Workers in South Africa’s metal and engineering industries embarked on industrial action on 4 July, following the deadlock between the unions and employers in the Metal, Engineering and Related Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC). About 20,000 workers marked the beginning of the strike by marching through the streets of Johannesburg to the head office of the employers’ association offices, with thousands of others protesting in Cape Town and Durban.
The strike is now entering its second week and a settlement is not within sight. The strike is undoubtedly the biggest in the private sector in the past few years. It reflects the deepening restlessness of the South African working class and their determination to fight back against the savage attacks of the bosses on their conditions of work and living standards.
The main demands of the workers are for a 13% wage increase (having initially submitted 20%), and the banning of the ‘labour brokers’, which employs over 23% of the workforce in the metal industries. Other demands include, 20 days paid leave for shop stewards, an increase in days leave for family responsibilities and single-term instead of multi-year collective agreements. The employers are offering 7% wage increase, which is up from the 5% they tendered at the beginning of the wage negotiations, and they are unwilling to concede to the demand to end the usage of labour brokers in the industry.
Owing to the sheer size of the strike and the militancy of the metal workers, which is reflected in the radical rhetoric of union leaders, the strike has inspired other workers to join the fight back and furthered polarised society along class lines. This has forced leaders of major unions in related industries to start mobilising their members for strikes on similar demands. On 11 July, around 70,000 workers in the petrol refineries joined the 200,000 participating in the metal industries strike. The National Mineworkers Union is also mobilising for similar actions in the mining industries. The union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), threatened to issue a call for a general strike in support of the metal industry workers and the living wage campaign.
4 July 2011, city of Johannesburg
Media campaign against strike
The bosses are waging a savage campaign to try to discredit the strike. The media is calling for workers to halt industrial action in the “national interests” of “economic recovery and competitiveness in the global markets”. After these by these pathetic ‘patriotic’ appeals failed to stop the strikes or wider working class sympathy for the metal workers, the ruling class resorted to an outright media campaign of lies, distortions and exaggerations calculated to undermine the basis of workers’ support and public sympathy for the strike.
The media reports are now overwhelmingly focused on the isolated incidences of violence and assaults of strike breakers, clearly exaggerating their scale to imply that they are general features of the strike. Unions have also come under fierce media attack for “not stopping” these incidences and refusing to call off the strikes, which are exacting a heavy toll on the manufacturing industries, already paralysed by the economic crisis. The pro-bosses’ media rant about the “narrow outlook” of trade unionists, who “forsake” the national interests to advance “selfish interests” of their privileged employed members. Yet the strike still continues to enjoy support of many workers.
This metal industry strike clearly represents another opportunity to unite the working class into a united and mighty class front to confront the crisis of capitalism and the capitalist elite behind it. The wide admiration of many in the rank and file of the workers’ movement towards the metal industry strike is indicated by the desperation of the pro-bosses’ media. Many trade unionists call on union leaders to call for similar actions in their industries.
There are many fighting communities, social movements and other grass roots organisations of the working class which have openly stated their willingness to join forces with organised labour in support of workplace struggles but they are being marginalised by the Cosatu bureaucracy. On the eve of the metal workers’ strike, during the Gauteng activists’ forum (part of the Democratic Left Front), these organisations called again on organised labour to take action (despite the Democratic Left Front’s leadership’s middle class politics, it galvanises a significant section of working class communities and social movements under its banner).
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and Cosatu leaderships failed to mobilise this support, which could re-ignite the finest traditions of the working class struggle against the apartheid regime in the 1980s. This saw communities stand in solid support of workers, and vice versa, during the long struggle against the bosses and the repressive state machinery.
The union leaders’ failed to mobilise support to aid the metal workers and to prepare thoroughly for a decisive blow against the parasitic and reactionary bosses in the metal industries. This reflects the union leaders’ ideological demoralisation and lack of necessary political perspectives for a socialist solution to the capitalist crisis – other than through making workers pay.
This is evident from their continued commitment to class collaboration. Union leaders formed ‘the manufacturing circle’, an alliance with bosses from big metal companies, for the purpose of finding ‘solutions’ to the crisis in manufacturing industries.
To the extent that the strike is successful, it will be a reflection of the militant traditions and high level of political consciousness amongst metal workers.
Rolling action needed
The CWI in South Africa (Democratic Socialist Movement) has support in the Metal and Electrical Workers Union of South Africa (MEWUSA), which is party to the metal industry council, where DSM supporters called for the formation of strike and industrial site committees, together with solidarity committees. The DSM argued that these bodies could mobilise all metal workers, non-metal workers and communities behind the call for mass rolling actions, culminating in a general strike of all workers and communities to crush the stubborn resistance of the metal bosses.
The failure of the union leaders to mobilise is reflected in the incidences of violence of the part of those workers, who feel isolated and betrayed by those breaking the strike, which, in some instances, constitute the whole workforce in factories. It is estimated that about 200,000 out of almost 350,000 workers are out on strike. Unions in the industry council organise only 170,000, with Numsa alone representing 120,000 of these workers. Belated calls for a general strike by Cosatu are nothing more than the usual rhetoric of the union (mis) leaders before they plan to capitulate and sell-out workers.
These strikes again confirm the need for the organised working class to break with policies of class collaborationism and to build genuine fighting unions to take on bosses in the workplaces and to resist the repressive actions of the state. The rank and file needs to campaign for democratic control of their unions and for the formation of a mass party of the working class. Such a party can unite all the fighting contingents of the working class – in communities, workplaces and social movements – and struggle with independent class policies for a government of workers and poor people.