Unions at SAA are fighting a losing battle, and it is critical that they step back from their hardline stance if they are to spare workers the pain of a protracted strike that could permanently ground the airline. While there has not been much in the way of public sympathy for the unions, it is unfortunate that ordinary workers are now peering down the barrel due to the disastrous management of the airline over the past decade, and the political stance of some union bosses.

Workers represented by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and the SA Cabin Crew Association downed tools on Friday, demanding an 8% wage increase; SAA offered 5.9%. Unions also opposed plans for the 940-odd retrenchments that management strangely announced in the midst of the wage dispute.

There’s no doubt the airline has to restructure to address its financial woes. To put it bluntly, senior government officials say SAA is already trading recklessly. It has incurred R28bn in cumulative losses in the past 13 years and has already received a R5.5bn cash injection in 2019 to meet its debt obligations.

It requires a further R2bn to continue operating, but there’s little chance any reasonable commercially orientated bank will lend it money. Though talks are ongoing for an equity partner, even this process has proved difficult.

Despite promises of fire and brimstone ahead of the strike, the action seems to have fizzled.

Numsa even resorted to warning commuters that SAA is unsafe to fly after the airline reinstated international routes over the weekend — action slammed as irresponsible by parliament’s portfolio committee on public enterprises and dismissed as untrue by the airline. A key problem for the unions is that many workers who were meant to be on strike arrived for work instead, eliciting a number of appeals from union bosses over the weekend that they hold the line.

Numsa has now threatened a sector-wide aviation strike. A move towards a solidarity strike is a drastic one, but it signals that the localised SAA strike is not putting sufficient pressure on management to accede to union demands. The attempt to bring the entire sector to a halt illustrates how desperate they are. And there’s little chance it will work.

If the uptake from the unions’ own members is floundering, there is little hope that workers from other companies would be willing to join in over the festive season.

But a central problem for unions is that critics have long been pushing for the financial albatross that is SAA to be split up and sold off — or at least take on a private equity partner. And critically, this view now has political support in the ANC.

While unions may have wanted to use the action at SAA as a trial run for a looming battle with Eskom, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan made it clear that the two are vastly different when he told a conference in New York that SAA is "not too big to fail". Eskom, on the other hand, is — and its failure is putting the economy and SA at risk.

Over the weekend, Numsa demanded meetings with Gordhan and finance minister Tito Mboweni. A meeting between Gordhan and unions on Tuesday yielded little result for labour after he referred them back to SAA management for discussions — and made it clear that the government would not bail out SAA. SAA management said on Tuesday it will not ask for a bailout and is pursuing other options.

Unions have to realise, and fast, that the labour dispute is a road to nowhere. Saving the airline will require all parties to sit down, put aside the posturing, and focus on the sustainability of the business.