South Africa: Metalworkers’ strike ends but the struggle continues

The strike by metalworkers that began on the 4th of July, ended over the weekend when workers accepted a 3-year contract from the Steel and Engineering Federation of South Africa (SEIFSA). Metalworkers will receive a first year pay rise of 10% effective from July 1 2011. The second year and third year, the workers will receive not less than 8% in each year.

If the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is less than that percentage, the 8% will take hold; if it exceeds 8%, workers will receive 2% above inflation. In relation to previous settlements, this settlement means a 5.9% above inflation wage rise for 2011.

Another victory by the metalworkers was the change in the ambiguous contract language whereby the labour brokers are allowed to deploy workers for only a four-month period. From now on if a worker employed through a labour broker is retained for more than four months, the worker will win a full-time permanent position with the primary employer, with all social benefits included. The agreement also contemplates that all temporary workers will enjoy the same terms and conditions as permanent workers and will be covered by the Collective Main Agreement and not have a “package rate exemption” as is the case now. The employers had wanted to move from the 40-hour working week to 45 hours per week and this was also rejected. The agreement also means a defeat of the attempt by the bosses to introduce a two-tier labour market, with all new entry rate of pay 40% below current wages in the industry and automatic exemption for Small and Medium Enterprises.

On the basis of these points and other benefits won, NUMSA regions across the country voted to put an end to the strike and workers have now returned to work.

Meanwhile, as we reported last week, about 70,000 workers organized by the Chemical, Energy, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union downed tools last Monday, demanding a salary of R6000 a month and a 40 hour working week. CEPPAWAWU members have been on strike since July 11 against scores of employers in the petroleum, pharmaceutical, glass, plastics, industrial chemicals, fast moving consumer goods, pulp, paper and wood products. They were joined by about 6000 members of the independent union, Solidarity, 14,000 members of the South African Chemical Workers’ Union (SACWU), 10,000 members of the General Industrial Workers’ Union of South Africa (GIWUSA), in a strike that has had crippling effects on the supply of fuel across the country, with major players in the petroleum industry unable to move supplies from the country’s fuel depots.

The fuel workers have rejected a minimum 8% wage increase and are pushing for a double digit hike. On Monday employers raised their offer to between 8% and 10% depending on the employment level. The previous offer was between 4% and 7%, while unions were demanding 13% across the board.

Lessons from the ongoing strike

As the strike by almost all COSATU aligned private sector unions continues, there are lessons for the workers, to be learned. The workers have been able to keep up the strike in spite of the reactionary policy of “no work, no pay”. In view of the recent economic meltdown that has affected most developing countries, one could have expected less involvement by workers who receive too little, yet face sky rocketing food prices. However, even in the middle of massive and growing unemployment, workers heeded the call to strike and were reluctant to accept the offers from the employers, even when the employer had already made important compromises. This shows the true power of the working class and the confidence it has in its ability to strike.

However, the victory was partial, and more could have been achieved if there had been better coordination between the different sectors involved in the strike wave. COSATU should use this moment to call for drastic economic changes and the total expropriation of capital.

As we said in the previous article “This mood must be used as united force to undermine the growing arrogance of established capital. These striking workers must build up on the momentum that has been gained in the past decade, and call for a general public sector strike that will be linked with the ongoing strikes.” There must be a link between political struggles for the delivery of services and the narrowing of the wage gap and better working conditions. The victory by NUMSA is but a tip of an iceberg and they can be easily undermined by capital entrenched within the state.

The statement by the NUMSA leadership explaining the reasons for the settlement makes this clear and warns of the forthcoming COSATU Living Wage Campaign with a wide range of demands including: the banning of labour brokers, a national minimum wage, the regulation of executive pay and the disclosure of profits by companies, decent housing, healthcare and education for all, etc. Most important is the demand to scrap the property clause which was included in the Constitution as part of the negotiations to end apartheid. This goes to the heart of the matter, because the only way to fulfil all the demands that are being made would be through a programme of nationalisation of the means of production (mines, monopoly companies and multinationals) as enshrined in the Freedom Charter.

As NUMSA general secretary Irvin Jim has said in the past: “Political power without economic power is a shell. There must be a sense of urgency and political will to begin to say something has to be done to change the structure of accumulation in South Africa, which benefit a tiny minority and maybe few black individuals who are part of that particular discourse," and he added that “unless the government puts nationalisation at the centre of its policy, service delivery will remain a pipe dream for the poor.” This is correct and it shows how economic and social demands are closely linked to the struggle against capitalism.

The unions that are still striking must maintain the momentum that has been gained until a genuine victory is attained.

COSATU should prepare a general strike that would involve both the general public and the workers. Such an action is the only way to bring about drastic economic changes and the only way to force the ANC government to change its policies in the interest of those who elected it. South African workers have shown once again their willingness to struggle, the question is, will their leadership be up to the task?