This article first appeared in Moneyweb.

The plastic converters industry strike by 33 000 workers, now in its ninth week, is turning out to be one of the most violent in years. The cost of the strike in terms of damage to property and lost production now exceeds R100 million, says the National Employers Association of SA (Neasa).

Employers believe this may be a signature of strike action going forward as unions battle it out for a dwindling pool of members. Unionised membership outside the public sector has slipped from a peak of 26% two decades ago to below 20%, and that may explain some of the pressures on unions – as well as employers – currently on display.

With national unemployment at 27%, trade unions are fighting to protect members whose jobs are most vulnerable to replacement by low-skilled entrants.

“This is not necessarily a turning point in industrial action in South Africa,” says Neasa CEO Gerhard Papenfus. It simply shows how trade unions, fighting for relevance, will behave in the future. Trade unions who rely on the membership of employees who, due to their unwillingness to be upskilled, elect to rely on negotiations to improve their circumstances, will resort more and more to this kind of behaviour in order to retain relevance.”

Murder and provocation

In the plastics strike, one worker was murdered, several more hospitalised, three CEOs assaulted at their place of work, and one CEO died as a result of attacks on his factory. Hundreds more non-striking workers were assaulted at their residences, houses were burned down and 17 factories vandalised, petrol bombed or looted.

The Plastic Converters Association of SA (PCASA) has blamed the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) for the mayhem, but the union disavows responsibility. “We reject the attempt by the employers to blame us for violence and vandalism,” said Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim in a statement. “We want to remind them (employers) that we operate in a legal framework where everyone is innocent until proven guilty. The allegations made by employers are unfounded and not based on fact.”

Yet shop stewards were heard calling on their members to stop the ‘rats’, a reference to non-strikers who opted to show up for work.

This strike has turned particularly ugly. In a return to macabre days of ‘necklacing’, security guard Lesley Lekgalake Mphahlele was doused with petrol and set alight by striking workers, probably infiltrated by agents provocateurs, on the East Rand. He later died of his injuries.

Striking workers have demanded a 15% pay increase and a R40 minimum wage. Many employers had already settled the pay dispute and resumed production, but that hasn’t stopped the violence. Workers at the Mpact plastic bottling plant on the East Rand returned to work a week ago, but unknown outsiders entered the premises this week and set fire to the plant and several vehicles.

‘The only negotiating tool’

“These trade unions are competing for membership and external support from the ranks of thugs, where the only negotiating tool is to strike and demonstrate, and where that fails, escalate it to intimidation through violence, where nothing, not even lives, are spared,” adds Papenfus.

The SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) threw its weight behind the strike, claiming the issues behind it extended beyond the plastics industry, and was “a response to an emerging pattern among all employer associations to try to paralyse bargaining councils and sabotage attempts to reach any collective agreements”.

There has also been violence at Sibanye-Stillwater, where three people died during a strike by 15 000 workers associated with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). The miners are demanding salaries of R12 500 and increments of R1 000 a year for three years. While three other unions settled their wage dispute with the company, Amcu is holding out for a better deal, and that has triggered inter-union rivalry and violence against miners returning to work. In an open letter to Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa, Sibanye-Stillwater’s head of human resources, Themba Nkosi, called on the union to settle the strike for the safety and wellbeing of workers.

No wages for those who strike

“Striking employees will receive no wages if they do not report for work and an extended strike just before the December holidays will result in many of our employees experiencing significant hardship, especially during the upcoming back-to-school period at the beginning of the year,” says Nkosi.

“As we all know, there are no absolute winners in any strike action. Instead, this two-week-long strike already has negative repercussions for the local communities, regional economies as well as the mining towns, which are already in distress.”

Dis-Chem has also been hit by strike action that turned violent in recent weeks. Striking workers associated with the National Union of Public Service & Allied Workers (Nupsaw) clashed with police at Canal Walk in Cape Town last week. Four striking workers have been arrested for malicious damage to property and violation of picketing rules in recent weeks. Strikers are demanding a minimum wage of R12 500, a 12.5% increase for those earning above R12 500, and a bonus equal to the basic salary.

Labour court steps in

The ongoing violence and breach of picketing rules by striking workers prompted the Johannesburg Labour Court to issue an unprecedented order barring picketing and protest action by Nupsaw this week.

The trade union wants recognition from the company, but Dis-Chem has refused, saying it fails to meet the 30% recognition requirement in terms of labour law.

Dis-Chem said it upheld the union’s right to strike, but the union’s tactics of violence and intimidation forced it to approach the labour court for relief.

Papenfus says it is ironic that striking plastic workers have probably gained nothing out of the strike. They have won a modest pay increase but lost several weeks of income. Employers’ attitudes to employment are hardening, and many will be looking at ways to reduce their future dependence on manpower. A 2014 study by labour lawyer Frans Rautenbach found a correlation between union density and employment growth: employment growth was strongest in times when union density was weak.

There are also studies showing that unions have delivered better pay and conditions for members, but the long-term trend is not in their favour. The recent violence certainly won’t help.

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