This is a protest!

This is a protest!

It’s sad really. The US trade unions protesting. I’ve been watching them all over the US lately. Protesting here and protesting there. And they make me want to cry. No! Not the reason for their protests. But the way they protest. It’s sad really.

It always starts with some guy shouting into a mike or loudspeaker. It’s not a pretty sound. You ever watched Apocolypse Now? You know that scene where the two sides are just shooting away at each other with flares going off everywhere? And this guy keeps on shouting through the speakers at the American soldiers. Telling them to give up? Well, that’s what these US trade union “announcers” sound like. The guy from Apocalypse Now used it as a form of torture. And so does the trade union guys. I think it might be banned under the Geneva Convention. They can count their lucky stars that the US doesn’t support the Geneva Convention. Mmm. Makes me think that Dick and Bush should have recorded these trade unionists and used it at Guantanamo? Thank god the trade unions never leaned towards the right. That might have been a bit ugly. The horror… (Those who did watch Apocalypse Now will get the pun…)

Now for another movie scene and the trade unions. You ever seen Midnight Express? The scene where the prisoners all walk in a circle the whole time? Like zombies? Well, there goes the US trade unions. Walking in circles the whole time while protesting. WTF? Is that in some handbook somewhere that I missed? Walk in a little circle and hypnotize the “bosses”? Or is it just part of the regulatory limitations placed on trade union activities in the US? I don’t care what the reason or reasons might be. It’s sad. Really sad. And the worst part is that it turned me into a zombie while I watched them go in a circle over and over again. And again… And again… Yawn… I need a nap. Protest to bore you to death.

And where are the people? You can’t really call ten people a protest. Hell, it isn’t even enough people to make a good old English queue. You need more people to make a statement. Any group of people who number less than a sports team is really just a bunch of buddies hanging out. Not a protest. Hell. My family will protest en mass if you want to call your sorry attempt a protest. And we will have more people than the average US trade union protest. And no screeching speakers either…

Now Souf Afrikans! We know how to protest. We have it in our blood. And in our bones. It’s who we are.

We gather in our thousands. Because it is like a street party! Have fun, bring the kids. Bring something to eat. And drink! It’s like a bring-‘n-braai (potluck).

And we dance. Oh boy, do we dance! Come on! It’s a party right? No party is complete without a bit of a dance.

Okay, it’s not a dance as you know it. It’s a toyi-toyi. And you sh*t yourself if you are on the other side! It’s got rhythm. It’s got song. It’s got chanting. It’s got snappy slogans. Viva! Amandla! Hell yeah! None of this Vietnam guy-on-the-speakers screeching. Nope. Real vibrancy. Real threat. Real protest.

And it’s got beat. Our workers have beat.

And if you face it? You know you’re beat.

You think we will be stopped by some second rate law? Haha! We have our ways and means. We know how to get around it.

Way back in the days when we took to the streets without much of a reason… Anything for a party. Anyway. We have this law in Souf Efrika that says you’re not allowed to have a sit-in. You know, not allowed to take over a building and “sit in”. We went this way and that way. We had to find a way to occupy their buildings. It was the only way to get our point across… And… hum… stop them from doing anything.

Got it! Let’s work on the principle that no one in Souf Efrika knows all 11 of our official languages. And that the boere in charge will only know Afrikaans and maybe a hint of Ingils

We created the Siyalala. WTF? Exactly. That was what we hoped they would think. Wait… Let me tell you a bit about why we were protesting. Apart from the reason to party!

The target was a major clothing retailer in South Africa – Mr Price. Blah blah blah. I won’t bore you with all the details. But it we wanted them to sign a document where they supported an anti customs fraud initiative. But they refused. Why? They didn’t say  but we thought we knew why. We caught a few containers in the Maputo port (Mozambique) that already had the Mr Price tags hanging on them. What’s the problem? The clothes were meant to have “added value” in Souf Efrika for them to get the tax break. Meaning that some of the “value” of the garments must be added in Souf Efrika. Needless to say, but no value was added if the Mr Price tags already hung on the clothes in a foreign port…

So we created the Siyalala to target them and those supporting them – the banks. A Siyalala was another piece of genius from old Ebrahim Patel. Man, I loved working with him and learning from him. He always found a way. And this time it was the Siyalala.

We gave them notice of our protest through something called a Section 77 – the Souf Efrikan notification of mass action. Wait, let me see if I still have that…

I’m back – here it is. Word for word:

____________________________

Annexure 2: Nature of Protest

The Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union intend initiating socio-economic protest action against the Mr Price Group, associated operations and the banking sector in the following ways:

  1. Mass rallies outside any Mr Price Group associated stores and banks in general. These include those situated in malls and stand-alone stores.
  2. Placard demonstrations at targeted retail warehouses, retail company offices, distribution points and any other commercial centre associated with the Mr Price Group, associated operations and banking sector.
  3. Solidarity campaigns aimed at the media, shareholders, employees and any organisation or individual sponsored or in the employment of the Mr Price Group, any of the Mr Price Group associated operations and/or banking sector.
  4. Picketing outside targeted Mr Price Group, associated operations and banking properties or properties linked to any of these companies.
  5. Demonstrations at events sponsored by the Mr Price Group, associated operations and banking sector
  6. Targeted contact with customers of the Mr Price Group, associated operations and banking sector informing them of the reasons for the protest action.
  7. Call for consumer boycotts of the Mr Price Group, associated operations and banking sector through general mass gatherings and protest campaign activities.
  8. Call on financial sector to discontinue supply financial services to the Mr Price Group and it’s associated operations.
  9. Siyalala’s at the Mr Price Group, associated operations and divisions and banks and bank properties during operating hours for the purpose of retarding and/or obstructing work in order to defend the socio-economic interests of workers.

____________________________

Notice hidden in number 9? Highlighted just for you? The Siyalala. The “lie in”.

Yes! If we weren’t allowed to “sit in” then we might just as well “lie in”. And we did! Well, everyone knows you need a good rest after a protest party. And what better way to rest than “lie in” for a little bit? Did I mention that Mr Price also sold pillows and blankets? Aah… Now that is much better. A good old “lie in” after spending much of the day partying protesting outside.

I miss a good protest. Us Souf Efrikans have got the worker beat. I think the unions over here have the workers beat.

Gotta go. It’s late. And I’ve been watching US trade unions protest. Yawn. They tire me out. I’m going for a Siyalala. See ya later.

____________________________

From the Loose Ends files…

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I won’t comment on whether I believe in unions or not. That’s for another time and another debate. And I think my time in the unions might affect my opinion. But I do have a concern about the impact that attitudes towards unions can have on a business – especially a global business.

I don’t know how often I hear US companies say that they don’t need or like trade unions. That it is their business and they will make the decisions. Or that they like to develop a personal relationship that is more like a family. That people working for the company are not workers, but rather partners or associates. ‘Unions are not for us thanks. We look after our workers and believe in the personal relationship between us and our partners’ – standard responses by businesses in the US. And these are good businesses. Not sweatshops or the companies you would put on your black list. No, these are companies I, and most people, admire and like most of the time. Companies we don’t mind supporting or work for. Companies we hold up as leaders in the field of development, environment, stakeholder engagement and everything else you want to throw in the hat. Companies that inspire us. And I just don’t get it.

Yes, unions in the US might not be the friendliest of the bunch – and they have their own reasons. But the world is different the minute you step outside these borders. You might have strong feelings about unions and their role in the US. But they are viewed differently outside these borders.

You run the risk of killing your business if you believe that Europe is a key market and you still believe that trade unions have no role to play in your business. Go to Germany and France and people love their unions. People are proud of being a member and unions have huge influence on communities and politicians. Hey, they even participate on the board in many companies.

In most Scandinavian countries unions are part of official political alliances on national and local levels. They help decide what money goes to what programs and they support union movements all over the globe. The local political leader will most likely be a union leader as well. In these countries unions are seen as key to development and foreign policy. Remember, we are talking about social democracies here.

And political alliances between governments and unions are also common in places like South Africa. Here the largest trade union federation COSATU is also an official ally of the ruling ANC government. In fact, they played a key role in electing Zuma as the new ANC leader over current President Mbeki. They didn’t like Mbeki’s economic policies and selected someone they felt they could control a bit more. And union members are part of the official Ministerial WTO team of negotiators. They are embedded in the government. And South Africa has unionization rates way above 80% just to make things a bit more difficult in case you decide you don’t like them.

Also, why would you want to tell your suppliers that their workers should have freedom of association in places like India, China and Mexico when you don’t want that back home? Yes, unions are mostly limited or controlled (and sometimes hunted) in some of those places, but the principle of freedom of association should be consistent for both you and your suppliers. Your suppliers won’t feel that committed if you don’t walk the talk.

And to make things even more difficult they use a a different language when you leave these borders. It’s not brother and sister anymore – it is comrade. Again – no comment from me whether this is right or wrong – you just have to live with it. And learn to celebrate 1 May as Workers’ Day – a global celebration of workers and their rights, just not in the US.

So, if you decide that you don’t want unions in some of your overseas offices you might just as well close your shop and walk away from the global market. You have to think and act like a global player if you want to play oas a global player. Love them or hate them, but you can’t operate efficiently in these countries without them. Remember that, and you might become trusted and build a loyal workforce – become the ‘comrade boss from the big office’.

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It took me a while to gain the support of everyone at NACTU – being the first white guy ever to work for NACTU wasn’t as easy as what you might think. Back in the 80s NACTU specifically decided not to join COSATU because of the white leadership within the trade union movement that dominated COSATU unions. They decided to go on their own and keep NACTU a black only trade union federation – black consciousness needed this approach early on. So not everyone was celebrating when I was asked to head up NACTU’s negotiations at NEDLAC. But the fact that I was white soon became a secondary issue – and actually counted in our favour.

The majority of business and government people around the table were white – and from older stock. They believed that I had something in common with them at every level, including politics and social interests – just because we shared a skin colour and language. We used this often and effectively. Most negotiations took place during coffee or smoke breaks. And it was easy for me to become part of the group of white guys talking rugby, braaivleis (barbecue) and… well, positions at the negotiating table. They shared information with me that they wouldn’t do with any of my black colleagues. And I took this information back to strengthen our position and develop new tactics – we won more often than not.

This helped me develop a deeper trust within the union movement. How people viewed me changed from being an outsider to being a trusted Comrade. I even got my own nickname – umlungu. Umlungu is an offensive name for a white person. I was literally called white bastard. The reason? Well, in the eye of the white guys I became a white bastard for joining NACTU and not joining their side. And it was an endearing way for NACTU to say that I was their ‘white bastard’. I was on their side and got them info from the real umlungus.

Of course this didn’t work well when in public. Being called umlungu in the streets of Jo’burg didn’t always go down well. Imagine walking downtown in a rough area and where over 90% of the people are be black, and then someone shouting ‘hey, you white bastard!’ Needless to say, we had a few close calls where we had to explain to people what we meant – and that there was no reason to help beat up the white bastard.

It also had a bit of a novelty factor. People wanted to see the umlungu that works for NACTU. And the news travelled far. I was asked to do a short introductory speech to a group of trade unionist in the UK – they were donors so we jumped when they asked us to jump! I spotted a guy sitting at the back staring at me and smiling – I could also spot from a mile away that he was from South Africa. I went to speak to him afterwards and he told me he was on a training trip from COSATU. It was odd, we weren’t from the same federation – so why was he here? He smiled as I asked him and replied – ‘I just wanted to see who this Comrade umlungu was that joined NACTU’. We had a good laugh and shared a few beers.

The nickname stayed, but the colour of my skin became less and less of an issue. To such an extend that no one even noticed it anymore – not even myself. It came back every now and again when someone would be shocked to find out who I worked for – but we got to handle that in our own way. I’ll never forget the first time it happened.

I was having a beer with a good NACTU friend of mine when she noticed two guys from COSATU sitting next to her. She knew them. She leaned over and started chatting to them and asked if they wanted to join us. The standard introductions followed, and when they asked me what I did for a living I responded, without thinking, that I worked for NACTU. You should have seen their faces – clearly shocked that I was white. And without thinking they both responded immediately with ‘but you’re white!’ The response from my friend was priceless – without blinking she immediately reacted by swinging around to me and saying, ‘what, he’s white? An umlungu?’ Her face was one of mock shock – and then she burst out laughing and couldn’t stop laughing. You should have seen their faces. Bewildered doesn’t even start to explain.

I never felt so proud of being a white bastard.

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