Tuesday, August 31, 2010

South African Public Sector Strike Enters Third Week

South African Public Sector Strike Enters Third Week

Mining, retail workers threaten to enter dispute if resolution is not reached soon

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

1.3 million workers in the Republic of South Africa are continuing to strike after the failure of the government to meet their wage demands for an 8.6 percent increase in pay and a housing allowance of R1000 ($US 170) per month. Other sectors of the economy may soon be impacted as the unions representing mining and retail are threatening to join the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) that represents the majority of workers embroiled in this protracted labor dispute.

President Jacob Zuma of the ruling African National Congress has ordered his top level ministers to return to the negotiating table with a mandate to work out a settlement to end the strike. The unions walked off the job on August 18 after talks with the government collapsed.

The strike has closed down schools throughout the country as well as severely hampered the ability of hospitals and other public health services from functioning. The government ordered the military into the hospitals to provide basic services and to handle maintenance.

Mass demonstrations by the striking workers and other unions initially resulted in clashes between the police and protesters. The strike has escalated the debate over economic policy within the Tripartite Alliance composed of the ruling ANC party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which both SADTU and NEHAWU are affiliated , as well as the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Membership and leadership within all three organizations within the Tripartite Alliance overlap. The secretary generals of the ANC and COSATU are also leading members of the SACP.

COSATU welcomed the new initiative to settle the strike by President Zuma. COSATU said in a statement on August 30 that “The federation hopes that an improved offer will now be tabled and that the strike can be settled as quickly as possible, through an agreement that is acceptable to the workers.” (Mail & Guardian, August 30)

The government has offered a 7 percent wage increase and a R700 housing allowance for the workers. Zuma is quite concerned about the long term implications of the strike since his government relied heavily upon the trade unions to secure its overwhelming victory in the 2009 national elections that brought the current administration to power with a mandate to increase public spending and to directly address the concerns of the working class.

South African Minister of Labor Membathisi Mdladlana stated that “the most senior commissioners of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) would work to resolve the dispute. “The minister has emphasized that the strike is a dispute between the employer and its employees and a collective bargaining matter which should only be resolved through collective bargaining.” (Mail & Guardian, August 30)

Other Unions Pledge to Join Strike

A number of unions have threatened to join the strike in a one-day solidarity action scheduled for September 2 if there is no resolution to the workers’ demands. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), one of the largest industrial organizations in the country, issued a statement on August 27 saying that they would temporarily stop work if a settlement is not reached.

“The NUM fully supports the public sector strike and would next week Thursday ensure that every mining operation, every construction site and every energy worker joins the public sector strike in different forms. Mineworkers are angry that when their servants, the public sector workers ask for a mere pittance, they are met with resistance and threatened with dismissals by those in power. Our members are angry that when their counterparts ask for a thousand rand housing allowance, they are met with resistance.” (NUM Statement, August 27, published on cosatu.org.za website)

This statement of solidarity from NUM coincides with other labor struggles taking place within various sectors of the economy, which is the most industrialized in Africa. The National Union of Metalworkers in South Africa (NUMSA), which represents 70,000 people employed in garages, components, workshops and automotive sectors held a march on August 28 in the city of Sandton, located in Guateng Province. The march was designed to pressure the bosses within the motor industry to agree to the workers’ demands for wage increases and improved conditions of employment.

In addition to the automotive sector, the unions representing workers in the retail industry have also threatened to hold strikes against the lowering of wages and the decline in working conditions. The South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) in a statement pledged solidarity with the public sector unions and announced its participation in the September 2 general strike if the dispute is not settled.

SACCAWU said that “The Union has observed and experienced some disturbing trends in Industrial Relations within the wholesale and retail sector over the last few years. The Union has warned of “Walmartisation” of the sector some two years ago.” (SACCAWU Statement, August 30, published on the cosatu.org.za website)

The statement continues saying that “Walmartisation has now entered a new phase characterized by super-profit driven unilateral restructuring, unilateral termination of collective agreements as well as an intransigent attitude which rears its ugly head during wage negotiations. Like organized workers in other sectors of the economy, Union members within the wholesale and retail sectors are more than ready to take the bull by its horns as they are no longer prepared to tolerate arrogance that has been displayed by various employers who treat workers and the Union with contempt in their drive for super-profits.”

In several cities located in the Eastern Cape including Port Elizabeth, East London, Queenstown, Grahamstown, Jeffreys Bay and King Williams Town there has been a strike against Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) Corporation since August 19. The Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) has said that “Employees have initially demanded a 13th cheque, a guaranteed 40-hr week with no loss of pay and a 12 percent wage increase, but are prepared to take a ten percent offer at this stage.” (FAWU Statement, August 30, published on the cosatu.org.za website)

The FAWU statement continues saying that “These employees are on their feet the whole day and at least deserve to earn a decent paycheck at the end of the month. No one should live on 250.00 rand per week in these trying times. We believe social responsibility starts at home so KFC step up and give your employees a living wage!”

There has even been speculation that soldiers within the armed forces may join the strike. However, members of the South African Security Forces Union (SASFU) will not join the public sector work stoppage according to union president Bhekinkosi Mvovo on August 29. “We will not join the strike because of the Constitutional Court ruling of 1999, which prohibits soldiers from striking.” (Mail & Guardian, August 30)

Policy Debates Continue Amid Global Economic Crisis

The current labor strife in South Africa has intensified the debates within the various organizations that constitute the leadership of the national democratic revolution that won state power in 1994 with the ascendancy of the ruling African National Congress as the dominant political force within the legislature and the executive branch of government. The former racist apartheid regime collapse as a result of popular, armed and labor struggles that culminated during the period between 1976 and 1994.

South African Communist Party General Secretary and Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande said on August 29 in response to the current strike that “The wage gap in the public sector between the highest paid and the lowest paid is 91 to one.” Nzimande called for the government and the public sector unions to resolve the strike as soon as possible so that economic policy issues can be addressed on a national level.

“The longer it is prolonged, the more everyone suffers and the danger of unbridgeable positions becoming entrenched increases. Nzimande condemned acts of violence that have taking place during the strike saying that “These forms of gross indiscipline detract from the legitimacy of the struggle and divides rather than unites the working class.” (Mail & Guardian, August 29)

In a statement issued by the SACP Central Committee on August 30 the party encouraged both the ANC government and the public sector unions to work towards comprehensive agreements that would guide relations in the future. “Whatever the outcomes of the present strike, the ANC-led Alliance partners need to sit down, engage frankly with each other, and anaylse the reasons for these destructive and all too frequent stand-offs in which neither the unions nor government necessarily emerge with enhanced popular credibility.” (SACP Central Committee Statement, August 30)

Meanwhile, President Jacob Zuma has recently returned from a state visit to the People’s Republic of China where high level discussions resulted in the strengthening of relations between the ANC and the Communist Party of China. According to the Mail & Guardian, “The ANC has long had friendly ties with the CCP but since the ANC’s Polokwane conference it has stepped up the pace in fostering a closer relationship.” (Mail & Guardian, August 27)

The article continues by pointing out that “South Africa is one of three countries with which China has signed a comprehensive strategy partnership covering the protection of investments, trade and economic cooperation, double tax avoidance, housing, agriculture, human resource development, police cooperation, civil air transportation, scientific and technological exchanges, water, sport and arts and culture.”

Various African states have increased their ties with the PRC amid the worsening economic crisis facing the capitalist world. As the decline in employment and wages continue in both the Western industrialized countries and the underdeveloped regions of the world, workers and the oppressed will seek alternatives to the imperialist states as it relates to both international trade and domestic policy.

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