Johannesburg - SAA, which almost grounded its flights due to a cash crunch two weeks ago, now faces further disruption as members of its technical team, cargo crew and ground staff are expected to go on strike on Friday.
The timing of the industrial action could be devastating for SAA, which in addition to catering for the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) soccer tournament, is also battling with a leadership crisis and is in the process of implementing a turnaround strategy.
More than 1 300 airline employees belonging to a new union, the National Transport Movement (NTM), were issued with strike notices this week in a bid by the union to be recognised as eligible to participate in wage negotiations.
Coming just a day before the opening ceremony and first match of the 2013 Afcon competition, the strike is reminiscent of the threatened stayaways that were narrowly averted at Eskom and Transnet on the eve of the 2010 World Cup.
However, Airports Company South Africa said if the strike caused any delays, only SAA flights would be affected.
The Department of Public Enterprises, SAA’s shareholder, said the timing of the strike was “reckless and the manner in which the union voiced its concerns is malicious”, especially after the engagements it had had with workers at the end of last year.
Mayihlome Tshwete, the ministerial spokesman, said minister Malusi Gigaba had urged all workers, including management and the board at SAA, to focus on ensuring operational stability in the company, but the union was now doing the opposite of that.
“These are irresponsible threats that SAA doesn’t need at this point in time,” he said.
SAA said it had contingency plans in place to minimise the impact of the strike.
Airline spokesman Tlali Tlali said not all employees who were members of NTM would participate in the strike.
He added that the airline was not refusing to negotiate with the NTM.
“The decision not to grant recognition is based on the fact that the union has not dispensed with all the requirements to be able to enjoy recognition,” Tlali said.
He said NTM’s membership included staff categories that were not provided for in the bargaining forum constitution.
Vincent Masoga, the spokesman of the rival SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), said the union would have its eyes on the ground to ensure that its members were not intimidated and that they reported for duty.
SAA said Satawu had 1 600 members at the airline as at January 14, making it the majority union.
The company dismissed claims that it was planning retrenchments, saying these statements were merely meant to cause harm.
SAA tried to avert the strike last week by reaching an interim agreement with the union, even though it recognised only Satawu as a majority union. When SAA acting chief executive Vuyisile Kona met NTM on January 11, he promised to resolve the dispute.
However, SAA backtracked on this commitment and the acting chairwoman, Lindi Nkosi-Thomas, said Kona had acted outside his mandate.
The union said this conflicting communication from SAA showed that the board chairwoman was “undermining her chief executive”.
Two weeks ago the government rescued SAA with a R550 million emergency loan to cover fuel costs, averting the grounding of its planes. Last year the National Treasury and the Department of Public Enterprises signed off a R5 billion guarantee to help the company with its financial troubles.
SAA has undergone drastic leadership changes in the past few months. Siza Mzimela bailed out as chief executive in October last year and several executives followed her. The board was also overhauled. This occurred while SAA was in the middle of exploring new aircraft deals to replace its ageing fleet and modifying its routes to focus more on Africa.
The company has not held wage negotiations with workers and unions this year as it has prioritised stabilising its operations before attempting anything else.
The NTM said it was concerned that the other unions had agreed to skip wage negotiations. But Satawu said it had not held wage negotiations with SAA only because it was being sensitive to the company’s current problems and the restructuring processes, as it did not want the national carrier to find itself in a similar position as 1time.
Low-cost airline 1time grounded its fleet and closed its doors to business last year.
Masoga said Satawu understood that its members’ jobs would be affected if labour instability led to further problems at SAA, which was why it had decided to allow the airline to resolve these issues first.
“We are sensitive on the part of governance. But being sensitive does not mean we will allow anything that compromises our members. In fact, we would go on a full-blown strike if SAA intends to retrench,” Masoga said.
NTM alleged that SAA was planning retrenchments in the next two months, but Satawu said such plans had not been communicated to the union.
NTM, which was formed and registered as a union in September last year, alleged that SAA did not recognise it because of political reasons.
It claimed that 1 377 SAA employees belonged to the union, compared with 1 260 Satawu members and 1 200 members of the SA Aviation Industry Workers’ Union.
The Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa), whose workers were also expected to participate in the strike, said it took the threats very seriously despite the fact that the NTM was not a recognised union.
“In responding to this threat, we are putting contingency plans in place to ensure that our operations are not affected. We anticipate running a normal train schedule for all our commuters in Gauteng [on Friday],” Prasa spokeswoman Lillian Mofokeng said.