On Tuesday, 1 July, hundreds of thousands of metalworkers went out on strike in the engineering and metals sectors, bringing the industry to a complete standstill. The strike involves small, medium and large companies, with more than 220,000 workers at about 10,500 workplaces. Some of the big companies that are affected includes Bell Equipment, Dorbyl, Murray and Roberts, Scaw Metals and Reunert.
This is an important strike because of the prominence of the sector which supplies goods and services to all major manufacturing industries such as the important automotive industry. The strike affects producers of iron, steel, durable consumer goods and plastics. If the strike is prolonged, it will have a knock-on effect throughout the manufacturing industry.
It will also have a much bigger impact than the recently concluded platinum mining strike. In the platinum industry, the bosses managed to stockpile a reported 5 million ounces of platinum which allowed them to hold out for months. The metals and engineering industry work on a “just-in-time” basis, meaning that a prolonged strike will hit the bosses immediately in their pockets. Also, this strike is more than three times as big as the platinum strike. Therefore it will have an immediate impact. In fact, many “downstream” manufactures in the Eastern Cape were forced to shut down on the first day of the strike after the metals sector were brought to a complete halt.
The unions, including the biggest union in the sector NUMSA, are demanding a 12 percent wage increase and a one-year bargaining agreement. NUMSA also demands the banning of labour brokers from the industry, the removal of short-time and layoff clauses from contracts and the extension and scope of the agreement to cover all workers.
The bosses have offered a three-year wage settlement offer of between 7 percent and 8 percent – which is only marginally above inflation which stands just below 7 percent – for different levels of workers in the first year and inflation +1 percent increases for the next two years. In effect this will mean stagnation or a fall in real wages as Inflation figures do not take account of the fact that workers spend more of their money on consumer goods the prices of which are going up faster than other goods such as industrial and luxury goods.
“There will be no settlement whatsoever unless a double-digit increase is achieved,” said NUMSA’s president, Andrew Chirwa. Significantly, NUMSA has also called directly on all workers, working class communities and other working class organisations to show solidarity with its members. This is very important because the bosses are much more likely to cave in when confronted with a united working class under these circumstances.
This call was successful because it struck a chord with thousands of workers who have been radicalised over the past period. Thus, many unions, including their right-wing leaders, came under pressure from the ranks to express solidarity with the metal workers. For instance, the National Union of Mineworkers, whose leadership forms the right wing of the COSATU trade union federation – with NUMSA forming the core of its left wing – issued a statement, saying: “The NUM support NUMSA in their fight to close the apartheid wage gap, fighting for equity in the workplace, and demanding a living wage… It is important for the working class to continue fighting for better salaries and better working conditions.”
COSATU itself has issued a statement describing NUMSA’s demands as reasonable and called on its affiliates to back the strike. “We agree with NUMSA’s determination that they are not going to be intimidated by all those who represent the class interest of business and big capital” says the COSATU statement.
Although the strike is nationwide, its biggest impact is in the Eastern Cape Province which is where some of the biggest industries in the sector are located. Other parts of the country being affected include the Western Cape, Kwazulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces.
In Gauteng, downtown Johannesburg was brought to a standstill on Tuesday as thousands of workers took to the streets. The march was led by NUMSA president Andrew Chirwa and COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. The march began at the famous Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown and then proceeded to the offices of the industry’s bargaining chamber.
In Durban, the march was led by NUMSA General Secretary Irvin Jim. He immediately launched a scathing attack on the bosses: “When the economy is bad, bosses make money; when it is good, bosses make money… What NUMSA is demanding is not difficult… what this country needs is the full implementation of the freedom charter! This is the beginning of an indefinite strike and only employers can put an end to it. As metalworkers we are the majority. We shall not be defeated.”
In the Eastern Cape there were two massive marches in East London and Port Elizabeth. In Port Elizabeth, the march was led by NUMSA National treasurer Mphumzi Maqungo who said that NUMSA would mobilise the entire membership in a secondary strike in support of the engineering workers. In Cape Town, the march was be led by NUMSA deputy general secretary Karl Cloete who said that the elite have benefited from democratic dispensation, while many workers still receive poverty wages. The march took place in rainy weather. Despite this it did not deter thousands who attended the strike.
NUMSA also decided to embark on a day of protests and marches on Wednesday 2 July over its wage deadlock with the power utility, Eskom. This also includes a picket at the company’s headquarters. The state-owned company is the supplier of nearly all of South Africa’s electricity demands. This protest action is significant because ESKOM is categorized as an “essential service” provider according to the labour laws which means that workers are not allowed to strike.
This has meant that the company has hidden behind this law in the past to offer ridiculous wage increases in the past. NUMSA, which represents 10,000 of the 40,000 workers at ESKOM, is now threatening to turn the mass picket into a wildcat strike if an agreement is not found. “We are not intimidated by threats of the illegality of our actions in ESKOM or threats of dismissals,” NUMSA’s Karl Cloete said.
The union has demanded a 12% across the board increase from Eskom in a one-year agreement. Eskom has offered 5.6%. If the strike commences at ESKOM it will delay the completion of two huge coal-fire power stations.
The strike has been preceded by a hysterical campaign in the media about the amount of damage it can cause the economy. “Analysts” continues to warn that the effect on iron and steel production could push the economy into a second successive quarter of contraction.
The government has responded to these calls by trying to influence NUMSA to call off the strike. Reuters quoted the new Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi as saying that the government would talk to “all sides” to prevent the strike which would “further weaken the country’s economy.”
“We are going to support all the affected parties to make sure this strike does not take place,” the minister said. Unfortunately for the minister, the strike is taking place. The Minister of of Labour held a last-ditch meeting on Monday night with the employers and NUMSA in an effort to stop the strike, but to no avail.
A leading business organisation, Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) said: “Our country is at a T-junction and ongoing disruptions to the economy will take us to a precipice.”
Another Bosses’ organisation, the South African Chamber of Commerce and industry (SACCI) said: “If NUMSA is truly committed to cooperation with government and business to work towards a more prosperous South Africa, then it should return to the negotiating table and not put South Africa’s economic stability at risk. This is especially pertinent given the severe economic impact of the prolonged platinum strike.”
NEASA, an employers’ association in the engineering bargaining chamber shares SACCI’s sentiment. Its chief executive, Gerhard Papenfus said: ”a strike at this stage, when we haven’t even attempted to constructively address the critical issues, is premature and irresponsible.”
This is a straight lie. Negotiations have been ongoing for months. Usually NUMSA gives itself three rounds of negotiations to conclude an agreement. This time, the union has embarked on an additional two rounds of negotiations before declaring a dispute. So, it is not true that unions and workers are ready to go on strike “‘prematurely”. In that time the union has moderated its demands twice, from 20 percent to 15 percent and finally to 12 percent, while the bosses had hardly moved from their original offer. In fact Karl Cloete’s comments today have only been calling for a double digit agreement narrowing the gap to the bosses’ 8 percent offer to only 2 percent.
Thus, seeing that the difference between the demands of the bosses and the union leaders is so narrow, it is unlikely that the strike will last too long. At the same time the metal industry in South Africa is more vulnerable to disruptions, which is another incentive for the bosses to settle.
Another reason is the strength of the union. NUMSA is the biggest union in the industry by far. It represents the majority of workers in this specific sector and the majority of metalworkers in other sectors such as the automobile industry. It is also the country’s biggest union. Recent reports suggest that it may have as many as 349,000 members. This growth is partly due to the expansion of the metals industry in the last period. But this is only part of the reason. The biggest reason for the growth is that NUMSA is also a pole of attraction for many workers who see it as a militant union. However, exactly for this reason the bourgeoisie is also determined to crush the movement in order to secure their profits and send a signal across the working class.
In fact, the bosses tried to take on the union when the industry’s largest employer body, the Seifsa responded to the strike notice last week by issuing all its workers with a lockout notice. This means that those workers, even non-striking ones, were to be locked out for the duration of the strike. This notice was served on all unions last Friday. On Monday, a day before the commencement of the strike, Seifsa withdrew its lockout notice to Solidarity, a conservative union representing skilled workers from the apartheid era which would not have struck anyway.
However, in an attempt to undermine the unions, it badly miscalculated. Immediately after the lockout notice was issued, reports came out of concern among the employers, some of which did not agree with the tactic.
It is clear that some parts of the bourgeoisie are looking for a way to take on the working class in a major battle. Over the past period the workers’ movement has become bolder and more radicalised drawing in millions of workers in strikes and protests. From the perspective of the bourgeois this has been very damaging, not only due to the loss of profit due to wage rises, but also due to constant disruptions of the economy. Thus a section of the bourgeoisie has been seeking a head on clash with the movement.
This was the driving factor behind the bosses’ offensive during the platinum workers’ strike which lasted for 5 months. However, as was shown during that strike, the balance of forces at the moment is firmly on the side of the working class, which despite many mistakes on the part of its leadership, came out of that strike having won several concessions from the bosses.
This means that the bourgeoisie is divided between those who want to go on the offensive against the metalworkers and those who feel that the lockout is premature and will only strengthen the strike and the resolve of the workers.
In fact the latter group are right. The lockout notice was not seen by the unions as a serious threat. This view was confirmed when NUMSA welcomed the lockout. General secretary Irvin Jim said they “always smile” now that the bosses have unilaterally shut down the industry.
Expropriate the Capitalists!
The bourgeois media has also continuously referred to the platinum strike, claiming that on the back of that strike, wage increases in the metals industry are not affordable. However, they never mention how the bosses in the platinum strike rewarded themselves with astronomical pay-packets in the middle of the dispute.
This is the essence of capitalism. It is a system for profits in which the capitalists attempt to hold down the wages to the absolute minimum in order to maximize profits for themselves.
In a response to the bosses, NUMSA’s national executive committee said in a statement: “It has never been in our agenda to call a strike; this strike has been imposed on us. Our agenda is to use the strike as part of a tactic to exert organisational pressure on the bosses to return to the table and present an offer acceptable to our members.”
This was reiterated by Karl Cloete, NUMSA’s deputy general secretary when he said: “This was not an easy decision, but a painful one, since the principle of ‘no work-no pay’ will be held by the greedy bosses.”
The capitalists are attempting to put the failures of their system on the shoulders of workers. If the country is at a “T-junction” as Business Unity South Africa claim, it is the T-junction of capitalism. The growing number of strikes taking place is a reflection of the rising anger among working people who are fighting back against a system that cannot provide them with improved living standards. Workers are learning through their own experience that the decaying capitalist system can only provide unemployment, poverty and increasing inequality.
There is only one solution to the crisis of capitalism and that is to break the boundaries of the system. This means implementing the nationalisation clause of the Freedom Charter and thus to expropriate the capitalists who, in their hunt for profit, are holding the whole nation as hostages. Only by nationalising the commanding heights of the economy under workers’ control and management, can the productive capacity of the working class be used to develop the economy to eliminate the problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality.