JOHANNESBURG — Striking South African airline workers returned to work this week and promised to pursue wage talks in a further sign of waning union militancy amid job fears that have eased the strike threat to Africa's biggest economy.
With the unemployment rate stuck at about 25 percent for years and poverty gripping millions, many South Africans have said they are more concerned with securing a paycheck for themselves than heeding the strike calls of union bosses.
Still, a labor turf war in the mining sector retains the potential to destabilize the economy and bedevil President Jacob Zuma's African National Congress (ANC) party as it moves towards elections next year.
Apart from the airline walkout, two other strikes — by construction workers and gas station attendants — have had scant effect with many workers refusing to heed union demands to down tools and many building sites still hives of activity.
"No one is paying too much attention to the strike. If we stay away, we don't get paid and we need the money," said Elias Baloyi, 33, a construction worker in Johannesburg's Sandton financial district.
Even though South Africa is one of the most strike-prone countries in the world, this year's relatively peaceful wage talks suggest unions that once dominated their sectors may have lost a bit of their clout, analysts said.
About 1,300 technical workers with transport union SATAWU were back at their posts with national carrier South African Airways (SAA), ending a walkout that started on Aug. 26, a union official said on Tuesday.
The union had been seeking 12 percent wage increases, about double the inflation rate and double the employer's offer. SAA said the strike had almost no impact on its operations.
"We felt that we were doing injustice to our members by staying outside too long because the principle of 'no work, no pay' still applies," said SATAWU's Matthew Ramosi.
Workers in the car manufacturing and gold mining industries also returned to work over the past week after strikes that halted operations at some of the country's biggest producers were resolved on Sunday.
Labor has been at the heart of the post-apartheid structure with the largest umbrella labor federation COSATU in a governing alliance with the ANC forged in the common struggle against the white-minority rule that ended in 1994.
But many workers feel that alliance has lost its focus on shop floor issues and become more about securing votes for the ANC.
SATAWU and other established COSATU labor groups have hemorrhaged tens of thousands of members since 2012 to rival unions billing themselves as being better in tune with the concerns of the rank and file in the face of an economy that has been shedding mining and manufacturing jobs.
"The reality is that workers in dire economic circumstances begin to get a sense of relative deprivation and start exploring other avenues to improve their lot, particularly when their union is ineffectual," labor analyst Sakhela Buhlungu wrote in the Sunday Independent newspaper.
None of the recent strikes were marred by the violence of last year's labor unrest in the platinum belt, triggered by a union turf battle that left more than 50 people dead, including 34 shot dead by police at Lonmin's Marikana mine.
South Africa averaged 7 million working days lost per year due to strikes from 2007 to 2011, according to the Department of Labor. Andrew Levy, a consultancy that also tracks days lost to strikes, says about 2 million days of work have been lost to strikes so far this year, compared with 3.5 million in 2012.
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