Emergency Debate
on the National Public Service Workers' Strike
By Dr LPHM Mtshali MPL

 

Kwazulu-Natal Legislature Pietermaritzburg: 24 August 2010 

 

Honourable Speaker

 

Let me state without any ambiguity at the outset that the right to strike is enshrined in our constitution and, as such, it is one of the most essential rights in our labour legislation, that allows disenfranchised workers to take legitimate industrial action as a means of voicing their concerns and bargaining with employers, particularly when negotiations about wages and working conditions deadlock.

 

This right for workers is an essential part of any democracy and it is fully supported by the IFP. It was, in fact, we in Inkatha who organised and established the first veritable black trade union to protect workers' rights during apartheid. We did this simply because we have always empathised with the plight of our workers and their families.

 

We all know that there are good teachers living on paltry salaries. We know there are dedicated nurses struggling to make ends meet for their own families, while every day they take care of ours. But every man and woman of conscience must draw a line at where they will stop to have their own needs met. And it seems that for many in this particular strike there is no such line, or it extends far beyond the bounds of what is rational, moral or humane.

 

Every striking season - yes, I am referring to 'season' because national public service workers strikes have become annual events in our country - there are endless reports of destruction of property and acts of violence and intimidation against members of the public as well as the prevention, by direct action, of vital services such as the health sector from functioning by some union members. The current public sector strike is, sadly, no exception and I would even go as far as to say that it is more aggressive than anything we have seen before.

 

Reports from different parts of KwaZulu-Natal have indicated a disturbing series of incidents in which private or public property has been destroyed or individual lives have been placed at risk because of the deliberate action of some striking workers. In the health sector, the actions of some union members to disrupt frontline services from being conducted have been especially evident.

 

In the most serious incidents, health workers were prevented from tending to their patients, sometimes even causing unnecessary deaths. A man who lost a hand in an accident has been turned away from two state hospitals. An 80-year old lay anaesthetised on the operating table while protesters shoved the theatre nurse out of the theatre. Soldiers have been sent into hospitals to protect pregnant women awaiting Caesareans and doctors who were about to perform them.

 

The consequences of such actions reach beyond the immediate objectives of the strikers. Once this strike has ended, how can anyone entrust their loved one into the care of nurses whose conduct during the strike went not only against the Nurses' Pledge, but against every moral precept by which we live as society.

 

Similarly, the provincial Department of Education has confirmed that it has received many notifications of assault, damage to property and intimidation at schools nationwide. We have seen these incidents happen with our own eyes during our deployment to our constituencies. We were disturbed and angered at the sight of empty classrooms, knowing that the victims of the teachers' strike are ultimately our children and grandchildren, especially those who will soon be writing their matric in the province, where the matric pass rate is enjoying a modest recovery from the recent historical lows.

 

We have the utmost respect for those teachers and nurses who have drawn the line at punishing children and endangering lives; who are continuing to work under very real pressures and threats from their colleagues. We applaud the lone nurse who stayed behind in the neo-natal unit at Natalspruit Hospital, trying to care for twenty new-born babies. We hail many other medical personnel and educators whose conscience has been stronger than naked self-interest. 

 

It is clear that while we have upheld the right of those who wished to engage in strike for better pay, we have not done nearly enough for those who wished not to join the strike. As I pointed out earlier, the right to strike is a constitutional right. But equally important is the right of those workers who wish to work to be able to do so if they choose to without fearing intimidation from unions or their members if they decide that it is not in their interests to strike.

 

Another legal loophole relates to acts of aggression that have come to accompany our strikes. While we recognise that the current statute book has adequate provisions in place to charge individual members of the public with crimes such as damage to property or acts of aggression or assault, these laws do not specifically address the context in which strike action takes place. We in the IFP contend that there are means of preserving the right to strike and ensuring that strikers do not engage in illegal behaviour.

 

If we can compel union leadership to take their responsibility of managing a coordinated strike seriously, then we shall go a long way to avoiding many of these problems in the future. This can be achieved by holding the very trade unions themselves to account by being able to impose penalties upon them if their members violate the terms of a strike, which would be an additional measure to those provisions of a criminal law dealing with the individual offenders.

 

When members of unions take the vote to go on strike, then it is the responsibility of the leadership to manage the strike action in such a way that both the satisfaction of worker rights and respect for the terms of the strike that does not disrupt essential services can be maintained. Indeed, that is the point of leadership. However, apart from the natural principle of accountability, there are few legislative mechanisms in place to ensure that union leadership adhere to their mandate to act as responsible facilitators of strike actions.

 

In order to achieve this balance between the right to strike, the right not to strike and to strike in a disciplined and non-aggressive manner, we may need to amend the current Labour Relations Act. We can do this by introducing penalties in the form of fines upon organised labour, or indeed anyone involved in a strike, if unions or their individual members or any other party to a strike fails to follow prescribed good practice during legitimate strikes.

 

Such legislative changes would hold any party that has violated the terms of a legitimate strike action, including unions or employers, accountable in the face of penalties. The penalties would naturally be determined by the magnitude of each individual violation of agreed good practice.

 

We need to face the consequences of strike actions with workable solutions.

As much as we need to protect the right to strike in accordance with provisions of our constitution, we have to ensure that this particular right in no way affects other rights of those who choose not to strike or those who have been in the past held hostage to strikes to the point of suffering irreparable damage.

 

We believe that some form of regulation of strike action and its consequences would motivate unions to ensure that all of their members adhere to the legal framework of their industrial action. If trade unions fail to provide leadership to striking workers, legislation in the form of penalties certainly would.

 

I thank you.

 

Contact: Dr Lionel Mtshali, 078 302 0929