South African workers’ strike wave gains momentum as fuel stations run dry

South Africa is witnessing a growing strike wave, with the metalworkers in the lead, but with more and more sections taking strike action or threatening to do so. A new wave of militant class struggle is on the agenda as the contradictions between bosses and workers become more exacerbated by the day. Here we publish an outline of what is happening

The strike by metalworkers that began on 4th July has entered into a second week with no clear signs of a settlement between workers and the employer. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) took strike action, following a breakdown in negotiations at the end of June. This was after the employer had failed to meet the union’s demand for a 13% wage increase across the board and better general working conditions and a ban on labour brokers. The Steel Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (SEIFSA) was offering a mere 7%.

As we reported last week, the 170,000 strong metalworkers were joined by about 76,000 oil workers at refineries owned by Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA), Sapref, the state owned PetroSA, Chevron Corp and Sasol Ltd, organised by the Chemical Energy, Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union (CEPPAWAWU). 70,000 workers downed tools after the employers failed to meet the reasonable demand for an 11% to 13% wage increase and the termination of labour brokers. The employers had offered 4% to 7% and were adamant in not scrapping the use of labour brokers. This angered workers who discovered that the salaries of the top directors of the 40 largest companies listed in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange increased by 23% last year.

The strike by oil and energy workers has had a crippling effect, with about 200 refill stations in Gauteng alone reporting dry fuel pumps, and about 50 stations in Kwazulu-Natal having also ran dry. The six main oil refineries, with a combined oil processing capacity of 692,000 barrels a day, have come to an indefinite halt. “The situation is worsening and if we don’t manage it properly, we might end up with a crisis next week,” said Reggie Sibiya of the Fuel Retailers Association.

This has sparked a countrywide panic, with many people queuing at petrol stations to fill up before they run dry; however this has worked in favour of the petrol dealers who have profited from the sudden increase in petrol sales. The Oil companies have used this to black mail workers by threatening them about “possible” economic collapse and an increase in the interest rate if workers push for above inflation wage increases. The campaign has been helped by bourgeois economists who barely hide their anti-working class prejudices behind their university degrees. They have also spread rumours of medicine shortages in government hospitals, but these were refuted by government officials.

The National Union of Mine Workers (NUM), the independent union Solidarity and the United Association of SA have also entered into striking gear mode after a dispute with the employers who failed to meet their demand for an across the board increase of 14% and have referred the matter to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), paving way for a strike in the mining sector. In the midst of this, the mining companies, as expected, have employed the use of police to intimidate peacefully protesting workers at the Chemstof mine in Brits, Gauteng and in other places accross the country.

“It is scandalous that in every intimidatory act, be it death threats to ordinary citizens and leaders opposed to corruption or poor whistle blowers and protesters, police are always in the middle,” said Frans Baleni, NUM Secretary General.

65,000 transport workers, organized by the South African Transport Workers Union have mooted a possible strike and this morning the South African Municipal Workers’ Union’s (SAMWU) Central Executive Committee was set to meet to decide on whether to call their 220,000 members to join the strike wave.

What does this mean for the working class?

Never has it happened in the history of South Africa, post-1994, that so many strikes have been taking place concurrently, as almost all unions affiliated to COSATU have entered into protest action after breakdowns in negotiations with employers, not to mention the independent unions that have also joined the strike. This urge to strike by workers must not be taken for granted, because it takes place as South Africa has started to recover from the economic recession and therefore workers want to recover lost ground.

However, it is not only purely economic factors which are behind the current wave of strikes. There is a deep seated feeling of anger amongst ordinary working people in South Africa that they have not benefited fully from democracy and the end of apartheid. Inequality has continued to grow, there is massive unemployment (38% overall and 73% amongst the youth), many workers living under the poverty level, etc., while at the same time a small minority at the top live a life of obscene  luxury mired in corruption scandals.

And all this is happening with a government that they consider as “of their own”. COSATU and the SACP were instrumental in the removal of previous president Mbeki, known for his pro-business GEAR policies, and they expected something completely different from his successor Zuma. The issue of labour brokers for instance was included in the 2009 ANC manifesto. Regardless of the weak wording of the actual election promise, the masses who voted for the ANC interpreted it as a pledge to ban the exploitative labour brokers.

This mood was summed up by COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, when he threatened: “We will bring the country to a halt. We will be more militant. We can't fight for freedom only to see capitalists benefiting. In this country, workers’ issues are not prioritised and it’s time we put a stop to that. Come September or October, we want a complete ban on labour brokers or the country will be grounded.”

This mood must be used to build a 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. The experience of the public sector strike in August-September 2010 must be studied. At that time momentum was building up for a general strike, with sections of the private sector joining in. At the last minute, under intense pressure from the ANC leadership, the trade union leaders backed down and accepted a deal which was clearly short of what could have been achieved and which was rejected by the ranks.

It is important to insist on the principles of rank and file democracy and organisation which have characterised the South African trade union movement. Shop stewards must be fully involved in all talks and negotiations with the bosses and they should report to mass meetings of all members at each workplace. No deal should be signed without first being put to the rank and file. Local, regional and national meetings of delegates from the workplaces should be convened in order to decide about the course of the strike action.

These strikes in the private sector and the imminent strikes in the public sector come in the midst of constant service delivery strikes that have taken place in about 40% of the 283 municipalities. South Africans have witnessed not a single week without a protest in working class communities. The working class constantly reminds its leaders of the socialist revolution that has been “postponed” indefinitely.

What is at the core of this strike wave is whether the country is run for the benefit of the majority, the workers and the urban and rural poor, or for the benefit of an unelected minority of capitalists and bankers.

To paraphrase one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Leon Trotsky, “the conditions for a socialist revolution in South Africa are not only ripe, but they are rotten ripe.”