Well, it’s finally over. After three gruelling weeks, the South African Municipal Workers (SAMWU) strike has reached an end.
I don’t think I need to go into detail about what the effects have been – we can all see very clearly for ourselves. The city streets have become extended dump sites, whole suburbs have gone without power and water (which the return to load-shedding by Eskom hasn’t helped at all), and the Democratic Alliance is now talking about pressing charges.
It has been, I’m sure, a trying time for quite a few of our readers. Much ink has been spilled discussing the strike and before the news cycle inevitably moves on to the next big scandal, I’d like to spill a little bit more.
Personally, I do not think that labour strikes are an inherently bad thing. In fact, I think the ability for workers of all kinds to go on strike is vital for a functioning democracy.
Put simply, workers have very little power in a capitalist system. Without control over the means of production, workers are forced to sell their labour in order to survive. Even then, the South African government has admitted that our current minimum wage is not a “liveable wage” – i.e. doesn’t cover even the barest of necessities required to stay alive – so they have to either take on multiple jobs or complement their income with the meagre subsidies offered by the government. This is of course assuming they can get a job which, judging by the unemployment statistics, is not a certainty.
Under our capitalist economy, employers are incentivised to keep wages and working conditions as poor as they possibly can. After all, less money spent on wages and safety means more money can be converted into profits.
A common rebuttal to this is that workers are free to change jobs whenever they want if they are dissatisfied. To discuss why this argument is incorrect would take up an entire column on its own. Those who are curious could start by looking into the concept of the reserve army of labour.
Now given how all the odds are stacked against them, workers have very little (if any) control over their jobs. Unions are supposed to remedy this and a lot of the time, they are able to peacefully negotiate deals that improve the lives of their members. Sometimes, though, negotiations prove futile. Maybe the employer’s conditions are unfavourable, maybe they are stubborn and refuse to negotiate in good faith, or maybe they simply refuse to acknowledge the union entirely. In such cases, a strike is the only option left.
The whole point of a strike is to show just how dependent employers are on the labour of their workers. We’ve seen that first-hand here in East London. The mayor could leave us for a month and I reckon hardly anyone would notice but take away the repair-people, the garbage collectors, and all the other vital yet low-paid workers and in less than a week the city begins disintegrating around us.
With all that said, however, there are certain lines that even protesters should not cross. Destruction of vital infrastructure, for example, or threatening civilians with violence. Putting aside the obvious ethical concerns that come with disrupting electricity or water on a large scale, these are also bad decisions in terms of optics since it tarnishes the reputation of both the unions and workers involved and almost guarantees that you will lose any support they might have had for your struggle.
For the most part, these actions don’t even affect those in power since they can afford to have generators installed and bodyguards hired. All these actions do is make the lives of fellow workers that much harder.
Granted, plenty of people would be unsympathetic already – “They should be grateful they have a job at all!”, “Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to strike!”, etcetera – but engaging in destructive behaviour doesn’t really make an effective counter-argument and only makes it easier for the powers-that-be to justify their exploitation. All they have to do is point and say “You see?”
Strikers don’t need to wreck things and harass others to get their point across. Simply not showing up to work and letting things take their natural course will be enough.