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Communication is key to avoid another Marikana

Tue, 02 October 2012

WE WILL never forget Marikana. As our country reels from copycat strikes in the gold and coal mining and transport industries, how are employers, unions, workers, law enforcement agencies and the government going to avoid a repeat of another tragedy, similar to the Marikana one?

AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Anglo American Platinum, SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) and the trucking industry, take note. What lessons have we learnt from this tragedy? From the onset we all must bear in mind that historically violence frequently accompanied labour strikes during the dark days of apartheid. Who can forget how dogs were set on the strikers, how strikers were regularly beaten, arrested and shot by the police.

And lest we forget, how the strikebreakers and scab labourers were intimidated, beaten and sometimes murdered by striking workers.

At the time, the violence was against the repressive conditions under which trade unions operated – broadly the absence of democracy, worker rights and the concomitant explosive political conditions.

When democracy dawned, there were expectations that the growth of workers’ rights, unionisation and post-apartheid labour legislation would do away with strike violence and the high levels of mass militancy that had sustained it. But this has not happened.

For the workers who have tasted the power of democratic elections, militancy has grown as they demand more rights and improved living wages.

But police are either seen as heavyhanded and coercive force acting on behalf of business and government interests to suppress strikers, or as a neutral force trying to keep the peace.

Also, the intimidation, assault and murders of strike-breakers has been a persistent feature of many large-scale strikes.

So what is the way forward? How are we going to avoid another Marikana?

The four players – employers, workers, unions and law enforcement agencies - should know when and how to respond to workers’ demands and organising.

Unfortunately employers often do not take the strikers and their union representatives seriously. They drag their feet and ignore workers’ demands, hoping that they will go away. Sometimes they believe that if they respond to union demands, they will only give such demands credibility.

The point is that negotiation, by definition, is reciprocal. It means both giving and taking.

All the participants in the war for or against salary increases must know that they should never give up anything if they are not getting something in return.

These days, the four protagonists typically go into a negotiation room with bottom lines. That’s a mistake. For example, if an employer becomes aggressive and a union representative or employee does not get a satisfactory answer, the boss gets an employee with a bad attitude and is susceptible to violent protests.

The other problem is that the parties are impatient with each other. They treat each other with disdain and suspicion. If they take their time, try and understand each other’s point of view, compromise, treat each other with mutual respect, they can avoid violent confrontations.

These days employers, workers,unions and law enforcement typically go into a negotiation room with bottom lines.That’s a mistake.

There is no doubt that when bosses and workers understand labour policies, differences in labour relations and strikes are minimised.

One should always remember that salary negotiations during a labour dispute are similar in politics and business. Preparation and forethought are key. Each faction must be clear about each other’s objectives, make sure they are well-briefed and know their roles. They must ensure that everyone is working towards the same objectives to resolve the impasse by invoking the power of persuasion.

Also, trade unions at all levels should focus on training union officials to improve their knowledge and negotiation skills in solving strikes. The training would contribute to building healthier labour relations in business, an important factor for cordial wage negotiations.

Workers and union representatives should also be reasonable. The most common errors are: asking for a lot and assuming the company will offer little and you will compromise somewhere in the middle. Not so. That’s because most companies have formal compensation structures that create what they believe to be a fair salary offer based on industry trends.

For both bosses and worker representatives, research is the key. They must find out about the job specifications, the companies at the centre of the wage negotiations and the industry. Everyone must check public sources such as the Department of Labour, which will surely supply industrywide salary averages for most occupations.

Then check out the company. Network to find out how the company pays, whether it uses perks to make up for what might be a lower cash compensation level. Find out whether it is a growing company in a growing industry, meaning there would be more room for advancement. Finally, determine the worker’s own worth.

Employees need to understand what happens in the event of the parties reaching an impasse after bargaining in good faith. If the parties do not reach an agreement, the union has only two real options. The first is to accept the employer’s final offer with whatever concessions it may include. The other is to call a strike.

The risks and costs of strikes should be explored by all the parties. In these discussions, employees must be careful not to suggest that a strike is inevitable. That could be interpreted as unlawfully suggesting that the employer won’t bargain in good faith.

As we consolidate our democracy and workers’ rights, the unions and employers and government agencies must build trust. They should all remember that negotiation is a highly sophisticated and skilled form of communication. Without trust there won’t be communication, only manipulation and suspicion masquerading as communication. Successful negotiations depend on maintaining trust between employers and workers. The recession provides a burning platform that encourages increased co-operation.

For the employers, it is always good to sit with employees and find out what’s on their minds because if employees feel that they are being treated unfairly or that their concerns are unheard, this will bring union intervention and strikes. If workers feel that they can talk freely to employers, employers will avoid a high employee turnover and a demoralised workplace because they will hear what’s on workers’ minds and can take steps to deal with it.

As such, employers need to demonstrate an open-door policy so that employees can deal directly with the employer on workplace issues.

Employers and worker representatives must be trustworthy, honour their commitments, tell the truth and very importantly, always respect each other’s existence.

To avoid another Marikana, workers and bosses must develop listening skills. Everyone must learn to listen well.

Unfortunately, employer and worker representatives carry on an inner dialogue with themselves, especially when they are trying to communicate with someone else. This inner dialogue becomes a problem because they can’t listen internally and externally at the same time.

Therefore, it is crucial that when bosses and unions negotiate, they must turn off their inner voice and only listen externally. By listening externally, they won’t miss the important non-verbal messages and facial expressions of voice inflections.

Also, negotiators must move beyond positions. Remember, it is risky to make yourself vulnerable to someone. That is why in a negotiation you begin by stating your position. Later, when the trust has deepened, you and the other party can risk more honesty and identify true interests.

AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Anglo American Platinum, Satawu and the trucking industry, take note. As a negotiator, the employers and their union counterparts must know that it is their responsibility to ask questions that will uncover the needs or interests of the other party.

If both the labour unions and employers can create a supportive climate, they are more likely to get honest answers and avoid the violence and murder associated with strikes.

Let us all avoid another Marikana.

Communication is key to avoid another Marikana - BUSINESS REPORT