Trade union defends strikers against ‘trashing’ allegations 1

Announcement from SAMWU:

Trashing : The Good The Bad and the Exaggerated

SAMWU has noted press coverage on trashing and the comments of well known media commentators such as Tim Modise, and others who have used terms like ‘mayhem’ to describe the situation in municipalities where rubbish has been spilled onto the streets.

This union has called on all of its members not to trash, and will continue to do so. We acknowledge that it is unpopular, and can distract attention away from the central and just demands of our pay and conditions campaign.

However, the reaction of the media, and sadly some of our political allies has been misguided, and exaggerated. This press statement is an attempt to put the record straight and we would ask the media to respect its contents and not use it selectively to distort what SAMWU is saying.

There has been some trashing on some of the marches, and there have also been marshalls and leaders asking workers to refrain from this activity. None of this has been reported. In Johannesburg, we witnessed several younger journalists actually giving trash filled bags to members, and then descending like flies to get the perfect photo shoot. This is provocative and unethical journalism and we call upon the media houses to discipline their journalists, and for journalists themselves to stop bringing their profession into disrepute.

Why have the media and some politicians not complemented SAMWU and IMATU for the overwhelming orderliness of the marches that have taken place? Apart from where the police have over-reacted, as acknowledged by many impartial observers, and unnecessarily used rubber bullets to disperse marchers (indicating that apartheid style policing methods are not dead and buried) almost all marches have been very well marshalled and respectful of property and other peoples rights.

Many of our members are invisible to the public. They clean the streets at night, and gather in the trash that the public expects to be taken away, and often at great human cost. Our members do the work that many of the commentators would never dream of doing. Maybe Tim Modise and others should spend just one shift with the City night cleaners and open their eyes to the appalling conditions they have to endure. We collect dead animals and worse on the roadside, we unblock sewers, we fix water pipes in the freezing cold, respond to emergencies and much more besides. And yet the gap between these vital workers and the those who are supposed to manage service delivery is as wide as it was under apartheid. That is the reality. When a street cleaner upturns a rubbish bag, does it not occur to journalists and commentators that this might be an act of defiance, of for one being visible, of not being taken for granted? Part of any industrial action is to make visible what it is that workers do, to force an awareness on the public of the value of these workers, not just as producers of goods, but as human beings who have lives, who have families to support, who have dreams. As a union we do not condone this action, but we at least try and understand it.

We cannot help thinking that the reaction to trashing is a very class based response. In poor communities and the townships our members have been receiving massive public support. We are not surprised that organisations fighting against privatisation, and for service delivery have supported our strike, because they know what it is like not to have regular community cleaning services, or to wait for ever for water and other services. What is it that upsets the commentators? That the streets that they drive through are littered? Have they never been into squatter camps, or places where victims of xenophobia have been dumped?

The very small number of workers who trash are often those involved in street cleaning. They know they will probably have to clean up the mess they are creating, but as long as they remain invisible, undervalued, underpaid and subjected to appalling conditions, they will use whatever means they have to draw attention to their plight. If the news media spent as much time on finding out these facts of ordinary peoples’ lives, instead of using this minority activity to trash SAMWU and its perfectly legitimate right to campaign for a living wage, then they may be actually helping to solve problems rather than create them.

Vast numbers of municipal workers are angry and frustrated. Why are they angry and frustrated? Many of them are “temporary” or “contract workers” who have actually been employed by the municipality for many years, without enjoying any of the benefits of permanent workers. Many of them are labour broker workers, who suffer from poor wages and working conditions, and no job security. Even those workers employed “permanently” by municipalities have faced years of uncertainty caused by restructuring, shifts towards privatisation, increasing wage gaps and inequality between municipal managers and workers, lack of recognition for years of loyal service. Is it any wonder that workers are angry?

We think the media and the public should be outraged not by the sporadic incidents of trashing that have occurred, but the exorbitant and outrageous salaries municipal managers and mayors pay themselves, and which mean that they cannot afford to pay decent wages to the very workers who ensure that these mayors and managers can continue to live in their clean suburbs.

Issued by SAMWU General Secretary Mthandeki Nhlapo

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One thought on “Trade union defends strikers against ‘trashing’ allegations

  • Des Squire

    Are we really expected to accept this form of response?
    Whether there is thrashing, mayhem, intemidation or any other form of action other than peaceful picketing I personally believe it is not to be condoned under any circumstances.
    I do not care if it involves one or 100 individuals, this is not the way to behave in a democratic society and should be condemned outright by union leaders.
    It shows a total lack of respect for others and for the rights of others. Industrial action is legal and the law is quite specific regarding behaviour during industrial action. It is a very sad state of affairs when the CCMA has to step in and lay down the rules as happened yesterday.
    Yes the workers grievances have merit, yes the salaries paid to workers are unacceptable, yes there is inequality in the country and yes municipal managers, government ministers etc are being paid exorbitant salaries. However, none of these issues can be used as an excuse for anti social and undemocratic behaviour.
    If striking workers cannot behave – the strike should be declared illegal and any form of further action declared a criminal offence. It is time we learned that peaceful demonstration is what is required by law and by society.