After a meeting on Thursday afternoon, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Cabin Crew Association rejected the latest offer by South African Airways.
The strike called by the two unions, and their 3 000 members at SAA and SAA Technical went ahead on Friday morning at 4am.
SAA on Thursday evening asked passengers who had been booked to travel on all its domestic, regional and international flights on Friday and Saturday not to turn up at airports, but instead to follow the airline's travel policy to exercise their rights following the cancellation of flights because of industrial action.
Only flights operated by South African Airways will be affected, the airline said earlier in the day. All flights operated on partner airlines, including SA Express, Mango, SA Airlink and all codeshare partners, including flights operated by its Star Alliance partner airlines, will not be affected.
In a joint statement the two unions said the strike would be indefinite. The unions had announced on Wednesday afternoon that, if demands were not met, they would launch the "mother of all strikes".
According to the unions, SAA is offering a 5.9% wage increase to be paid in March 2020, with back pay to be paid in instalments beginning April 1, 2020. They have rejected the offer in favour of a 8% wage increase across the board to be paid on December 13, 2019, and 50% of the back pay to be paid with the increase on the same day. The unions want the remainder of the back pay to be paid on January 27, 2020.
NUMSA and SACCA also want immediate insourcing of certain services and the cancelling of outsourcing contracts which the unions claim are "bleeding SAA dry".
"Our demands are not just for a wage increase. In 2015 we were told SAA is in a crisis and workers had to be retrenched. Those workers were retrenched, but nothing was done about the airline's procurement space, which affects (its finances). If the management of this airline is genuine, they will deal with the insourcing issue immediately," NUMSA and SACCA said at a briefing on Thursday afternoon.
According to the two unions, SAA is willing to lose R50m a day by cancelling flights on Friday and Saturday, when in the view of the unions, that R100m is what it would cost the airline to comply with the unions' wage demand over a year period.
The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) in the meantime, announced on Thursday that it will approach the Labour Court to seek an urgent interdict against SAA's "bid to retrench almost one thousand workers".
SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali said on Thursday evening that, although the meeting earlier with the unions did not yield any favourable outcome, the airline is "encouraged by willingness on the part of the unions to continue to meet to find a resolution".
"We are exploring yet another avenue and have approached the CCMA to request a mediation in terms of the Labour Relations Act. A senior commissioner has been identified to facilitate the process. The process is voluntary and we now await indication from the unions as to whether they will participate or not," said Tlali.
The struggling state-owned airline has scrapped all domestic, regional, and international flights on Friday and Saturday, with the exception of a few international flights.
Fin24 reported earlier on Thursday that SAA had made a new offer to the unions in a bid to avert the looming strike. The two unions want a wage increase of 8% across-the-board, job security for at least three years, and the in-sourcing of certain services like security and cleaning.
SAA announced on Monday that it is embarking on a restructuring process which may affect 944 jobs - almost a fifth of its employees. The restructuring excludes SAA subsidiaries SAA Technical, Mango Airlines and Air Chefs.
SAA said late on Wednesday afternoon to any strike may endanger the future of the airline and threaten jobs. The group's acting CEO Zuks Ramasia said the airline had offered the unions a 5.9% salary increase subject to the availability of funds.
"We have made repeated overtures to the unions to acknowledge the severity of the situation in which we find ourselves in and to work hand in hand with us to try and avert a worsening situation," said Ramasia in a statement.
"The strike is going to exacerbate rather than ameliorate our problem, and will result in a set of circumstances from which there may well be no recovery."