Friday, August 20, 2010

ANC and COSATU: The Greatest Dangers To Worker’s Rights

Come the announcement that the government and COSATU have entered into wage negotiations, South Africans knows we have entered into another one of our political circus seasons. COSATU leaders take a moment from their daily work of partaking in the various squabbles and factional battles of the ANC. Government and trade unions engage in their debate of who, if anyone should be barred from engaging from striking, on the basis that they are an ‘essential service.’ The comfortable middle-class, (ironically and hilariously often identified as ‘leftist’) dust off and trot out their usual complaints; complaints that, ‘the country is being held to ransom,’ that ‘striking is nothing more than blackmail,’ that in the face of South Africa’s soaring unemployment ‘these workers should be grateful they have a job and get back to work.’ Nevertheless, the one fear, that all share, is the 2007 Public Sector Strike, which was marked by damage to private and public property, intimidation and violence will be repeated. Regrettably this week saw that fear come to be a reality with such reports. As with the 2007 strike, as fully expected, the media has focused on these reports and COSATU has denounced the media for focusing on ‘sporadic but regrettable occurrences.’ Whether these occurrences are widespread or sporadic is of no consequence. The very fact that they occur cannot be tolerated, and that is very much what COSATU and by in large government as well seems to do with their strongly worded denouncements followed by, well, followed by nothing.

The simple fact is this; the moment a striker commits violence, intimidates or in any way illegally impinges on the rights of another, they cease to be protected by the rights, which protect workers on industrial action and no longer are striking workers, but rather, are criminals. Furthermore, the actions of these criminals are ignominious for two primary reasons. Beyond their basic criminality, they present perhaps the greatest danger to the crucial right of workers to engage in industrial action. More so than any call The Right may make against these rights.

With each successive wave of violence and intimidation at the hands of these so-called strikers, the public understandably gets even more disillusioned with unions and the strikes they embark upon. What the government (which has regularly reiterated their support for protecting this right) and COSATU have to realise is that their empty rhetoric of denunciation is just as, if not more so, harmful to the right to strike than the actions themselves. People have a right to expect health-care when going to a hospital that their kids will be safe when at school, that if they choose not to participate in a strike, they will be free of intimidation.

However, having spoken to some striking workers, I have come to realise that these actions are not the acts of marauding hooligans, as the media often seems to depict them. There are reasons behind it. Firstly, the statements the government puts out which characterise their position as intractable does nothing more than add oil to an understandably angry fire. The initial tone of these messages, dismissive of the actions and that the government can handle the crises (though this has clearly been shown to be not true) further engenders anger. Even if the government had forgotten, recent events particularly service delivery protests and the ‘xenophobic violence’ reminds one of the South African populace’s propensity to violence. All a result of what political theorists refer to as, Political Socialisation.

Despite all these various reasons explaining the violence of so-called strikers, the fact of the matter is, they are excuses. Near all criminals can provide a compelling reason as to why they committed the acts that they did but our legal system does not accept excuses. A broken law is a broken law, and whomever broke it must be swiftly dealt with. In another blogpost earlier this year, I mentioned how in Junior School we were taught on the correlation between rights and responsibilities. For many, in defending the rights of strikers, they have drawn on this thinking, characterising the violence and intimidation, as an ‘abuse’ of that right and it is easy to see where this idea stems from.

However, I wholeheartedly disagree. To in any way equate the violence to the strikes, muddies the water on the right of workers to embark on industrial action. I’ll reiterate this point, the violence and intimidation are in no way equitable to the majority of striking workers, who are making use of their right peacefully. The aims behind the two acts may be the same, but one is a legal and constitutionally protected action, the other a nothing more than a mere criminal act. One only hopes that sooner, rather than later, the ANC government and COSATU will realise that by issuing an endless ream of empty statements, they are not protecting the cardinally important right to strike, but rather being its greatest danger.

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