‘Mother of all strikes’ threatened at SAA

Image: Sunday Times


Unions at embattled state-owned airline SAA, which has announced its intention to cut 944 jobs to bring costs under control, have vowed to press ahead with “the mother of all strikes”.

The retrenchment announcement, which would affect 20% of SAA’s 5‚146 employees, came as the three largest unions at the airline secured strike certificates and were balloting members to protest over wages.

SAA managers, who are in their own bargaining unit, have also obtained clearance for industrial action.

City Press reported on its website on Tuesday afternoon that according to a joint statement by two of the unions, “the mother of all strikes” was on the cards at the airline.

Should the threatened strike go ahead, SAA would be grounded as managers, customer service agents and cabin crew down tools.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and the South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca) have described Monday’s retrenchment announcement as a veiled threat designed to make workers drop their wage-increase demands.

The unions on Tuesday condemned the airline for revealing its intention to restructure and retrench workers through a media statement, questioning acting group CEO Zuks Ramasia’s assertion that SAA  had commenced a consultation process with staff in line with section 189 of the Labour Relations Act.

“We can state categorically for the record that no such consultation process ever took place‚” the unions said.

“We were informed through a media statement of their intentions.

“We have been engaging with SAA management on wage talks and the last meeting took place on Monday.”

The unions said their demands were on the table‚ but claimed the airline was unwilling to consider them‚  saying it did not have the funds.

“Pilots at SAA recently received a 5.9% wage increase because of an agreement they have signed with SAA.

“But our demands for an increase for 8% have been denied.”

The unions said this was why they were questioning the timing of SAA’s announcement.

“It is a veiled threat to get workers to drop their demands for wage increases and for the removal of the SAA board.

“They want to strike fear into the hearts of our members. We condemn the management with the contempt they deserve.”

National Transport Movement president  Mashudu Raphetha told  Radio 702 on Monday evening that it was time to unite with sister unions, because the airline had decided to abandon ordinary workers.

“We anticipated that they will be bringing this retrenchment notice,” he said.

“We know that it is a ploy to scare our members. SAA has increased salaries for pilots and decided to abandon the ordinary workers,” he said.

The union has rejected a wage offer, which it said was subject to a cash injection by government.

“We are engaging in a ballot on Wednesday and we will also be engaging with our sister unions ... to also join.

“It’s time now to unite ... The company is not reasonable, it is not listening to us ...

“If they continue bringing tactics like this then our members will push us towards ensuring that we have a total shutdown of SAA.”

The unprofitable airline continues to burn R500m a month despite the efforts of its new management and directors to turn it around.

The government hopes to fix SAA to attract a strategic equity partner, but wants to get it on a secure financial footing first.

Ramasia said that despite recent substantial capital injections from the government, the airline’s balance sheet remained weak.

“Our continued losses and reliance on government guarantees to borrow money from lenders, have increased the interest costs, which impacts the operating cost of the business.

“We urgently need to address our ongoing loss-making position,” she said.

CFO Deon Fredericks said in an interview  with Business Day on Monday that the company had to contain its costs to access further funding needed for working capital.

The National Treasury has provided a large bailout — R5.5bn from the government’s contingency reserve as well as an undertaking to repay R9.2bn of debt — but it would not be enough to fund operations, he said.

The restructuring of SAA has always been a pillar of the turnaround strategy, which includes cutting routes; swapping to more cost-effective aircraft; and enhancing revenue, Fredericks said.   — TimesLIVE, with  additional reporting by BusinessLIVE 


Image: Sunday Times