Workers at South African Airways (SAA) downed tools on Friday to demand higher wages and protest planned job cuts in a strike that has forced the troubled state-owned carrier to cancel all flights and left its future hanging in the balance. Picture: Reuters/Mike Hutchings

JOHANNESBURG - Trade union Solidarity has confirmed that its members still report for work at the South African Airways (SAA) "despite the turbulent times SAA is experiencing".

Given the SAA’s extremely precarious situation, Solidarity and its members regarded a strike as being destructive rather than constructive, Solidarity organiser Derek Mans said in a statement.

The future and sustainability of the SAA was currently on a knife edge. “It is common cause that the SAA has been under-performing for years and is struggling to stay in business, but its existence has never before been threatened as much as now. Solidarity and its members are aware of the huge crisis within SAA. That is why we have to think more broadly about solutions, and not stare ourselves blind at the notion of ‘going about business as usual’,” he said.

He emphasised that while its members continued to keep operations going at the SAA, Solidarity was working on formulating solutions to transform the overall image of the SAA in the best interest of its members as well as that of the country.

“What is happening here will have drastic consequences, not only for our members, but also for the fiscus and the country as a whole. The time has come for someone to take control of the situation and to manage the matter in a responsible way. We’ll seize this opportunity with zeal and despite the enormous turmoil that is prevailing at the moment our members and we will continue to work,” Mans said.

Workers at the national carrier on Friday began a two-day strike, likely to cost the financially-strapped airline millions of rand as it was forced to cancel almost all its domestic, regional, and international flights scheduled for Friday and Saturday.

Workers affiliated to the South African Cabin Crew Association (SACCA) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) want an eight percent wage increase and have rejected SAA's offer of 5.9 percent.

NUMSA said the strike was an indefinite national shut down which would see workers picket at the country's airports in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, and East London.

On Thursday the carrier, which said it would run just four flights to the capital cities of neighbouring Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, said a “no-work-no-pay” principle would apply to strike employees while those who reported for duty would be allowed to work.

The workers are also angry after the airline said on Monday it was embarking on a restructuring process which may lead to job losses for approximately 944 workers. They say employees are bearing the brunt of problems at SAA brought about by years of mismanagement.

In another statement, Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI) president Geoff Jacobs said more than just the fate of SAA was at stake.

"At its core is a fundamental clash between those who think magically and those who deal with market realities. The resolution of this divide is critical to the overall economy."

It was time to be blunt about the choices involved by unions faced with collapsing enterprises. In this case, either SAA was given one last chance to haul itself out of the financial hole decades of mismanagement had put it in, or the strike went ahead, the airline collapsed, and everyone employed was without a job.

Union members and their leaders would have to face the fact that they could do nothing by striking but hasten the demise of SAA. The best to be hoped for was that a drastically slimmed down airline returned to profitability and began to pay back the millions of taxpayers’ money it had borrowed.

"A strike now will not preserve the 944 jobs the unions are hoping to save. It will merely put all 3000 at greater risk. Demanding an eight percent above inflation increase in pay is equally nonsensical.

"SAA’s salary bill is already 24 percent of its total costs, its cumulative losses are more than R2 billion, and next week it hopes to get an equivalent amount in taxpayer loans – because no one else will," Jacobs said.

African News Agency