When you think of the steel industry, your thoughts about it probably include an image of burly men pulling steel plate in and out a Dickensian mill, and of those same burly men going on strike for improvement of their conditions. We probably also think of the strike-ridden 1970s in the pre-Thatcher era where the unions ruled the roost and any disagreement led to a walkout.

Funny enough I’ve only experienced strikes twice in all of my working life, and even then they were minor affairs.

The first time was in South Africa where Iscor Vanderbijlpark’s black workers went on strike for reasons unknown to me. It actually happened mostly when I was on holiday and out of the country, although I knew beforehand that a strike was afoot. By the time I was back the strike was nearly over, and again I can’t remember whether it led to any resolution of grievances.

However, what struck me most was the behaviour of the white workers: you couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic strike breaker than the mostly Afrikaner workforce. Plans were made to fill any (black) position and job that was deemed necessary from other (white) jobs that could temporarily be left undone or downgraded. I remember my boss actually hand scarfing hot slabs while standing on them wearing wooden clogs. Very much an incentive to minimise the implementation of the standards on hand scarfing that he himself had issued.

The other time was last year when Tata Steel wanted to convert the defined benefits pension scheme to a defined contribution scheme. There were mutinous rumblings about working to rule or worse, but at the time I was going on holiday, and by the time I came back, all was resolved: the company had modified its proposals so that the pension scheme remained a defined benefits scheme, albeit with modified terms and conditions. I wonder whether the unions would have been more willing to settle for the original deal if they had known that less than a year later they would be up for sale.

So in all, I hardly have experienced what it feels like to go into work or have to stay at home during strikes, since (1) I never experienced a major strike; (2) I was out of the country for most of the time strikes were taking place; and (3) the aftermath of the strikes did not affect working conditions for myself in subsequent months or years.


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