A Guide to Winning Strikes


A Guide to Winning Strikes

A guide to winning strikes
When negotiations hit an impasse, union negotiators reconvene with the workers to explore next steps. Workers must consider declaring a dispute in the absence of a satisfactory compromise.

It is essential to know the legally permissible courses of action and alternatives outside the legal framework, and existing provisions in collective agreements and the dispute resolution procedures outlined in the Labour Relations Act (LRA) is essential.

A strike is a collective action undertaken by workers. It involves workers collectively withholding their labour to compel the employer to address their grievances.

Some major strikes in South Africa

2007: Public servants went on strike demanding a salary increase of 12 per cent. The strike lasted 28 days. Workers accepted a 7.5 per cent increase.
2010:  About 1.3 million public servants went on a three-week strike that cost the economy some R1 billion per day. The workers’ demands: 8.6 per cent pay hike and a backdated monthly housing allowance of R1,000. The parties settled at 7.5 per cent.
2012: On 16 August police opened fire on striking mineworkers at the then Lonmin Platinum’s Marikana operations in North West Province. Read Chapter 3: LRS Bargaining Indicators, 2016.
2014: About 70,000 members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union at Lonmin, Impala Platinum, and Anglo American Platinum went on strike, demanding a monthly basic salary of R12,500. The strike happened over five months and workers lost earnings totalling some R10.6-billion in earnings.
2016: Pikitup workers in Johannesburg went on strike for 23 weeks over wages and conditions at work. 

Types of strikes

All strikes share a common characteristic: a refusal to work. Strikes can happen at various workplace levels, such as the plant level or spanning multiple plants.

Work to rule: This industrial action is used to pressurise the management to act on demands, and to mobilise workers to strike. Workers refuse to do any work that is not in their formal job description.
Go-slow: is a worker mobilising tool and a way to put pressure on the management. Workers intentionally drag production by working at a slower pace.  
Work stoppage/demonstration strike: Employees stop work for a short period to highlight their demands to the management. Workers can demonstrate with placards. A work stoppage may often lead to a full-blown strike. 
Plant-based strike: happens at a specific factory or plant in large companies. Workers can use various actions to strengthen the impact of the strike action.  
Company-based strikes: Workers at large companies with plants at different locations can organise a national company strike. The strike is usually around common national demands, or in solidarity with striking workers in one plant. 
Wildcat strikes: Also known as ‘outlaw’ or ‘quickie‘ strikes. Wildcat strikes are usually the workers’ quick response to issues. The surprise element of a wildcat strike can shock the management to accept the demands of workers. 
Grasshopper strike: This is when workers strike repeatedly for short periods, with the aim of disrupting production and forcing the management to agree to 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. 
Political stay-away: Stay-aways can involve millions of workers from many industries and sectors, as well as other groups in society.  Political stayaways can be called by unions together with other civil society groups. Stay-aways are short-term actions for pressurising the employer/s to agree to specific demands.
General strike: Involves the majority of workers in all industries. Unlike the political stay-away, the general strike is usually prolonged and indefinite.  Workers agree to come out and stick it out until their demands have been met or a settlement has been reached.
Mass strike: This powerful form of strike action can lead to an uprising. Mass strikes tend to be spontaneous. A mass strike is seldom “called”. Rather, it  “breaks out” when the working class is forced to organise itself to bring about a new order.

Planning the strike

The most effective strikes are strategised early in the bargaining process. Management tends to take the union’s demands more seriously when they perceive a readiness for action.

Consider the following questions when planning a strike:

– Are workers prepared to take action?
– How crucial is the demand?
– What type of strike is being contemplated?
– Do you have a comprehensive strike plan or action program?
– Have you conducted thorough research?
– Can you secure industrial and political support?
– How resilient is the company?
– Should legal avenues be pursued for striking?
– What is the stance of your family and community?
– Have you arranged media coverage and promotion and education materials?

Some questions to ponder when planning a strike:
  • Are workers prepared to take action?
  • How important is the demand? 
  • What type of strike are you planning?
  • Do you have a strike plan or programme of action? 
  • Have you done your research?
  • Can you get industrial and political support?
  • How strong is the company?
  • Should you follow legal channels to strike?
  • What is the attitude of your family and community?
  • Have you organised the media (pamphlets and placards and other publicity and educational materials, etc.)?

Organising the strike

Some things to do before and during a strike:
Run a strike ballot
A strike ballot helps to gauge whether workers want to strike. Trade union constitutions normally have guidelines for mandatory ballots before a strike is declared. 
Elect a strike committee
The strike committee is one of the key pillars of the strike. Set up the committee well before the actual strike, or at the latest, when the decision to strike is made. 
Picket the company premises every day
Picketing can help to deter scabs, attract more workers to join the strike, rally support and publicise the action. 
Use ‘blacking’ 
‘Blacking’ happens when workers from a company refuse to deliver supplies or accept goods from companies where workers are on strike. Blacking can be a powerful tool in strike actions. 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. Failed boycotts can demoralise striking workers and so assess the viability carefully.
Raise funds 
Money helps to sustain a strike. Funding sources include union strike funds and donors. Form a committee to coordinate fundraising activities and be transparent about spending.  
Keep the strike in the public eye
From marches and press conferences to poetry and drama, use imaginative tactics to keep the media and citizens interested in your strike action. 
Gather  information
Know everything you can about the employer.  Does the company plan to use scabs or outsource production? How is the company likely to respond to brutal tactics? Who are the customers and suppliers of the company and can they support the strike? 
Educate workers
Workers learn best about their political role when they are involved in actual struggles. Workers  relate practically to their enemies and allies during strikes. Organise some formal education programmes during strikes.
Establish discipline mechanisms 
A disciplinary committee should be elected during the first strike planning meeting. The role of the committee, which must report to and receive mandates from workers, is to  identify potential disciplinary issues and try and resolve them. 
Make sure that you can defend yourselves
The bosses can employ various tactics to break the strike, for example, use of scabs, the police and vigilantes.  The strike committee must plan how to defend the strike participants should the need arise.  

Management strategies

A strike is a test of strength between employers and workers. The goal of the management is to try and break the strike. Be ready to confront tactics such as dismissals, lockouts, selective firing and rehiring, scab labour, interdicts, police brutality, transferring production, agent provocateurs and withdrawing of union rights and facilities.

Evaluating the strike

Reflection helps to improve approaches and tactics. Take the time to identify the lessons learned and share them in the organisation. The strike victory might be a temporary advance. Confront any attempts by the management to roll back the gains made by workers.


  • 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?

Source: LRS/TULEC manual for organisers

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