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The recent three-week long poorly attended industrial action among petrol attendants indicates that South African labour relations are changing. It is a small signal that union leadership and their members are not only diverging, but also that this dynamic can easily replicate in other industries. The well-prepared fuel retailers against misrepresented workers reminds of a seminal piece of British economic history.
Almost 30 years ago the infamous Scargill strikes in the British coal industry started in 1984 in opposition to rationalising the state-owned coal industry and ended two years later with the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the closure of several loss-making coal mines. To this day the strike still attracts attention because it is widely recognised as the tipping point in UK labour relations.
Though there are many tangents of analysis, one consistent theme emerges. British unions had become too powerful and through their wage increase caused high inflation and hurt British productivity, the NUM president Arthur Scargill was more militant than workers and followed an all-or-nothing, no compromise negotiating strategy, and the Thatcher government could out-wait the strike because of contingency plans drafted back in 1977 in the so-called Ridley plan.
Despite the distinctly different political climates between Tory Britain in the 1980s and present South Africa, the lessons from the Scargill strike still ring true.
The Scargill strike was an attempt to delay the inevitable; the British national coal industry was losing money and needed to rationalise to stay sustainable. Similarly, wage demands should reflect productivity gains first and cost-of-living adjustments second irrespective of country or industry. Unfortunately, South Africa has over time become used to outlandish double-digit (and more recently triple-digit) wage increase demands that are clearly out of sync with economic reality.
During the strikes, the political popularity of Scargill was only second to the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, but his militancy cost ordinary members dearly due to lost opportunities for compromises.
So there was certainly a mismatch between the needs of the coal miners and the political aspirations of Scargill. After the strike ended, he unwisely bought a lavish home which gave rise to the popular phrase that Scargill started with a big union and a small house, and ended with a small union and a big house. In South Africa, the fact that fuel retailers practically continued as before because most attendants chose not to strike is clear proof that the union leaders did not truly represent the wishes of their membership.
In 1977 Nicholas Ridley drafted a plan to defeat the unions in a nationalised industry like the coal mines by way of building up coal stocks and coal imports.
Even though this plan was leaked in 1979, well before the strike commenced, it was largely ignored by unions. The contingency plans by fuel retailers are similar in that there were no major supply disruptions during the recent strike. On a more macro level, industries are mechanising their operations to minimise the risk of strikes.
As this trend gathers pace, unions will lose more and more leverage, and yet it is impossible that unions do not see the writing on the wall. So union leaders are willing to risk exacerbating the mechanisation trend, if only to score some political points.
The Scargill strikes left deep scars in the mining towns and the poverty among the community during that time has become imprinted on the British psyche. This is the biggest problem with industrial action – families suffer because they lose their source of income. The hope remains that organised labour can catch up for the sake of their members and learn the lessons from three decades ago.
Pietman Roos is a policy consultant for South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI)