Jovial Rantau, deputy editor of the Star. 131106. Picture: Chris Collingridge

Trade unions have, in these days, alienated themselves from their own communities, writes Jovial Rantao.

 There was a time, not so long ago, when workers saw themselves as part of the community within which they lived. At that time, it was clear to workers that their lives were intertwined with those that they shared bread with.

It was also clear that the struggles that the workers faced on the shop floor could not be divorced from the daily struggles of ordinary people.

So, whatever the workers decided as a form of action to achieve a living wage or fight workplace discrimination, it was always important that there was overwhelming community support for such action.

The support was always guaranteed because, as I said, the struggles of the workers and the community within which they lived were one.

At that time, workers who went on strike in support of a living wage or whatever cause would take their battle, correctly so, to the employer. Everything would be done to pressurise the employer into acceding to the workers’ demand.

It was during this time that trade unions, comfortable in the support from their communities, would boldly call for a consumer boycott of products manufactured by the affected company. The communities would gleefully support such action.

In return, workers involved in the industrial action would never do anything, no matter how small, to hurt or disadvantage members of their own communities.

How times have changed.

Trade unions have, in these days, alienated themselves from their own communities.

Every time a trade union embarks on a strike, it is accompanied by wanton violence and destruction of property. In some cases, it leads to loss of life.

And every time workers engage in these abhorrent actions, it is ordinary members of society, most of whom would be sympathetic and supportive of workers’ cause, who bear the brunt of the violence.

The current strike by more than 200 000 metalworkers has been no different. At the last count, 26 have been arrested in Gauteng for intimidation, public violence and malicious damage to property. Police arrested these striking workers for crimes committed in the past week.

Metalworkers who work for power utilities have threatened to deliberately plunge neighbourhoods into darkness by sabotaging electricity supply. Not a way to endear yourselves to communities in the middle of winter.

The conduct of these workers presents a political problem for the ANC and government.

Even as government condemns, as it must, the violence that accompanies the strike, the ANC has to deal with the bigger question of why members of its alliance partner Cosatu treat an ANC government in the same way that they treated the National Party state.

It also has to deal with causal problems which have led to the alienation of the unions – an important mobilising vehicle for the ANC – from their own communities.

And the alienation does not only come as a result of the violence.

A large part of it comes as a direct result of the shoddy manner in which ordinary citizens are treated in public institutions, be it in hospitals or government institutions.

It was quite telling that Gauteng MECs Mike Maile and Ismail Vadi declared that the times for public servants who threaten their bosses – members of the public – are over.

Maile, Gauteng MEC for Economic Development, and Vadi, Gauteng MEC for Transport, deserve points for being frank about problems bedevilling public service and declaring that action would be taken against negligent civil servants with a “stinking” attitude.

Maile and Vadi spoke for fellow political leaders as well as the millions served or badly served by public servants.

President Jacob Zuma has called for, among others, a radical change in service delivery.

I think there needs to be a radical change in the manner in which trade union members treat members of the public. There must be other effective ways of exerting pressure on the employer to provide a living wage. Violence is not one of them.

Trade union leadership must stop being in denial about their members’ involvement in violent activities and work to reconnect them with their own communities and eliminate, totally and permanently, violence from industrial action.

* Jovial Rantao is editor of the Sunday Independent.

Sunday Independent