'No chicken, serious beef': Unions blame 'incompetent' SAA execs for airline's woes

"This is no chicken, this is serious beef."

This was one of the posters at a small but growing picket at Cape Town International Airport’s cargo section on Friday morning, as unions started an indefinite strike after wage negotiations deadlocked on Thursday. 

The picket, held near the entrance to the cargo section, was monitored by a small police contingent. Passing motorists and truck drivers hooted in support, as they kept up singing and toyi-toying.

A union official denied that SAA had upped its wage offer. “There is no such [offer],” said Sakhumzi Mbenge, the national chairperson of the aviation sector at National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.

On Friday morning Numsa and the South African Cabin Crew Association started what they had warned would be the "mother of all strikes"  in an attempt to get SAA leadership to up its wage increase offer from 5.9% to 8% and insource employees. The airline, which is technically insolvent, says it is sticking to its 5.9% offer and has warned there may be 'no recovery' from the industrial action. 

On Friday morning terminal buildings were quiet, with all traffic apart from SAA continuing as normal. SAA counters were staffed, but not open.

"All flights are cancelled," said one person on inquiry.

Numsa Cape Town shop steward and customer service agent, Zola Batatu, said SAA, not the union, would be to blame for any monetary losses due to the strike.

"They are the ones to blame. [It is] not the strike [that] made the flights not take off, the company itself decided to cancel all flights from yesterday already.

“There were no flights that were going to take off today,” he said. "Which means, if SAA is losing money [it is] not the workers to be blamed, but the management who cancelled the flights."

South African Cabin Crew Association representative, and cabin crew member Sonia Eitz, said everytime SAA wants to save money "they take from the pilots, the cabin crew and the passengers".

"We have been voted the best crew in Africa for 17 years despite all the troubles and yet they still won't give us basic increases,"

Eitz said that while ground staff, technical services and cabin crew were not responsible for the airline's problems, they are the ones who suffer.

"Not one red cent" has been recovered from anybody accused of financial impropriety, she said. 

She noted that the company was also paying R20m to a restructuring specialist, but could not afford to give staff proper increases.

Luvo Makhohliso, her colleague in flight services, who also belongs to Sacca, said his job is to make people smile.

"We try to do our work, but it is sad to see what we are worth. Whenever we speak increases, it comes to this."

Numsa regional secretary, Vuyo Lufele, said the union is concerned about the possibility of the carrier closing down, but also feels the risk is being used to take advantage of workers.

"Even if we don't go on strike, this entity is on the verge of collapsing simply because of incompetence and mismanagement."

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