220,000 Metal Workers on Strike in South Africa

Patrick Bond: Workers are demanding higher wages and an end to neoliberal ANC policies

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, NUMSA, went on strike last week. Will the union be able to hold out? Thus far, talks to end the wage deadlock in the metal and engineering industry failed to produce a solution.

To give us more information and analysis on the ground is Patrick Bond. Patrick Bond is the director of the Centre for Civil Society and professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Bond is the author of the recently released books South Africa: The Present as History, coauthored with John Saul, and Elite Transition.

Patrick, thanks for joining us.

PATRICK BOND, DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR CIVIL SOCIETY: [Good to be back] again, Sharmini. Thanks.

PERIES: Patrick, start off by giving us a bit of a primer. Who is NUMSA? What are they fighting for? What are their demands? And who are their affiliates?

BOND: This is a very important union, about 30 years old, formally, certainly at the very vanguard of trade unionism all these last decades, fighting not only for the end of apartheid in the ’80s with a leader called Moses Mayekiso–very well known in a parked anti-apartheid circuits–but then, in the ’90s, and especially in the last couple of years, really leading the COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions–is now the largest affiliate, with 440,000 members) to socialist demands, especially demands that conflict with the ruling party, African National Congress–neoliberal macro policies and relatively conservative labor policies, such as the policy to introduce sub-minimum wages and to allow labor broking, casualized labor, which are very much subjects of this strike, the strike for about half the workforce, 220,000. And they’re basically taking on 10,000 employers who have a Federation, and the debate is whether NUMSA can repeat last month’s extraordinary victory by the platinum workers, who won 18 to 20 percent wage increases. NUMSA’s asking for 15 percent, employers offering 8 percent, with inflation just under 7 percent. So it’s going to be at [least] another week of heavy striking.

PERIES: Right. Patrick, one of the struggles is really ANC and the current government, who is in collaboration with the employers and supporting the employers in this wage dispute. Is that correct?

BOND: Indeed. There’s been some very intense language from leaders of the ruling party, including the deputy secretary-general, Jessie Duarte, who openly called these workers counterrevolutionaries, as the head of the Communist Party has as well. South Africa has a tendency for a left rhetoric to emerge in the traditions of sort of capital C communism, especially when they’re challenges from the left, from independent workers and community groups, social movements. And this is no exception.

What with the AMCU, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, having such momentum after a five-month strike restored to the working-class, now NUMSA takes up the baton, and NUMSA’s very openly said that they are breaking with the African National Congress after an alliance dating to 1990, when the ANC was was unbanned. And what NUMSA said lies ahead after the strike is won: they expect to have at least double-digit wage increases from putting so many workers out on strike. What they expect now is to then build a united front with social movements and community groups–environmentalists, women’s groups, and so forth–and then, with their so-called movement toward socialism, probably next year launch a workers party to contest the 2016 municipal elections. So it’s quite an exciting period ahead. And part of it depends on whether this is a big strike victory or whether the ANC clamps down themselves under pressure from international finance, a recent threat from Moody’s rating agency after the downgrade by Standard & Poor’s–it may well be that South Africa is reduced to what’s called junk-bond status by these international financial agencies.

PERIES: So this is really a multilevel struggle, you know, one for wages, workers rights, in terms of the, you know, formation of out of a alternative party in South Africa. And is this strike then gaining momentum, in your opinion?

BOND: Yes. I think the big question is whether the strike is over in a week or two weeks, or perhaps it will last longer. And then what will happen probably soon thereafter: a decision as to whether these metalworkers and stay in the larger federation. And if they have actually won a major increase, three, four percent above inflation, then they will be a very attractive union for many independent workers or workers from other unions to join them. They are now recruiting, poaching–they’re accused of poaching from other unions and opening up the metalworkers sector to, really, any trade unionists wanting to join. And if that happens, that could become a super union, especially if there’s at some stage a merger with AMCU. And then you’ve got, really, a mighty trade union with extraordinary militancy in a country already rated by the World Economic Forum as having the world’s most militant working class of 148 countries surveyed. So we do see at this stage quite rapid advances by working class, especially in the wake of the big wage gains. In spite of having lost five months of salary, these platinum mine workers have really, apparently, encouraged the metalworkers there. Many of them are saying if the platinum workers can do it, then we can also stay out long enough to win the wage increases and the changes in conditions so that the casualized workers, the labor brokers, are no longer such a threat to the organized workers.

PERIES: And, Patrick, what does this mean in terms of trade union itself? It is the largest struggle going on, but the NUMSA seems to be in, somehow, some contestations with COSATU as well, yes?

BOND: Yes. The struggle over who can control COSATU is intense, and there was a bit of a surprise when Vavi, Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of COSATU, strongly supported by the NUMSA the leadership, was actually allowed to resume his job after nine months’ leave that was occasioned by a sex scandal in the office. And NUMSA pushed very hard that he be put back as a general secretary, with the hope that that would encourage the more left-leaning unions to really have a contestation over the direction of COSATU.

However, the more conservative forces that are aligned with President Jacob Zuma and the African National Congress probably have a majority of leadership in the COSATU unions, and it is probably just a matter of time before they succeed in throwing out NUMSA for having broken some of the basic rules: don’t organize in other people’s turf. And because NUMSA feels the trade unions, especially in the transport sector, which could be quite critical, especially in the ports, where there’s a major contestation in one of the major port cities Port Elizabeth–. General Motors in Port Elizabeth, incidentally, has just shut down its production because the metalworkers have cut off the parts and supplies. And these are the sorts of places, a little bit off the map of the major cities, where I think the heart and soul of the trade union is to be won. And it is a period that NUMSA [is winning?] these battles.

PERIES: Well, Patrick, this is a ongoing discussion. Please come back and give us more updates on what’s happening in South Africa and in these union struggles. Thank you for joining us.

BOND: Thank you very much.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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