A strike is a collective action by workers when they refuse to work to force their employers or government to listen to their demands.
Strikes are rooted in the way in which our society is organised for profit. Workers produce the wealth, but the bosses pay the lowest possible wages to make the highest possible profits. When companies want to save money, the first thing they’d probably do is cut labour costs. And because the bosses own and control the companies, they believe they can set working conditions for employees. So, the conflict is deeper than a struggle over money. It’s also a conflict over who takes decisions in the workplace. For these reasons, a strike over wages and working conditions can lead workers to challenge the way in which their lives are controlled by the government and companies.
Workers in South Africa have the right to strike, but unions argue that the changes to the labour legislation effected on 1 January 2019 rolled back the hard-won rights for workers to go on protected strike action. One of these changes was the strike ballot provision, which requires trade unions to conduct a secret ballot of its members before engaging in a strike. The provision has been used by the labour registrar to deregister trade unions that have failed to conduct strike ballots. The covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and subsequent national lockdown measure further limited workers’ right to strike, especially for essential workers during the period.
Five major strikes that happened in South Africa post-democracy
2007: Hundreds of thousands of public servants downed tools demanding a 12% wage increase. Learners and patients suffered most during the 28 days it took workers to agree to a 7.5% wage increase.
2010: A three-week strike by some 1.3 million public servants saw the economy bleed about R1-billion per day. Their demands: 8.6% pay hike and a backdated monthly housing allowance of R1,000. They settled at 7.5%.
: Rock drill operators at Lonmin, the third-largest producer of platinum in the world, went on a violent strike
challenging management’s decision to award an 18% retention allowance to mine blasters. The mobilisation, which started in the Marikana area of North West, spread across the platinum belt and beyond. The workers wanted over 200% wage award outside the collective bargaining system. When the dust settled, 44 people had been killed.
2014: About 70,000 members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union at Lonmin, Impala Platinum, and Anglo American Platinum downed tools, demanding a monthly basic salary of R12,500. The strike, which happened over five months, was the longest in South Africa’s history. Workers lost around R10.6-billion in earnings.
2016: Refuse-removal workers in Johannesburg downed tools accusing their employer, Pickitup, of among other things, corruption, intimidation and wage disparities. The strike lasted 23 weeks.
TYPES OF STRIKES
All strikes are similar as they involve a refusal to work. But, they’re organised at many different levels. Some strikes take place at the plant level and others across several plants.
When planning a strike, workers should combine different methods to surprise and pressurise the bosses. It might be better to organise a go-slow before a full-scale strike to build workers’ confidence.
Below are the different kinds of strike action that workers can take:
Work to rule: This isn’t really a strike but a form of industrial action used to put pressure on management and to workers in preparation for a strike. Workers refuse to do any work that isn’t directly covered by their formal job description.
Go-slow: This is also a mobilising tool and a way to put pressure on management. Workers drag production by working at a far slower rate than normal.
Work stoppage/demonstration strike: Employees stop working for only a short period to highlight their demands to the management. This could be accompanied by a demonstration with placards. A work stoppage can also be used in the run-up to a larger or longer strike.
Plant-based strike: This strike is confined to workers at a particular factory or plant. Unless solidarity action is organised, it can be a weak form of strike. It’s unavoidable in small companies where there’s only one plant. To strengthen the strike, other forms of action should be carefully planned. In larger companies with several plants, plant-based strikes can be used to surprise management and protest against unfair practices at the factory.
Company-based strikes: In larger companies with plants across the country, workers may organise a national company strike. Such a strike could be around a common national demand or a solidarity strike with workers in one plant who are facing difficulties or are being victimised. Company-based strikes take careful planning and coordination but can be very effective in forcing the company to listen to workers’ demands.
Wildcat strikes: Also known as ‘outlaw’ or ‘quickie‘ strikes, wildcat strikes are “unprocedural” and “illegal”. They’re a quick response by workers to an issue which affects them. The surprise element of a wildcat strike can shock management into accepting workers’ demands.
Grasshopper strike: This is when workers strike repeatedly over a period of time for short periods. In this way, they’re able to disrupt production to try to force management to agree to their demands.
Solidarity strike (or secondary strike): This is when workers who aren’t directly affected by an issue take strike action in support of other workers who are on strike.
Industry-wide strike: An industry-wide strike takes place within an industry or sector of an industry. The structures of the union, which are organised along industrial lines, play a key role here.
Political stay-away: Stay-aways can involve millions of workers across industries and other sections of the community. It may be called by political organisations and community groups in consultation with trade unions. The political stay-away is called for a short period to put pressure on the government and the bosses to agree to certain demands.
General strike: This is a very powerful strike involving the majority of workers in all industries. Unlike the political stay-away, the general strike is usually called for a longer or indefinite period. Workers agree to come out and stay on strike until their demands have been met or a settlement has been reached.
Mass strike: This action is the most powerful form of strike action and can lead to an uprising. The reasons for a mass strike can vary. Historically, it has involved far more spontaneity on the part of the working class and its allies. Unlike the political stay-away and the general strike, a mass strike is seldom “called”. The mass strike “breaks out” when the working class is forced to organise itself to bring about a new order.
HOW TO PLAN AN EFFECTIVE STRIKE
Unions don’t always prepare for deadlock and strike action early enough. Yet, strike action has better chances of succeeding if it’s planned for when a union first begins formulating the demands for negotiations. Management will listen more carefully when they see that you’re prepared to take action. Below are some key questions to answer when planning for a strike:
Are workers prepared to take action?
This is one of the first things to assess before deciding to strike. When preparing to strike, organise other actions like go-slows or demonstrations to mobilise workers. These could be used at different stages of the negotiations process and be part of the plan developed when demands are first formulated. If negotiations deadlock, ponder the following: Were plans made for action at different stages of the negotiations? What is the mood of workers? Are workers fed up with conditions and ready to take action? Is further preparation needed? Did members fully understand the demands? Were workers clear that to win demands they must be prepared to take action and fight?
How important is the demand?
In any battle between workers and employers, there’s potential for victory or defeat. Before going on strike, assess the value of the issue carefully. It may be disastrous to strike ilIegally when a company is retrenching especially if you don’t have enough strength to squeeze the company elsewhere. Some issues are more important than others. For instance, the refusal of management to bargain with your union is more important than a one-week delay in receiving bonuses.
What type of strike are you planning?
You must be clear of the size of the strike you are organising from the beginning. This depends on the size and position of the company and the demands being made. For example, a strike in a large company with branches across the country would need far more organisation than action in a single plant company. In a large national strike, communication and coordination are important to ensure unity. Otherwise, workers will come out on strike and begin making settlements at plant level at different times. This can lead to demoralisation and defeat.
Do you have a strike plan or programme of action?
Have a clear programme of action if you’re thinking of striking. Plan and communicate your strategies and the different aspects of the strike so that all workers are on the same page. Also, it’s easier to get support from other organisations if there’s a clear programme to which they can contribute.
Have you done your research?
The strike or shop stewards committee together with union officials should do research to find out as much about the company as possible. Know the strength of the company and the links it has. Get information on the company’s profits, wages, environmental records, safety standards, corrupt deals, misleading adverts, etc.
Can you get industrial and political support?
Before going on strike or taking action, you must have an idea of how much material and political support you can organise. Make contacts and call meetings with your allies. Allies can be other unions, workers in related companies, civic and political organisations or even global unions if you’re dealing with a multinational corporation.
How strong is the company?
Know the strength of your company if you’re planning an industrial action. Be strategic. It’s no use going on strike during a quiet period in production. Understanding the financial strength of the company will enable you to decide the duration of a strike.
Should you follow legal channels to strike?
The Labour Relations Act (LRA) has procedures for strike actions. The Act states the issues which workers can and can’t strike on. The 1995 LRA allows workers to go on “protected strikes”. This means that if you strike on an issue that’s permitted by the law and you follow the correct procedures, then you’re protected from dismissal. The LRA strike procedures take some time before workers can actually go on strike. But, when workers want to take action they often don’t want to go through all those procedures. The choice of whether to strike without using the procedures depends on the strength of the workers and the nature of the issue. Know the pros and cons of legal and illegal strikes.
What’s the attitude of your family and community?
Strikers depend on their families and communities for material and emotional support. Make sure your family and community understand the reasons you’re striking. Their support, or lack of support, must be seriously considered in any decision to go on strike. Family and community members could also be incorporated into the strike programme of action.
Have you organised your media?
Pamphlets, placards and other publicity and educational materials need to be produced and distributed during the strike to inform people and to win support. Social media platforms are also very effective for the same purpose.
ORGANISING THE STRIKE
A strike should be the most active time in a worker’s life. There isn’t time to idle if you want to organise to win. Organise the following tasks before and during a strike:
Run a strike ballot
A strike ballot is an important way of gauging whether workers want to strike. Most union constitutions stipulate a mandatory ballot before declaring a strike. A typical union constitution would have guidelines for running ballots.
Elect a strike committee
The strike or shop stewards’ committee is the centre of any strike. Elect one well before the actual strike begins, or at the latest on the day the decision to strike is made. Workers with leadership potential or special skills should be encouraged to serve on strike committees.
Picket the company premises every day
Picketing can help you with the following: stop scabs from taking striking workers’ jobs, get non-strikers to join the strike and raise publicity. Most companies are opposed to picketing and will try to prevent it. Picketing can persuade other organisations and workers to join or support the strike.
Make sure that blacking is effective
Blacking is when workers from a company refuse to deliver supplies or accept goods from companies where workers are on strike. An effective blacking system can be a powerful weapon in a strike. This has to be organised with workers who supply or are customers of the affected company. Work with other unions and even unorganised workers for effective blacking.
Organise a consumer boycott
Appeal to the community not to buy the goods produced by the company. It’s normally carried out around very popular and visible products. Note that it’s difficult to organise and coordinate a boycott. The boycott doesn’t necessarily have to be organised under the tight discipline of the strike committee and the members. Assess the viability of boycotts carefully. A failed consumer boycott can be very demoralising for strikers.
Raise funds for the strike
Money is central to sustaining a strike. Funds would help individual strikers as well as keep the strike running. Some sources of funding include union strike funds and donors. Form a committee to coordinate fundraising activities. Use that money correctly and honestly.
Keep the strike in the public eye
Strikers must use imaginative ways to keep the media interested. Some ways you can publicise your strike include; marches, occupying head offices of the company, through poetry and drama, producing pamphlets and videos outlining the issues and history of the strike, and issuing press statements.
Gather strategic information
Have as much information about the employers as possible during the strike. If there’s no one in the company who can provide you with the information, get it yourself. Know if the company plans on using scabs or outsourcing production. Know how the company intends to respond to brutal tactics. Find out who the company’s customers and suppliers are and target them to support your strike.
Workers learn best about their political role when they are involved in actual struggles. This is especially so during a strike. During the strike, workers have to relate practically to their enemies and allies. There’s also time for learning formally in meetings and seminars in the midst of a strike. The strike experience and the formal learning should complement each other. Union organisers can assist the strike committee with educational programmes.
Ensure that the strike is disciplined
A disciplinary committee should be elected at the very first strike meeting. This committee must report to and receive mandates from the strikers’ general meetings. The committee must identify disciplinary problems and try and resolve them. Disciplinary measures should correct indisciplined actions as opposed to simply punishing wrong-doers.
Make sure that you can defend yourselves
The bosses can use scabs, the police and vigilantes to assault, arrest and even kill workers to break the strike. The strike committee must make adequate preparations for defending themselves and the strikers.
Silent strike breakers include lack of solidarity support, lack of funds, weak organisation and relying on lawyers to resolve a dispute or a strike.
Any strike is a test of strength between the employers and the workers. As soon as (and usually before) workers go on strike, the bosses move into action. Their response is varied, but the goal is the same: to try and break the strike.
The trade union movement has over the years experienced many of management’s strategies. So, prepare for the various tactics. Some common ones include mass dismissals; lockouts; selective firing and rehiring; scab labour; interdicts; calling in the police; making divisive offers to workers; transferring production; planting agent provocateurs among the strikers; victimising shop stewards; and withdrawing union rights and facilities.
AFTER THE STRIKE, LEARN THE LESSONS
Strikes as a “school of war” provide practical insight into the requirements of the struggle for socialism. It’s important to be clear on the outcome of a strike. Was it a victory or defeat, a gain or a setback? One should not cover up a defeat. The causes of the victory or defeat must be carefully analysed and understood by all involved and the rest of the union federation members. We can only build on our experience if we are honest with ourselves.
Any gain or victory is only a temporary advance. After the strike, management will try to regain the initiative and roll back the material and political gains made by workers. Consolidation after the strike is the only way to effectively counter management’s strategies.
Evaluating the phases of the strike
- How well did you plan?
- How strong was your organisation of the strike?
- How strong was the support that you managed to build?
- What levels and forms of solidarity were given by other workers?
- What new and creative forms of solidarity action emerged out of the strikes from which you can learn?
- What problems did you have and how did you deal with them?
- How effective was the strike?
- What were management’s counter strategies and tactics?
- How were they implemented?
- Did you see these things coming and how did you deal with them?
The “aluta continua” preparation
After any battle, there are always casualties. The “victor” tries to strengthen and tighten their grip around the “loser”. When management “win” they try sometimes to roll back further gains of workers. When workers are the “victors”, management tries to reverse the balance of power through various tactics, for example, retrenchments and stricter rules. It’s important that you continue to consolidate union organisation in the workplace in order to counter management’s strategies and to build on the organisational gains of the strike.
This article is extracted from the LRS Trade Union Library and Education Centre (TULEC) Manual for Trade Union Organisers.