Our news in 2014 was dominated by the AMCU strike on the Platinum mines, followed by the very violent NUMSA strike. Intimidation and violence seem to have become the norm in South African strikes and, unfortunately, by all accounts, after the Marikana affair the South African Police Services has been seen to be taking a hands-off approach to serious misconduct by strikers. Whatever happened to freedom of association?
Let us learn a few lessons from the past.
Strikes are about POWER and unfortunately the ‘little’’ people are always the ones who get hurt in times of conflict. This is especially so when the strike reaches a certain stage and the strike ‘enforcers’ perceive that a lot of strikers want to go back to work. While there may be union officials who encourage violence against ‘scabs’, violence in strikes is usually the spontaneous actions of over zealous individuals who don’t think through the consequences of their actions – usually dismissal for misconduct during the strike! That is why, from a union’s point of view, a strike is so difficult to manage and should therefore be the last resort when other options have failed.
From employers one often hears “Let them go on strike! I will close the business before I give in to them!” That is easily said but not as easily done. It is not easy to close a business and to walk away from everything you have worked for!
When the reality sets in, these same employers are often inclined to capitulate and in so doing, set themselves up for further strikes as well as anarchy on the shopfloor. The on-going strikes and the violence which has accompanied them as well as the lack of discipline in the public sector show that lessons have not been learned.
Causes of strikes
Strikes occur when there is a breakdown in relationships between the leadership of an organisation and the people whom they expect to carry out the work of the organisation. The causes of a strike are seldom just the issues on the table (e.g. more money).
The unstated causes can range from poor communication to deep seated grievances about the way people are treated by management, or by the powers-that-be, in the case of political strikes or protests.
There is an old saying, “You can please some of the people some of the time but you can’t please all the people all the time”. While some people are naturally positive and optimistic, others go through life continually criticising and complaining. For some, complaining is a way of getting attention. There will always be someone who is unhappy about something.
If the majority of employees are happy in their work and do not have serious cause for complaint, these complainers are largely ignored. However, if employees have cause to doubt that their bosses really care about them and have their best interests at heart, they can be easily persuaded that they do not!
Behind every strike, there is a fairly small influential group. Sometimes they have vested interests, which can range from ego tripping to using industrial action as a means of drawing management’s attention away from theft taking place within the business. In a bus company for example, taxi operators were behind a series of strikes. When the buses were not able to run they were able to charge premium rates!
It is important to remember that while some people seek conflict, most do not want it. In fact a lot of people will go out of their way to avoid conflict, especially if they have something to lose. Therefore for people to be mobilised to strike, there usually has to be some underlying dissatisfaction which the strike organisers can utilise.
One of the conditions which make an employer more vulnerable to strikes is leadership who exhibit a ‘control’ mentality in their management style. Using the framework of McGregor’s Theory X Theory Y, one finds that a large number of South African managers and supervisors think in a Theory X paradigm:-
- The average employee dislikes work and will avoid it if possible.
- Because people dislike work, they must be told what to do, controlled, or threatened with punishment to get them to work.
- The average employee avoids responsibility, has little ambition and wants job security above all.
With this type of thinking, it is assumed that employees cannot be given responsibility and systems are set up to monitor and control them so that they do not loaf or misbehave. This can be done via video cameras or through supervisors whose main function is to ‘keep an eye’ on employees to ensure that they work properly.
The problem is that employees in these types of workplaces do not have a sense of pride in their work – how can they? They are not trusted! Therefore they feel little commitment to their jobs or to their employer, even if they are well paid.
More often than not, they are bored in their jobs and are therefore easier to influence by anyone wishing to organise a strike (for whatever reason). After all, a strike can provide exitement and the prospect of improved benefits can be very enticing!
‘Trouble makers’ in organisations are often employees with natural leadership potential but sometimes due to lack of recognition, they become disillusioned and negative. Sometimes they become ‘troublemakers’ because they have complaints which are mishandled or ignored. They do not get positive recognition from their bosses so they get attention in other ways. As the Bible says ‘it is better to be scolded than ignored’.
Employers in this country need to pay serious attention to leadership within the business at all levels if these sort of situations are to be avoided. Management who are ‘control freaks’ and poor supervisors usually lead to disgruntled employees – regardless of the conditions of employment.
The way to avoid strikes and all the unpleasantness that goes with them, is to focus on ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of employees by introducing a management culture whereby people are valued. This can only be achieved by selecting and training leaders who can create an organisational climate wherein employees are given respect, dignity and real responsibility!
These sort of leaders will understand that prevention is better than cure. They will understand the importance of creating jobs with real responsibility, of giving recognition where it is due, of dealing with employee complaints expeditiously and ensuring that employees understand that wages and conditions of employment must conform to what the business can afford.
Bruno is Chairman of Bruniquel & Associates (Pty) Ltd, Durban based employee relations and training consultants. B&A can be contacted on 031-3094627. Website www.bruniquel.co.za