President Jacob Zuma has departed from his tough stance on soldiers belonging to unions, saying they “must belong to some association”.
President Zuma drew laughter and applause from the more than 4 000 delegates at COSATU’S 10th congress, which started On Monday when he said he was afraid unionised soldiers, would try to strike in a time of war.
“What I have a problem with is if you belong to a union with the right to strike and there is a war, the soldiers say the conditions are very bad, we are going on strike. What happens then?” he said.
COSATU opposes the deunionisation of military workers, and some delegates shook their heads when President Zuma initially broached the subject. President Zuma said the Labour Relations Act prohibited soldiers and those in the intelligence services from striking, but added that a commission would be established to look at working conditions in the army.
“I sense with this that we are not very far (from agreement). In fact, this could be a solution to the problem,” he said.
President Zuma said the recent illegal march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which erupted in violence, was “unfortunate”.
He said COSATU was right in wanting to fight for the right of people to belong to unions, but warned against taking mass action too far, saying it should be about “getting the support of the majority”, not losing it.
“Mass action, including strikes in their historical context, was meant to serve as tools to mobilise and influence society broadly to sympathise and join the call.”However, the lawlessness that has accompanied some of the mass action is unacceptable,” he said.
The illegal strike by teachers in Soweto in June, “where the entire Soweto stood up against the strike”, was an example of the public losing sympathy with workers. COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said the federation had heard President Zuma on the army issue, and quipped: “We will discuss that as you commanded.”
COSATU President Sidumo Dlamini told delegates earlier that soldiers’ right of association should not be taken away.
“Let’s rather talk to ensure that there shall never be a necessity for those soldiers to even want to petition the employer,” he said. He said illegal acts or violence to achieve objectives were wrong, “but we say let us allow a situation where we sit down to find a proper solution”.
COSATU also issued a rare reprimand about unruly strike action in its political report, saying such actions were not justified, however angry and frustrated workers might be.
The labour federation said the trashing of the streets by municipal workers in July alienated “the very people whom the unions need on their side – other workers, small business people and the middle class”.
The South African Municipal Workers Union at the time dismissed criticism as “class-based responses”.
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