SATAWU violence unnecessary

The latest battle (and I use that word very deliberately) for higher wages is underway in the road freight industry and once again the lines have been drawn, the troops have been mobilised and collateral damage is inevitable.

And this wage strike really is a battle in the true sense of the word - though only, it would seem, from one side. It has already seen working truck drivers attacked, their vehicles stoned or set alight, roads blocked and traffic disrupted and delays in the delivery of cash, fuel and fresh produce (smell much like a blockade to you?). For now there's no end in sight to either the industrial action or the violence, as trade unions including SATAWU and employers deadlock again and again.

SATAWU has maintained throughout this year's strike, as it has in many others before it, that its members are not involved in the ongoing violence, intimidation and damage to property that has characterised them. Some mysterious criminal element or third force is always to blame. If the union is to be believed, this element seems to stalk SATAWU and its mass action, waiting quietly and patiently in the wings, sometimes for years at a time, before rearing its ugly head - and then disappearing just as promptly when the time for striking is over.

Last year, another wage strike among road freight workers followed a disturbingly similar path to the one we're currently watching unfold. Trucks were set alight or stoned, their drivers assaulted, harassed and intimidated. Five years earlier, back in 2006, SATAWU was again the driving force behind a long and violent strike among security guards. That mass action left at least nine people dead, some of them thrown from moving trains and taxis.

History tells us that each time a strike is spearheaded by SATAWU, chances are it will turn violent and workers in the affected industry will lose or be at serious risk of losing their lives. They're not killed, beaten or intimidated before the mass action starts, or after an agreement is reached and the strike comes to an end. The violence can surely therefore only be seen to be directly linked to the industrial action.

Is the criminal element the union is blaming so discerning, so selective, that it only targets strikes led by a handful of organisations? Why is mass action in some sectors able to be conducted in a benign and controlled fashion, unmarred by violence? Are we really to believe that opportunistic criminals who use strikes to mask their own activities and agendas only target a few select unions or industries? Forgive me, but I just don't buy it.

If the 45 people arrested last week for disrupting traffic and causing accidents by hurling stones onto the N12 highway from a passenger bridge are convicted, and it emerges that they are indeed SATAWU members, will the union apologise for misleading the country with its blanket denials? Something in me says no. Will those people be expelled? Perhaps, but I suspect that would happen with little to no fanfare. By its own admission, SATAWU has only ever expelled a few dozen of its members for strike-related violence and intimidation. Surely more people were involved and could have (and should have) been tracked down and disciplined as promised.

The courts have been sending a strong and consistent message about strike-related violence, looting and intimidation. Last week, the Road Freight Employers Association secured a Labour Court interdict against SATAWU and other unions, barring strikers from being violent, carrying weapons, intimidating their non-striking colleagues and disrupting the flow of traffic. Earlier this year, the Constitutional Court upheld a ruling that SATAWU was liable for riot damage in Cape Town during the 2006 strike. In the ruling, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng found that unions "are intimately involved in the planning, supervision, and execution of the gathering, but the potential victims are not. Because of this, the organisations would be in a better position than innocent victims to identify individuals or institutions which caused the damage."

All of this must point to the fact that union members are generally accepted to be behind the incidents of violence that typify their industrial action. Why then, can SATAWU and other unions step up to the plate, acknowledge the problem and deal with it decisively? Why do they insist on trying to pull the wool over our eyes?

Take a stand, Mr. Union Man. Accept that this violence is your problem to solve, and solve it. Take the Chief Justice's advice and identify the people behind the ongoing violence, and then act against them. Don't sit back and allow people to be hurt or killed because you think it will strengthen your message or help you win your fight. Take your members in hand and make sure that next time, you don't have to defend your organisation against accusations of assault and intimidation, simply because there won't be any. Fight the war against criminality and violence - and win.

Camilla Bath is the EWN Deputy News Editor in Johannesburg.