South African metalworkers strike while the iron is hot

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) went on strike action on Monday, following a breakdown in negotiations at the end of June. NUMSA would not budge on its demand for a 13% increase across the board, better working conditions and a total ban of labour brokers.

The initial percentage hike stood at 20% before negotiations and dropped to 13% during negotiations compared to the 7% offered by the Steel Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (SEIFSA). The strike started after the Labour court dismissed an application by the Plastic converters’ association, for an interdict to stop the strike.

Workers wrapped in blankets, and many of them in Red NUMSA T-shirts, braved the cold weather and marched across the four major cities, namely Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban. NUMSA which represents about 120,000 workers is being joined by 5 other unions representing more than 50,000 workers. The Chemical Energy, Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union (CEPPAWAWU), United Association of SA, Solidarity, South African Equity workers’ Association and the Metal and Electrical workers’ Union, infamous for occupying a factory last year, have all joined the strike, bringing the number of striking workers to a crippling 170,000. The Automotive and construction sectors are expected to be affected as well as many engineering firms.

In its demands, NUMSA is calling for an across the board 13% wage increase for all workers from July for two years, better general working conditions and a ban on labour brokers. The general agreement across all workers is that they are exploited by an industry that contributes millions to the pockets of industry captains each year, while workers receive peanuts. This is worsened by the existence of labour brokers that directly employ more than 900,000 workers. The construction and manufacturing industries account for about 18.3% of total GDP, yet an average worker earns between R18 and R30 an hour, that is between $2 and $4 an hour approximately.

The call for a total ban of labour brokers gained momentum when it was included in the official demands by the striking workers. This call has increased since the beginning of President Jacob Zuma’s administration, with COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) being the main proponent of such.

In his address to the striking workers, COSATU’s General Secretary had this to say:

“In 2011 we are going to need all of your energy and unity. We are going to have the mother of all battles to improve your working conditions. All workers employed by these slave labour brokers must be set free.

“They are nothing but enslavers, they won’t last. It’s going to be a long winter.”

The call for improved working conditions included the equal opportunities for all workers, compulsory medical aid and testing for illnesses, to be paid by employers, and better notification of changes in technology that might affect  employment.

It must be remembered that metalworkers last year entered into a crippling strike that left South African motorists without fuel and led to the closure of a number of car manufacturing plants across South Africa for weeks. The automotive sector was brought to its knees by workers who refused to succumb to threats of “no work, no pay” by the employers and endorsed by the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC).

While the strike was at its peak, the workers further held a demonstration at the US embassy offices in Pretoria, Gauteng, against the occupation of Libya by NATO forces. The workers have shown a high level of consciousness that is enough to bring about systematic changes, not only in their work places.

“It is time now that we decisively put capital on the back foot and undermine its growing arrogance and hold on the lives ordinary South Africans” the SACP said in a statement.

In a country where the services sector contributes 78.5% to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the South African automotive industry accounts for about 10% of South Africa's manufacturing exports, contributing 7.5% to the country's GDP, and employs around 36,000 people. The Metalworkers’ Union must call for the nationalisation of this sector.

The SACP, as the vanguard of the working class, must also come up with a clear programme to interlink economic struggles waged by COSATU and its affiliates with the broader political struggle for a socialist South Africa. The workers’ strikes must also be interlinked with the political struggle waged by the militant youth who constantly protest for better delivery of services in the townships and rural areas. The SACP programme must include the occupation and ultimately nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, including the construction and engineering sectors.

Beginning of major strikes

The annual wage negotiation season is underway and there are already signs of possible major strikes in the public sector, Petroleum and mining sectors.

In February the Independent Labor Caucus (ILC) and COSATU affiliated public sector unions tabled a demand for a 10% increase and the government responded with a 4.8% offer. COSATU lowered its demand to 9% and the ILC went down to 8%, while the government raised its offer to 5.5%. The government has said that it does not have money for such increases in the salaries of state workers, yet the Durban municipality with the assistance of the national and provincial Department of Sports, is bidding to host the 2020 Olympic Games.

The public sector strike’s inevitability is proven by the strained relations in the ruling alliance after municipal elections, with COSATU taking radical resolutions in its Central Committee meeting.

There has also been a development in favor of the workers. The Constitutional Court recently made a historical judgment on the right of police officers to strike, validating an earlier Labor Appeal Court judgment that police service personnel employed under the Public Service Act (non-uniformed civil employees) are not part of the essential service and therefore, their right to strike has no limitations.

The South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union (SACCAWU) has also resolved in favor of mass labor action in protest over the competition tribunal’s decision to allow the sale of Massmart to Wal-Mart.

These are all indications that the working class of South Africa has had enough of the capitalist system, the workers have had enough of unbearable conditions that they work under and they want, not reforms to the system, but the total change of the system.