Dealing with strikes and violence: the toughest job of all

When facing labour unrest, you have to manage the situation carefully. This can be extremely difficult, which is why it’s so important to get professional help to manage the situation, says Peter Hughes.

Dealing with strikes and violence: the toughest job of all
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Early in my quest to qualify as a pilot, my flying instructor shocked me with the warning that it was not a matter of if I’d have to deal with engine failure during my flying career, but when!

I had little trouble thereafter being motivated to practise the sequence of dealing with an engine failure. Thankfully, due to the reliability of modern light aircraft, I never had the need to use it.

The same cannot be said about the violent strike risk for farmers in South Africa.

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You’re on your own
Sundays River Valley was recently affected by strikes, personal threats, and destruction of property and citrus orchards. The actions were timed to cause maximum damage at the start of the season.

Only nine months ago, the riots in KwaZulu-Natal saw trucks carrying perishable produce to the Durban port and local market looted, cane trucks hijacked, farms set alight and sugar mills closed.

These are difficult times in the history of our country for all managers, but perhaps
particularly for those involved in agriculture. It’s not a question of if you’ll face a violent strike, but when, and it will happen when the farm is most vulnerable: at the start of the harvest season.

What’s more, as we saw during the KwaZulu-Natal riots, there is no protection of your people and property other than what you have set up yourself. You’ll be lucky indeed to receive any assistance from the police!

Strikes, and the violence that sometimes accompanies them, can drive the emotions of a manager to boiling point.

If you’ve been close to the action, it’s well-nigh impossible to hold a calm and rational discussion with the representatives of people you know have been behind it. As a result, dealing with strikes and getting relationships and production back on track place huge demands on management.

While it’s not something that can easily be taught, here are some guidelines from a graduate of the ‘school of hard knocks’, learnt from a few, sometimes mismanaged, strikes.

No cowboys!
If you don’t already have a professionally managed security team in place, get one as soon as possible. The leadership of this team needs to be high-quality, mature managers themselves, who know you and your business well and have practical experience of successful protection of property and personnel during strike action.

Get legal help
You cannot handle the complexity of labour law on your own. It’s essential to have a well-established relationship with a professional HR consultant who can guide you, not only in your legal rights, but in assisting you to deal with the strikers.

The objective view
The emotion of the moment inevitably leads to in-house managers using words and taking actions that exacerbate the situation rather than calming it. Involve your HR consultant in the negotiations with the strikers’ representatives; as an outsider, he or she will be less clouded by emotion and able to see the situation more clearly.

Use the courts
One thing that works pretty well in this country, albeit sometimes very slowly, is the courts.
Even if matters never get as far as the courts, the prospect that labour leaders will eventually have to justify their actions in court can help to drive the strike process back onto a legal track.

This requires a well-established relationship with an effective labour lawyer to activate and drive this process.

In good faith
No matter how unreasonable or illogical the strike, no matter how much violence there is, you and your team will have to communicate openly and in good faith.

You’ll have to do so unemotionally and rationally. Forgive and forget, let bygones be bygones and get on with the job. You’ll have to suppress your anger and look to the future, not the past. To deal with it any other way is simply bad management.

Thinking about it now, I’m convinced that the job of a professional pilot, with the certain prospect of having to cope with an engine failure or two during a career, is a less emotional and stressful experience than managing a violent strike on a farm!

Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.