Our ‘spoilt brat’ heroes

numsa strike

Who caused South African Airways to crash? The workers unions Numsa and Sacca reject claims that their strike crippled SAA financially. They say the board of SAA already knew the dire straits of the company.  In the picture, SAA workers bring the operations at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to a standstill

THOSE of us who were adults at universities in the 1970s and 1980s had a socialist bent, and the goal of keeping workers content was deeply felt. It overrode many other things. Many trade-union members and anti-apartheid activists came from idealistic Jewish youth movements such as Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair. Before that, Jewish activists historically played roles helping build unions throughout the 20th century. Anti-apartheid activist Solly Sachs, for example, was a Communist Party member in 1919, and secretary of the Garment Workers’ Union in 1928.

Now, what do we think of trade unions who have dominated the headlines for striking against South African Airways (SAA)? Are they there to ensure that national organisations like the airline run smoothly for the country’s good? Or are they there only for members to squeeze out as much as possible for themselves without concern for the consequences? The desired answer seems obvious. But it’s not so simple. Their members’ demands are often justified, but meeting them all in this country today is impossible.

The media is full of stories covering the fight between SAA and the trade unions NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) and SACCA (South African Cabin Crew Association). It’s bizarre for an airline that analysts say is in terminal collapse to be engaged in a fight like this. Professor Jonathan Jansen reportedly described the strike as akin to the Titanic’s crew striking. They wanted higher wages just after the ship hit the iceberg. Unfortunately, in South Africa’s hectic politics, striking has become almost the default position for voicing a grievance.

Negative perceptions of unions may be unfair since they continue to ensure fair working conditions for thousands of members. But union leaders are perceived by many as behaving like children. They are seemingly oblivious to the dire state of the country, and unwilling to see further than their members’ immediate demands. South Africa has a 29% unemployment rate, and a sinking economy. It seems unions would blithely bring the country – and its airline – crashing down around them rather than act responsibly.

Their dealings with SAA are typical, insisting on wage increases far beyond what the airline or country can afford. They forced SAA to cancel scores of flights as a way of confronting it. This cost SAA hugely in terms of reputation and finances. It’s come to a sad pass. Commentators see unions today not as heroic fighters for fair working conditions, but as “spoilt brats”, as Sikonathi Mantshantsha wrote in Business Maverick last week. The reality is that in sane government circles today, there is talk of a general wage freeze in the public sector to curb costs, rather than giving salary increases.

What would the old idealistic Habonim activists think about the South African trade unions they were passionate about in their youth? Would they be disappointed to see them reduced from the heroes they were during apartheid to naughty children throwing their toys out of the cot? Would they even recognise them?

Many of the old activists would certainly have changed with time both in their worldview and lifestyle. Similarly, the unionists and the rationality of their demands have changed. But there is debate about whether it’s been for the good.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za

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