South African labor goes into battle

September 10, 2013

British socialist Andy Wynne explains the backdrop to a new wave of labor struggles.

SINCE 2005, South African workers have had as much experience with strikes as anywhere in the world.

A major public-sector workers strike took place in June 2007 and became the largest walkout in South African history, lasting four weeks. Public workers repeated this with their next wage battle in 2010. A series of recent strikes seem set to maintain this record, and public sector workers are again due for a pay settlement.

The Marikana massacre last year was an attempt to terrorize the miners back to work, but they went on to win a 22 percent pay increase. In the first half of this year, Western Cape agricultural workers, teachers, bus drivers and postal workers were all on strike.

In early May, the South African Democratic Teachers Union called off its work-to-rule protest and withdrew its demand for the resignation of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga after winning a range of concessions from the government. The teachers had stuck for a day after the African National Congress-led (ANC) government threatened to classify teaching an "essential service," thus making strikes illegal.

Striking workers on the march at O.R. Tambo International Airport
Striking workers on the march at O.R. Tambo International Airport

More recently, some 30,000 workers in auto industry and members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) went on an indefinite strike on August 19. They demanded a 14 percent across-the-board wage increase and increases in their housing subsidy and transportation allowance. The strike included 80 percent of workers at BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen.

After two weeks on strike in 2010, these workers won a more than 9 percent increase in wages per year for the following three years--though that number is significantly reduced when inflation, which was over 6 percent in July 2013, is taken into account.

On September 8, the union autoworkers returned to work after their union negotiated an agreement with wage increases of 11.5 percent, 10 percent and 10 percent in this and the next two years.

Some 90,000 construction workers, members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), have been on an indefinite strike since August 26. They are joined by 50,000 members of the Building, Construction and Allied Workers Union. Both unions are demanding a 13 percent wage increase for 2013 and 14 percent in 2014.

The NUM, which represents just under two-thirds of the 140,000 miners in South Africa's gold extraction industry, started a strike as of September 3. The union is demanding a 60 percent hike, while employers are only offering 6 percent. But the NUM general secretary has already indicated that the union would accept a 10 percent wage increase if it was offered.

The rival union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), is demanding that entry-level wages rise to 12,500 rand a month, which is a 150 percent increase. The union has yet to announce strike action. AMCU is now the recognized union at Lonmin, the site of the Marikana massacre last year.

After the announcement of 6,900 job losses at Amplats, the world's largest platinum mine, workers could stop production there. The NUM is saying the job loss announcement is just to intimidate other workers into accepting a lower pay increase.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) fully backs the National Union of Mineworkers in their disputes in the construction and gold mining sectors, and is calling on all workers to act in line with the slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all."

WALTER SISULU University in the Eastern Cape has been closed indefinitely due to a five-week-long strike by staff. The National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union and the National Tertiary Education Union have been on strike since July over demands for a salary increase of 8 percent to 10 percent. The university has offered 4.25 percent. There were also disruptive student protests.

Technicians from the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union working at South African Airways went on strike on August 26 and are demanding a double-digit pay increase. Some 72,000 members of NUMSA working in gas stations and workshops planned to walk out on strike on September 2, but the union settled their dispute.

There are a range of other smaller disputes. For example, more than 450 employees of dairy producer Parmalat SA are on a protected strike--meaning the walkout complies with labor laws--over wages. The Food and Allied Workers' Union is seeking a 9 percent wage increase, while Parmalat has offered 7 percent, according to the union. Plus, an indefinite strike by casual workers at the South African Post Office's mail and processing centers in some parts of Gauteng Province started on September 2. These workers want to be given permanent part-time positions.

Pressure was also building for industrial action in the textiles sector, with 86 percent of 50,000 working union members having voted to go on strike. The Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union demanded a 7 percent wage increase for its members working in metro areas and 11 percent in other areas. The employers associations agreed, and SACTWU settled on September 2.

These strikes are due to the failure of most workers to benefit significantly from the end of apartheid in 1995. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. A recent official survey revealed that median real salaries for formal-sector workers did not increase from 1997 to 2011. In contrast, the real wages of the top 10 percent of earners increased by a third over this period.

Union demands are also being encouraged by the success of earlier strikes and internal friction within COSATU. The federation's general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, was recently suspended. This prompted threats of a breakaway by the National Union of Metalworkers, a Vavi backer. NUMSA has now replaced the NUM as the largest member of COSATU. There are also political developments with the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by Julius Malema, the former president of the ANC Youth League, as a radical alternative to the ANC, despite charges of corruption against Malema.

Splits in the trade union movement have led to new unions outside COSATU for miners (AMCU), transportation workers, dockers, teachers and health workers. However, with a membership of over 2 million workers, COSATU remains a critical center, not only for organized workers, but as a base of support for the African National Congress-led government.

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