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How to avoid a strike

…management and labour experts give tips on how to avoid the high costs and conflict of labour unhappiness and strikes

25 June 2007

South Africa is in its fourth week of possibly one of the most damaging strikes in its history.
Exams and teaching was disrupted at schools, patients became very ill or died because of a lack of treatment and in the homes of strikers’ food ran low and tempers frayed as the public sector strike has dragged on.

Every year from May to September is wage negotiations season in the South African workplace – it also means that as winter chills the earth, tempers may flare in boardrooms and strikers may take to the streets. The man hours lost in any industrial disruption are not just costly to a company or public sector organisation; they are disruptive to the economy and can take months or years to heal anger in the workplace.

AstroTech management trainer, Wayne Ford, who facilitates a number of courses for executives including Management for New Managers, says it is important that bosses don’t take industrial action personally. “Union leaders have to justify their existence by confronting managers. Never argue in the passage, if a unionist is confrontational set up a proper meeting with sufficient time to work through the issue.

“If you are a bad manager and are not treating employees correctly they will have valid union problems. If you treat employees well the average worker won’t go out on strike easily, however, they will go out if they think they can change something that you are resisting.”
Ford suggests that an “employee forum where there are representatives from every possible workplace sector” is a good way of defusing issues before they blow up into challenges. “If you have a reputation as an honest manager who tells the truth conflict can be avoided.”

Ford says that the public sector has particular challenges, “government people at high levels are underpaid according to private sector norms and at lower levels are higher paid than the private sector. A person earning R600 000 in government would probably get R2m in the private sector.”

He believes that government and the private sector should have performance based remuneration, “break the workforce into smaller teams and remunerate each team fairly, it will mean that those who are good workers have something to lose with a strike.”

In his course Ford urges new managers – those often least experienced with labour relations - to remember that workers have to elect to strike, “if most are happy they won’t vote to strike. But if valid concerns need to be addressed, they will.”

Sometimes, he notes, strikes apparently about wages disguise genuine concerns, “If the canteen is filthy and food is poor and management fail to address that, it could underpin a set of grievances. Teachers, as an example, increasingly are threatened by violent pupils and have classes overloaded with 50 to 60 pupils. Identify the facilities needed to improve a workplace and do it.

“Appointing people to positions they can’t cope with and not giving them adequate skills training is another area of significant stress.”

Leigh Allardyce, a prominent labour lawyer and facilitator in AstroTech’s Labour Relations and Labour Law course points out that the public sector is slightly different to the private sector in that they have wage negotiations culminating in collective agreements every three years.
“The difficulty here is that the Gross Domestic Product has increased dramatically but salaries have not kept pace.” She believes government could have defused the situation by preparing better for the wage round and by addressing some issues long on the table.

She reiterates Ford’s advice that it is essential that an employer is seen as an honest and reliable broker in wage negotiations, if that does not happen tensions rapidly escalate.

It is also important, she suggests, not to pre-empt union actions as this can escalate matters, using the present strike as an example, she observes: “a union has to give notice before it strikes. Government rushed off to court to try and stop a Popcru strike before they had given notice. The media covered it so everyone reads that the police services and correctional services are going to strike even before they’d made the decision!”

Allardyce recommends that when going to the negotiating table it is important that both sides have an open mind. She cautions against absolutist statements like “never”, “we will not”, “out of the question.”

She recommends that before a boss rejects something he or she considers it long and hard and give rational reasons for any rejection.

If either party rejects a demand she advises that the contesting side, “come back with a counter proposal based on a rational objective fact, create the opportunity to move the process forward instead of stop it

“It is highly recommended that people involved in a negotiations process should be properly trained in negotiating tactics. Most of the time in the private sector, the budget or bottom line is the deciding factor; they don’t always look at the human beings behind a decision.
“If you go into negotiations with an attitude that an offer is final, then you are on a hiding to nothing. Do your homework, have options and don’t ignore the demands. If you make a promise to the union, stick to it.”

* AstroTech is a major South African training organisation based in Johannesburg. It targets executives and managers in the public and private sector for training in management, labour relations and labour law, information technology, project management and human resources. Each year close to 3 000 people take part in a range of more than 60 courses in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town with many more receiving specialist in-house training.


LIZA VAN WYK, CEO AstroTech 011 453 5291 or

Issued by MediaOnLine