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The 1973 Strike Lessons Still Relevant Today

 The 1973 Strike Lessons 

Although the 1976 Soweto student riots are often seen as the tipping point in the struggle against apartheid, it was in fact the 1973 Natal (Durban) strikes which started the chain of events, which eventually led to the collapse of the Nationalist Government.

The strikes began in early January 1973 when 1200 night watchmen went on strike for a R10 a month increase. This quickly spread to the Frame Textile Group in Pinetown where some 7000 employees downed tools. Philip Frame, the entrepreneur who had started the business had a premise that everyone should have a job and that a low wage was preferable to no wage.

The Group had grown as a labour intensive business, paying low wages. At the time of the strike there had been a virtual freeze on wage increases and low entry employees were earning a paltry R7.00 per week. This proved to be the tinder for the fire that quickly spread throughout Natal, with virtually all big businesses experiencing strike action.

The strikes interestingly gained the support of the local public because the workers had real grievances and their actions were, for the mostpart non-violent. One international company, who avoided a strike, did so by consulting with their African employees, granting a substantial increase in wages and allowing African employees to go off one afternoon as a ‘token strike’.

Later that year the company granted employees a further increase, so by the end of the year, their entry level wage was R28.00 per week. In spite of these huge increases, the company experienced record profits that year! They learned the lesson that workers have needs like anyone else. Enlightened employers keep open lines of communication and they do not wait for workers to strike before they take action.

The 1973 strikes enjoyed widespread media exposure both at home and internationally. The British Broadcasting Company made a television programme on the working conditions of Black workers in South Africa employed by British companies. This caused an uproar in Britain, resulting in the British Parliament appointing a Wage Commission to look into the wages and conditions of employment of Black workers employed by British companies in South Africa.

Shortly thereafter, the United States Government appointed a Commission headed by Senator Ed Sullivan (the Sullivan Commission) to investigate the conditions of employment of Black workers employed by American companies.

These commissions both subsequently produced codes of employment practices, which had a profound impact on labour relations in South Africa. British and American companies were required to introduce fair employment practices, which included the training and development and promotion of Black employees into skilled and management positions. They also required these companies to recognise trade unions for Black employees.

Trade unions for Black employees, which had gone underground during the early apartheid years started to emerge after the 1973 strikes. It was therefore not surprising that one of the founder unions of Fosatu (the forerunner of Coastu) was the National Union of Textile Workers.

Bruniquel & Associates (B&A) founded in 1981 and leaders in labour relations training has over the years assisted employers to adjust to the changing labour legislation and environment through its pro-active approach.

Industrial Relations courses offered by B&A, arguably the best of their kind, are designed to defuse tension and empower people in the workplace. B&A also offers a full HR/IR consulting service to ensure that performance barriers are addressed and training is supported by proper systems, policies and procedures.

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.