Kwazulu-Natal Legislature Pietermaritzburg: 24 August 2010
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
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
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
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
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
I thank you.
Contact: Dr Lionel Mtshali, 078 302 0929