South Africa: Workers Reject Offer But Trade Union Leaders Suspend Strike

by Sep 8, 2010All Articles

Public Sector StrikeBy Jorge Martin

07 September 2010

South Africa was moving towards a general strike type situation as the public sector strike that started on August 18 was building up momentum. Now the strike has been suspended by union leaders because of some concessions on the part of the government. This has angered many workers who wanted to step up action, not take a step back.

In a joint press statement on Monday, September 6, public sector unions affiliated with COSATU and the ILC, announced their decision to “suspend the strike” while announcing that this did not mean “that we have accepted the state offer”. (Strike is Suspended, COSATU)

The strike by 1.3 million public sector workers started on Wednesday, August 18 and had paralysed schools, hospitals and other public services. The strike reflected the deep seated anger of South African workers at the two-faced policies of the ANC government led by Zuma, with ministers getting high wages and all sorts of perks during the World Cup, while workers are denied their demands for a living wage and access to housing.

From the beginning the attitude of the government was provocative, with strongly worded statements by ministers saying there was no more money to be offered and giving the trade unions an ultimatum. This was combined with the use of the tribunals, the police and the army against the strikers, as well as a high profile media campaign accusing the strikers of murder for paralysing hospitals. This further enraged the trade union activists, who played a key role in replacing former president Mbeki for Zuma and were expecting him to be on their side.

Despite the government provocations the strike remained solid for two weeks and the mood was building up for solidarity action, possibly leading to a general strike in support of the public sector workers. The municipal workers’ union SAMWU moved a motion at the COSATU executive, which decided that all affiliated unions should issue 7 day notices for strike action. A general strike would have started, effectively, on September 2.

It was only the threat of a general strike, which had the full backing of powerful unions like the mineworkers’ NUM, which forced the government back to the negotiating table. President Zuma returned from his state visit to China and ordered the ministers to reach a deal with the unions. Too much was at stake and Zuma could not risk alienating his labour allies completely (as some were threatening not to support the ANC in forthcoming elections). Under these conditions, the government backtracked from its earlier position of “there is no more money” and agreed to increase its pay increase offer from 7% to 7.5%, though this was still short of the workers’ demands for 8.6%. The unions are correct in considering this as a victory, or at least a partial one.

However, the deal had to be put to union members. At this point, on Wednesday, September 1, COSATU decided to cancel the general strike. This was clearly a mistake. If you are in a position of strength, you do not abandon it. The trade union leaders probably thought that the membership would accept the revised offer. For all their radical language, the trade union leaders did not seem prepared to go all the way in their confrontation with the government.

To their surprise, the union ranks decided to reject the new offer. This was the case particularly with the teachers’ union SADTU, but also with the health and government workers’ union NEHAWU. It seems that even the ILC affiliated unions also rejected the offer, though only narrowly.

However, despite this mandate from the members, the trade union leaders decided to suspend the strike and give themselves 21 days to “finalise consultations on the draft agreement”. It seems likely that at least some of the trade union leaders who participated in the negotiations with the government were confident that they could sell the agreement to their members.

The level of anger at local meetings was such that the union leaders had to acknowledge that the proposal had been rejected. Business Report wrote that, “Sizwe Pamla, the national spokesman for the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union, said on Friday that after a flood of e-mails and text messages ‘we had to acknowledge the rejections’.” But as this NEHAWU leader was not happy with the decision he tried to turn it into its opposite by saying that, “it was difficult to say it was an official rejection as members had not been properly consulted”. In other words, the trade union leaders did not manage to convince their members, but this was only because they did not explain the agreement properly, or fully, and therefore, another 21 days are needed.

This is a scandalous position. Once the momentum of the strike has been lost, it will be very difficult to build it up again. The union leaders should not have called off the general strike before getting an agreement that was acceptable to its members; this should be the ABC of trade union tactics. Once the threat of a general strike is lifted and the workers go back to work, even if the deal is rejected, what leverage do the unions have to extract more concessions from the government? None.

Many workers were rightly angry when they found out about the decision to stop the strike. City Press reported that NEHAWU “union leaders were chased out of the meeting in Johannesburg this afternoon”. The report quoted NEHAWU member Ramarumo as saying: “Members are angry and they want to protest by going to the national office to burn their membership cards”. The same report quoted the general secretary of Gauteng Central branch of SADTU, Ronald Nyathi as saying: “Teachers are not happy but after we learnt that some unions belonging to COSATU and the Independent Labour Caucus (ILC) accepted the government’s offer, we realised we can’t carry on with the strike alone.”

This will certainly raise a lot of questions amongst the trade union activists about their own leaders, particularly since COSATU has a proud tradition of standing for workers’ control over the union structures and officials.

Whatever the outcome of this particular battle, the main questions that were raised during the strike, particularly in relation to the policies of the ANC government, the relationship of the trade union movement with the government and the ANC, and also regarding the role of the SACP leaders in government, will not go away.

The forthcoming meeting of the ANC National General Council will be the place where many of these issues will be discussed. The ANC Youth League will certainly raise the need to nationalise the mines, as part of their campaign for “economic freedom in our lifetime”. The so-called Black Economic Empowerment will also be discussed. BEE has basically allowed a small minority of blacks (some in the circle of family and friends of Zuma himself) to join the capitalist class, while the majority of working people and the poor who carried out the struggle against apartheid have seen their living conditions deteriorate and the gap between rich and poor increase.

On Sunday, September 5, the chairperson of the Young Communist League, David Masondo, published a sharply written article in the City Press, denouncing BEE as a policy through which “certain black millionaires associated with the liberation movement have been cherry-picked by white businesses.” (BEE has evolved into a family affair, Citypress)The article has already caused divisions within the YCL, with a statement signed by YCLSA National Office Bearers distancing themselves from Masondo’s public criticism of Zuma (Statement by the YCL National Office Bearers on the article by David Masondo, YCL).

What is needed is to focus the debate on the crucial issue: the need for a socialist alternative which can really achieve “economic liberation within our life time”. Only by challenging the logic of capitalism, through the expropriation of the mines and big monopolies, can the pressing problems of the majority of South Africans, the workers and the poor, begin to be addressed. Whilst the economic power remains in the hands of an unelected minority, genuine liberation will not be achieved. Housing, land reform, education and health care for all, jobs… none of these issues can be solved within the limits of capitalism, as has been amply demonstrated in the 16 years since the end of apartheid. The formal rule of the vile regime of racial discrimination was abolished through the heroic struggle of the masses. But the capitalist regime which it served remains in place.


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