However much you sympathise with the demand for higher pay by members of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and the recent decision of their leaders to strike, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that there is a serious disconnect between the two perceptions of the situation – those of strikers and those of employers.
The clearest example is that of petrol pump attendants.
For some reason they are regarded as metalworkers by Numsa, but leaving this oddity aside, they seem not to know some crucial realities of the fuel retail business in South Africa.
The first reality is that they are not employed by the oil companies. Despite the service station decorations of Shell, BP, Caltex, Total and the rest, service stations are not owned by the oil companies, they are owned either by individuals or businesses entirely separate from Big Oil.
This ring-fencing of service station ownership has been endorsed by every South African government for more than 50 years. It was confirmed when the ANC took over.
The service station business in a regulated system like ours is not unusual in Africa. Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania have all prevented the oil companies from controlling the value chain from refinery to motorist.
The reason for this is simple: jobs.
In South Africa there are about 5 000 service stations and probably as many as eight pump attendants at each site, making 40 000 countrywide. Each employee has on average five dependants. Were these jobs to disappear, 200 000 people, at least, would be deprived of the benefits that each wage formerly earned brought in.
Numsa leadership is ignoring this social reality.
The second reality being ignored is that, contrary to common perceptions, owning or running a small service station in South Africa is not a guarantee of riches. It is a 24-hour-a-day job and the profits are ordinary. Not all service stations sell a huge amount of fuel.
There is also a trend for service stations to open convenience stores which, if they are lucky and in the right place, are thankfully run by major food outlets such as Woolworths or Pick n Pay. By no means is every owner in such a situation.
That brings us back to the negotiations between Numsa and the two organisations representing service station owners. By insisting that wage increases be across the board, regardless of the individual circumstances of each business, Numsa is making it impossible for an agreement to be reached. The union is ignoring the fact that one size fits all does not apply.
It is also failing to consider that membership of the two organisations representing service stations owners and operators is not a commitment in the same way as membership of a union.
Should the Fuel Retailers Association and the Retail Motor Industry Organisation agree to the increases Numsa is demanding, they cannot compel their members to agree. Even if they could they would be party to imposing an intolerable burden on some of their members. Many would shut up shop with the consequent loss of jobs (and loss of union dues – a consequence the union seems not to have considered.) Pump jockeys and their dependants would then become a burden on the state.
Numsa may believe that their strike action will get the desired result for their members because so much of the economy depends on liquid fuels being available across the country, not to mention the important taxes their sale prices embody.
However, both these seeming plus factors are not factors wholly on the side of the union. If Numsa leadership raised its collective head and sniffed the wind it would realise that both the government and service station owners might be only too delighted if pesky pump attendants were not in a position to disrupt fuel supplies.
Many of our political leaders spent years in exile in Europe. They will have noticed two things about the oil industry (in Britain in particular): service stations there are owned and run by the oil companies; and there are no pump attendants whatsoever.
As in much of the world, fuel pumps are automated; motorists serve themselves. They pay at a kiosk where an electronic screen indicates which pump was used and how much fuel was dispensed.
Therefore, there is an alternative to pump attendants. Remove them from the retail fuel business and scrap their jobs and there would be scarcely a blip before it would be business as usual.
Rather than a national strike – rather than demanding across-the-board increases – Numsa, if it truly wants to protect jobs, would negotiate on a site-by-site basis.
That way the profitable service stations would be measured on their ability to afford increases and those skating on the edge of bankruptcy would be exempt from union pressure.
* Keith Bryer is a retired corporate communications consultant.