Union rank and file bear the brunt of strike costs

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Much has been made of the total costs of strikes and the damage they do to the economy. Huge numbers equating to lost production are put forward, but very little attention is paid to how much the union rank and file have lost and continue to lose as the strike drags on.

The ongoing National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) strike, particularly as it affects petrol pump attendants, has focused on the intimidation and in one case even a death as a result of violence.

The individual burden on strikers is making many pump attendants desperate to get back to work as the Numsa strike goes into its third week.

Union leadership is perhaps unaware of the hardship the strike imposes.

The arithmetic of a strike on those working in an average service station is revealing. With 10 pumps and 17 attendants working in shifts, the weekly wage for each attendant (not including tips) is R1 200. Multiplied by 17 in the first strike week the boss did not have to pay out R20 400.

The boss is saving that tidy sum. And, even if he uses backroom staff, himself, his family and out-of-work men who are on every street corner, that R20 400 a week is not going to take much of a dent.

Has the boss suffered this first week of the strike? Nope.

Have the attendants suffered? Oh, yes.

Have the unions bosses suffered? No, they have not. Not at all.

After two weeks of the strike, the maths looks like this: the boss has saved another R20 000 or so, making his savings so far about R40 000.

Meanwhile the attendants are struggling. Each one at the end of week two of the strike will have lost R2 400, not forgetting the tips forgone. In a major metropolitan service station, tips can amount to anything between R100 and R300 each week, so let’s take an average and say that each attendant in two weeks has lost their salary plus R400 in tips, to total R2 800.

If the strike is settled, it will take pump attendants much more than the length of the strike to regain the money they lost.

The service station owner will still have the extra cash in his pocket.

No wonder so many pump attendants are desperate to come back to work. Maybe they have done the maths. That they don’t go back or pressure their leadership to call off the strike is possibly because they are terrified of being singled out by the bully boys who, according to the union leadership, are not operating with their approval. Nevertheless they are doing their stuff.

If all strikers did the simple maths of this situation they would have concluded that they are the only ones suffering.

Service station operators are not losing money; they are making more of it. They may also be learning that they don’t need so many pump attendants.

As for the union bosses, the strike can only have given them the warm glow of power which, as everyone knows, is heady stuff, especially when it doesn’t cost them a thing. There are about 130 administrators in the Numsa head offices. They are not on strike. Nor are the 135-odd organisers who are actually in the field. They too are being paid while the strike progresses.

Not all Numsa members are in the retail fuel industry, of course. However, a little bit of adding and subtracting would give the rest of the membership – and their union’s leadership – a good dose of common sense.

* Keith Bryer is a retired corporate communications consultant.


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