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The 1925 General Miners’ Strike – lessons for today

Miner’s strike

The 1922 General Miners’ Strike, also known as the Rand Rebellion or Red Revolt occurred during a period of economic depression following World War I when mining companies were faced with rising costs and a fall in the price of gold.

In the early days of mining, Africans did not possess the skills necessary for deep level mining. It followed therefore that the skilled work was done by White miners and the unskilled work by Black miners. The custom that skilled work was done by White men was reinforced by legislation when Chinese labourers were introduced during the second Boer War and World War I when White miners had gone off to fight. As time passed, Black miners began to acquire these skills, although their wages remained at very low rates.

In September 1918, White mineworkers had succeeded in persuading the Chamber of Mines to agree that no position filled by a White worker should be given to a Black or Coloured worker. When the Chamber of Mines gave notice that it would be abandoning the agreement and would be replacing 2000 semi-skilled White men with cheap Black labour, the White miners reacted strongly. Trade unions with socialist and communist leanings became active on the mines. These communists came to be known as the ‘Red Commandos’.

After a build-up, a general strike was called on Monday 6 March 1922 and on Wednesday, the strike turned into open rebellion to capture the city of Johannesburg. On 8 March, led by semi-skilled Afrikaner miners, White workers attempted to take over the Johannesburg Post Office and power station, but they met with stout resistance from the police and the day ended in fights between White strikers and Black miners.

To quell the fighting, the Union Defence Force was called out, as well as the artillery and aircraft of the fledgling SAAF. Pitched battles followed but in the end, the might of the Defence Force prevailed. The Rand Revolt was a calamity that inflicted suffering on every section of the community. About 200 people were killed and more than 1000 injured. 15000 men were put out of work and gold production slumped. Some of the rebels were deported and some were executed for deeds that amounted to murder.

Prime Minister, Jan Smuts was severely criticised for his handling of the revolt. He lost support and was defeated in the 1924 election.

Lessons for today – a scarcity mentality harms everyone in the long run. We need to share and break down barriers of race, language, ethnic groups and so on as listed in the Employment Equity Act. We also need to pay heed to the old Zulu saying “When two bulls fight, the grass dies”. “Nobody ever won a fight” said Dale Carnegie and he was right. We need to work together, not fight each other!

If you are experiencing conflict and negativity in the workplace, Bruniquel & Associates can assist you to turn the situation around. With a proven track record of over 32 years, B&A can help you to develop positive employee relations in your workplace. Our training programmes, backed by a consulting team of competent, experienced consultants have assisted employers to adjust to the changing labour legislation and environment through its pro-active approach. Industrial Relations and leadership courses offered by B&A, arguably the best of their kind, are designed to defuse tension, create acceptance for the benefits of diversity and empower people in the workplace.

B&A offers a full HR/IR consulting service to ensure that management understands the power dynamics in the workplace and develops a proactive HR/IR strategy to change attitudes in the workplace.

Click here for a complete list of B&A’s Seta accredited industrial relations and leadership courses and it’s consulting service.

What do you do when an employee refuses an instruction?
Common law requires employees to carry out the instructions of their employer and in addition to that, most employment contracts include a clause to the effect that:

“The Employee shall notwithstanding the above job title, be obliged to carry out any lawful instruction given to him / her by the Employer even though this may not be related to his / her position.”

In other words, as long as the instruction is lawful, the employee is contractually bound to carry it out. Failure to do so constitutes insubordination and can result in summary dismissal (i.e. dismissal without notice or notice pay).

It might look straightforward but unfortunately these situations often go awry for employers, especially when managers become angry.

Calling the boss an idiot found not to be grounds for dismissal
For example, a number of years ago in a well reported case, a General Manager was dismissed for insubordination after he had called his new Managing Director an idiot. It transpired that the Managing Director had wanted to retrench employees immediately, without following the required LRA procedure.

The GM had refused to carry out the instruction, calling his boss ‘an idiot’ in a heated discussion. This ultimately led to the GM being dismissed for insubordination and him referring his case to the Industrial Court. The Court found the dismissal to have been unfair and awarded compensation. In its judgement, the Court inferred that the MD’s conduct had indeed been idiotic because the he had expected the GM to carry out an unlawful instruction.

Similarly, a manager may not expect an employee to carry out a task which would expose him or her to danger not normally connected with the performance of his / her duties or which could result in the employee facing disciplinary or criminal charges.

The difference between insubordination and insolence
The Oxford dictionary defines insubordinate as ‘disobedient; rebellious’. Insubordination must be distinguished from insolence which is defined as ‘offensively contemptuous or arrogant; insulting’. While insolence may well result in dismissal, it is not considered as serious as insubordination. This is because insubordination goes to the root of the employment relationship. The employer pays the employee to carry out instructions. If the employee refuses the whole employment relationship breaks down.

‘It’s not my job’ is no excuse but look for the underlying cause
Refusals to carry out instructions because ‘it’s not my job’ usually stem from employees being misinformed or misled by others, especially in the lead up to strikes. Employees may also refuse to carry out instructions if they feel that they are being singled out unfairly or are being overloaded with work. There is usually a lot of underlying emotion involved in these situations and it is advisable therefore to treat these situations sensitively.

Employee’s point of view
From an employee’s point of view, if you feel aggrieved by an instruction, rather than put yourself at risk, comply with the instruction as best you can and then lodge a grievance. DO NOT REFUSE to carry out the instruction, no matter how right you think you are, as it could cost you your job.

From the employer’s or manager’s point of view, these are really ‘no-win’ situations so they need to be handled carefully.

GUIDELINES FOR HANDLING A REFUSAL TO CARRY OUT AN INSTRUCTION:

1. Explain why the task is necessary and give the employee the instruction in a clear and unambiguous manner e.g. “I am giving you a lawful instruction to ……………….”
2. If the employee refuses, ask why? Listen to understand – not to respond.
3. If there is no good reason for the refusal, explain that refusal to carry out the instruction is a serious breach of the employee’s contract of employment.
4. Explain the consequences of continuing to refuse to obey the instruction: e.g. “Your refusal / failure to obey this instruction constitutes a serious disciplinary offence and will result in a disciplinary enquiry which COULD lead to your dismissal.”
5. Give the employee a deadline by which to carry out the instruction. This should be reasonable and allow a cooling off period for the employee to reconsider his / her actions.
6. Put the instruction in writing and ask the employee to sign acknowledgement of receipt. If the employee refuses to sign, call a witness, read out the instruction and ask the witness to sign.
7. If the employee has not carried out the instruction by the set time limit, suspend the employee from work and tell him / her to report to you the following morning. This will allow a further ‘cooling off period’ for the employee to consider the consequences of failing to carry out the instruction.>
8. The next day establish whether the employee has changed their mind. If so, issue the employee with a written warning (which may be a final warning depending on the circumstances). Allow the employee to go back to work but make sure that the employee actually carries out the instruction.
9. If the employee still refuses to carry out the instruction, issue the employee with a notice of a disciplinary enquiry and suspend the employee from work. The charge will be Insubordination – failing to carry out a lawful instruction in that you ……. (Details of the instruction). The suspension must be on full pay and the employee must be given at least 24 hours’ notice of the enquiry (48 hours is preferable).

If a process like this is followed and the instruction is lawful and reasonable, the employee will have only himself to blame for his dismissal. In the event of the employee contesting the dismissal, it can be easily justified by the employer.