The similarities between Covid-19 Lockdowns & Extended Strikes in SA

The similarities between Covid-19 Lockdowns & Extended Strikes in SA

Image: The Wall Street Journal

By Chris Jacobs, OIM International, Director & ER Specialist

Having been involved with industrial conflict resolution for 28 years, I couldn’t but see some similarities in the effect that the current Covid-19 lockdown & what extended strikes in this country have over a period of time. I’ve experienced some of the more prominent & extended strikes first-hand, & in other cases, I was actively involved in the rebuilding of relationships afterwards. Though the circumstances that lead to those occurrences & the Covid-19 lockdown are vastly different, the impact on people’s psyche are similar. When looking at some of these strikes the following lessons learnt comes to mind:

The longer the strike or lockdown period, the more negatively it will impact people’s mindsets & therefore, overall behaviour resulting in individuals who:

  • Become generally negative in all areas of their life, not just work or homelife only;
  • Display an increased level of despondency;
  • Health & safety becomes a secondary focus & individuals are willing to participate in risky behaviour & even “mob behaviour”;
  • Mere survival & providing basic food, shelter & clothing becomes the primary focus, sometimes at the cost of everything else around them.

Extended strikes & lockdowns force individuals into different groups: those who want to work & those who don’t; those who still earn a salary & those who if aren’t working, aren’t earning a salary or wage. This natural splitting of individuals into these groups causes some major issues; not only during the lockdown or strike, but once it has ended. The “Them and Us” syndrome becomes very distinct, allowing for wounds & hurt caused during the strike or lockdown to remain, serving as a major stumbling block.

Depending on which group you find yourself in, it becomes easy to view the other, as the enemy, eg: Strikers vs Management, Trade Union or Business, Public vs Government.

  • If you treat employees or individuals with disrespect & denote their dignity, they will return the behaviour;
  • If your security at your premises during a strike; or during lockdown, the military & police treat employees & individuals unjustly & beyond the parameters of their duty, individuals will then treat them with disdain & view them as the “dogs of management”;
  • If management or Government position or sanction the security or law enforcement beyond their scope, management & Government will undermine the authority & the legitimacy of these responsible to keep law & order;
  • If your picketing rules or lockdown restrictions are unjust or enforced in an unjust manner, you invite retaliation, or it is viewed as a source of provocation;
  • Don’t paint & treat Shop Stewards or Civil Society as the prime evil – these are the leaders of their members / constituency & communities. Unjust treatment creates martyrs & the profile of such martyrs sometimes grow out of proportion;
  • When the position of management & Government is undermined, it creates long term legitimacy problems for businesses & individuals alike.

Extended strikes or lockdown periods lead to a hardening of attitudes on both sides, often with rational thinking & rational behaviour going out the window, with both sides adopting a “we’ll show you” attitude, where ‘Win-Lose’ becomes the focus rather than ‘Win-Win’. The opportunity to find a solution based on common ground becomes less possible & often leads to violence because of this hardened attitude.

The way a business or Government treats employees & the public during the strike or lockdown will have a bearing on the relationships beyond the restart of work or the end of the lockdown.

Any disciplinary action taken during & after the strike or lockdown should uphold the human rights of the individual. The punishment must fit the offence – the action you take should be in relation to the offence. It must be fair & just.

Extended strikes & the continued Covid-19 lockdowns can lead to a major breakdown in trust & communication. Effective communication becomes a major challenge & sometimes even the truth can be disregarded because of the source, leading to hearsay & rumours becoming the new truth. Businesses & Government need to be open & honest, ensuring that they do not take their employees or the pubic as fools or undermine their dignity by over- or underplaying the realities. Neither should they withhold information because it is regarded as “too sensitive”, especially when it relates to economic realities which plays an important role in employees & the public making good quality decisions on matters impacting on their future job security & economic well-being. Both business & Government should never give dubious information or go back on their word (speak with forked tongue).

Providing direction requires responsible & decisive leadership – the difference between being a postman delivering messages & taking definitive decisions, often diffuses situations that may lead to an increase in frustration & consequent irrational behaviour. It is imperative to create a vision for the future state beyond the strike – not communicating a positive and clear message creates the impression of a “lame duck management”

It is often the game changer determining the willingness of employees & public to support it, make sacrifices & work hard at making it work to save the business & economy.

During these times, both business & Government should pro-actively be focusing on the long-term goals & behaviours. Having a well-defined strategy, sharing it effectively & focussing on these aspects, in no uncertain terms, are critical to mobilise people & communities during & beyond challenging times or a crisis.


Director & ER Specialist