picketing. Police from the Paarl area was brought in to deal with a strike in Vredendal after the local police arrested ten workers, including a trade union official. The local police was very provocative; they shot workers and brought in dogs. They ignored those who were bitten by the dogs. The second police group had a completely different approach. They suggested a meeting where matters could be discussed and all three parties at hand could put their issues onto the table. This cooperation encouraged better leadership and mutual benefit. Another strike at Saldanha had the municipal police involved. After discussions with the company officials, the police informed the workers that they would be arrested after the strike, which took place. They are still immersed in several court cases to release the strikers. He found it disturbing that the police’s conduct is generally provocative and that they mostly listen to the top management of companies. The police’s handling and controlling of crowds left much to be desired.

Discussion

Ms N Ntwanambi (ANC, Western Cape) pointed out that the media depict the strikers differently from the descriptions given by the trade union members. She acknowledged that the Western Cape has major inequalities, which have a racial dimension. She referred to the Saldanha case and emphasised that the municipal police should be utilised for municipal problems only. Each police group must remain in their assigned regions. She thought that this would be a good question to pose to the Minister of Provincial and Local Government: whether municipal police may be used outside their area of jurisdiction. Another area of concern is brought about by the expansion of Shoprite Checkers to townships, which in turn aggravates current crime levels, such as armed robberies. Regarding the security strikes, people died unnecessarily and property was needlessly damaged. She remembered MPs stating that they would break away from the trade union. She felt that not enough leadership is shown during marches and that the marches themselves are poorly prepared. Furthermore, to confiscate Shoprite Checkers shopping bags from shopper’s hands should never be part of striking. There needs to be an injection of politics; thereby ensuring that all strikers are on the same page regarding the grounds for and aim of the strike. Community support is also crucial. There needs to be better involvement, communication and engagement between all parties. Referring back to the security strike and its unnecessary acts of violence, the timing of that strike was bad. It took place while children were coming back from school, thereby being caught up in the march and exposed to violence. Yet she felt that both the strikers and police acted equally inappropriately. Lastly, Ms Ntwanambi asked about the current minimum wage. She noted that transport fees must be taken into account. Transport subsidies would be a good idea.

Mr DD Gamede (ANC, Kwazulu-Natal) noted that the interests of the employees and the employers would never reconcile. There will always be an imbalance in the dichotomy of interests. He felt that the police needed to transform and improve on their services in order for the public to develop trust and confidence. Regarding the request for the involvement of the Minister, Mr Gamede wanted to know what kind of intervention Cosatu expects from the Minister. Furthermore, Cosatu seemed to have launched their own investigations. If this is the case, he asked whether they could share their findings with the Committee. Lastly, Mr Gamede posed a question concerning the roles assigned to the strike marshals and how their roles supported the police in maintaining peaceful protest.

Mr D Botha (ANC, Limpopo) made reference to the big marches that took place during the 1980’s, which were much more disciplined. He pointed out that better teamwork is necessary between the police and the marshals, of which there might be too many. Moreover, he suggested that special units should be created that specialised in dealing with trade unions and strikes. He was quite upset about workers protesting for higher income when their salaries would still be below the breadline. Strikes should not be necessary: the minimum wage must be enforced in such cases.
 
The Chairperson emphasised that better police training is essential and the trade unions must work closely together with the police and companies from the beginning, systematically. Workers must receive briefings on the objectives and grounds for strikes. She agreed with Mr Botha that strikes should be more disciplined. She also referred to Mr Booi's comment on Shoprite Checkers' Women's Award and wondered whom Shoprite Checkers really wanted to recognise.
 
Mr Booi stated that Saccawu had tried to work closely with Shoprite Checkers, but the management team simply walked away and went to court. It was his opinion that they made all the necessary preparations for the strikes, informed strikers on their rights, rightful picketing, conduct, and provided feedback regarding negotiations. Trade union marshals are undermined by company officials and the police who simply listened to management. When police wish to remove strike marshals, they should abide by the rules regarding rightful picketing conduct. The police have made themselves guilty of improper conduct and ruthlessness. He felt that the South African justice system was a cause of concern. 
 
Mr Ehrenreich agreed that the police officers are generally untrained and incompetent. The police must act more legitimately to increase its credibility in the public eye. The fact that different levels of government have their own police is a problem. The extreme inequalities must be eradicated in South Africa by narrowing the wage gap between the workers and management. Scabs should be outlawed since they aggravated the situation and stripped workers of their democratic right to protest. Before 1994, everyone was against the Apartheid regime, whereas today all citizens have their own agenda, making negotiations more difficult and complex. He reiterated that a clear protocol is needed to articulate good conduct by the police, trade unions and protesters during picketing.
 
Mr Booi added that in reality, Shoprite Checkers was undermining the community. Since strikes take place in public, this in turn affects surrounding businesses and customers. He also felt that the strikes are fomenting black on black violence. 
 
Mr Ehrenreich asked whether private security is simply supposed to patrol or whether they are allowed to get involved in picketing. 
 
Mr Carelse focused on the role of the police during marches. He felt that the police should walk in line next to strikers and not simply stand on the sidelines and wait for inappropriate activities. 
 
Mr Gamede requested a copy of Cosatu's code of conduct regarding picketing.
 
Mr Ehrenreich said that the Gatherings Act was on the organisation’s website.
 
The Chairperson highlighted that the codes of conduct must be properly implemented with the cooperation from all relevant parties. All workers and employers must be equally involved in negotiating the terms that would satisfy all parties concerned.
 
Mr Ehrenreich took the opportunity to thank the Committee for their time and concern regarding this pressing issue.
 
The Chairperson noted that the Superior Courts Bill could not be discussed due to time constraints, although documents were handed out.
 
Meeting adjourned. 


 

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