27923South Africa-The Strike Wave and New Workers' Organisations: Breaking out of Old Compromises
- Nov 12, 2012The Strike Wave and New Workers' Organisations: Breaking out of Old
By Leonard Gentle <http://sacsis.org.za/s/stories.php?iUser=49> � 12 Nov
Over the past weekend, the striking mineworkers of Amplats gathered at a
mass rally in Rustenburg and howled their defiance of a series of
ultimatums issued by the company. At De Doorns, farm workers are on a
wildcat strike - the latest of a series that has become a feature of the
South African landscape over the last three months, knocking Mangaung off
the front pages. Something is stirring from below�and it is time we got
beyond the fear and trepidation that have become the stock response in the
After the Marikana massacre President Jacob Zuma appointed the Farlam
Commission and also convened an emergency Social Dialogue meeting of
Business, Labour and Government in October. The partners released a
statement calling on strikers to return to work and for the police to
defend law and order and noted that �the wave of unprotected
strikes�[could]�undermine the legal framework of bargaining.�
So far the Farlam Commission has heard evidence of a police conspiracy,
intimidation of witnesses, and a hotline line between Cyril Ramaphosa,
Lonmin and the police. But with the strike wave continuing is it not also
time to ask: Where did this much-vaunted �legal framework of bargaining�
come from? And how virtuous, from the perspective of democracy and social
justice, has that system been?
South Africa�s Labour Relations Act (LRA), Basic Conditions of Employment
Act (BCEA) and their associated institutions of the Commission for
Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), the Sector Education
Training Authorities (SETAs) and National Economic, Development and Labour
Council (NEDLAC) came out of a series of engagements around the National
Economic Forum, the Labour Market Commission and the National Training
Board between 1990 and 1995. Like the World Trade Centre negotiations at
Kempton Park, which shaped South African political compromises, there was a
similar set of trade-offs being enacted within the labour market sphere
between Labour (essentially COSATU) and Big Business.
Under apartheid industrial relations legislation had been based on the
racial alliance between Big Business and white workers, and the suppression
of black workers. White workers could form trade unions and use their
muscle to establish minimum wages, industrial councils to have industry
negotiations and have systems of labour protection and training through
apprenticeship and training boards.
For black workers, however, strikes were illegal and they were excluded
from labour protection and industrial councils.
However the illegal strike wave amongst black workers outside Durban in
1973 saw black workers defy the labour laws and eventually set up strong
unions and forge Recognition Agreements with large employers. New unions,
like the Metal and Allied Workers� Union, even broke into the Industrial
Council system, eventually forcing the apartheid state, in 1979, to amend
the LRA to grant African workers the right to form trade unions and to
compel employers to deduct membership dues.
By the time the labour market negotiations began in the early 1990�s,
COSATU wanted the state to legislate a legal duty to bargain on the part of
employers, impose centralised bargaining and demanded that the new
democratic state should provide a high degree of social protection for
workers. Big Business, in turn, wanted maximum labour flexibility, little
state intervention and little social protection.
These opposing views appeared irreconcilable.
The deal breaker was to take labour legislation out of the sphere of
criminal sanction and state enforceability completely. Instead the state,
and Big Business and Big Labour agreed to a system of what came to be
called �voice regulation� and �social partnership�.
So strikes and employer lockouts, unfair labour practices, unfair
dismissals and incorrect wages, etc. would no longer be illegal but subject
to discussion and rational persuasion through institutions like the CCMA.
If your employer summarily sacked you or underpaid you, you couldn�t get a
labour inspector to reinstate you or have your employer compelled by law to
honour a contract, you went to the CCMA where you could get a mediator to
try and reach a compromise solution.
Similarly, while there was no compulsion on the part of an employer to
negotiate, you could invoke the power of your strong union to make life
difficult in time for such a recalcitrant employer. And you could strike,
albeit only on what was deemed to be a matter of interest (as opposed to
unfair dismissal, which is deemed to be a conflict of right, over which you
couldn�t strike but had to refer to the CCMA for mediation and/or
arbitration). So the labour movement got its plethora of rights, but which
were dependent on their real organised power to exercise, because the state
was not going to be involved. But Big Business got its demands for labour
flexibility because there were no laws involving the state imposing any
kind of criminal sanction or legal enforceability.
The whole system presumed a scenario whereby Big Business would get the
benefits of labour flexibility, industrial peace and skilled labour and Big
Labour would get skills, job security, higher wages and a seat at the table
of all labour market institutions.
But neither the state nor Big Business kept their side of the bargain.
Whereas the LRA, the SETAs and NEDLAC were unveiled during the period of
the RDP, the government unveiled GEAR and its neo-liberal prescriptions
without any consideration of its Big Labour �partner�. And Big Business,
instead of seeking beneficiation and skilled labour, took the gap. At least
the biggest South African monopolies did -- unbundled, financialised and
then jumped ship to London, New York and Melbourne. Making money via
releasing �share holder value� on global stock markets was so much more
profitable than extending employment and promoting skills, let alone
hanging out with its �social partners� in NEDLAC.
That left COSATU with nowhere else to go. After responding with anger in
the early days of GEAR, the federation has more recently been happy to slag
off the betrayals of its tripartite partner, the ANC, while its leaders,
organisers and even shop stewards rake in the money involved in attending
NEDLAC, SETAs and the myriad other tripartite and centralised bargaining
And how did the institutions of South Africa�s industrial relations perform?
Well, from the viewpoint of peace and productivity they certainly did their
job. Strikes have shown a steady decline since 1995 with only 2010, the
year of public sector strikes showing an increase in the number of strikes
and days lost, as unions and state departments found themselves at the end
of a 3-year agreement in that year. The CCMA in the meantime has increased
its case handling exponentially and has become an established part of the
industrial relations landscape.
But from the side of ordinary working class people the system has been a
disaster on every score.
Firstly, at the macro level, inequality is increasing and all the
indicators show increased unemployment - now peaking at 40% - according to
Census 2012; and the increased informalisation and casualisation of
workers. The labour peace has come at the cost of the restructuring of the
working class towards the very flexible labour demanded by Big Business.
But what about the layer of full-time workers who have permanent jobs and
are the backbone of the trade unions today? It turns out that, apart from
those who benefit from the perks of sitting on the various negotiating
fora, it didn�t work for them either.
In the main, company-level wage negotiations have settled on and around the
annual inflation rate. And seeing that this is a figure roughly
representing cost of living increases over the year past, this means that
real wage levels have been eroded.
And what about the achievements of the Bargaining Councils?
Well, the statistics on centralised bargaining are revealing. In the
history of the labour movement this was supposed to be a powerful means to
even things upwards - to win victories in enterprises or sectors where the
workers were strong, and then have that victory extended to companies where
the union was weak via the ministerial signature extending the agreement to
non-parties. So for years employers resisted centralised bargaining or
Industrial Councils (as they were called then) fearing that it would push
wage costs up.
In 1995�s LRA the industrial councils were rechristened Bargaining Councils
and the compulsion on the part of the minister weakened so that s/he had
some discretion in this matter and only if there were thresholds reached in
terms of employer and union representativity.
So what has been their performance? In cases of holidays, working hours,
maternity benefits, etc., Bargaining Councils have either settled on the
minima already enshrined in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (meaning
no protracted negotiations and strikes were needed when workers already had
these rights established in law) or, shockingly, have reached settlements
where these are actually below the minima set in the Act.
The average weekly working hours have gone up from 44 hours to 45 -- a mass
increase in the working year without a commensurate increase in pay.
In other words, far from Bargaining Councils being instruments used by the
unions to level conditions upwards they have become instruments for the
employers to level conditions downwards!
Cape Town�s Labour Research Service�s 2011-2012 Bargaining Indicators had
this to say: �The BCEA looks more like a ceiling than a floor of minimum
conditions. Put another way, actual conditions of employment tend to
cluster around the legislated minimums. We see few significant upward
In COSATU�s internal review tabled at its recent Congress, some 60% of
members express dissatisfaction with wage increases negotiated.
Overall workers� wages and salaries as a percentage of national income have
been dropping every year and were overtaken in 1999 by profits. In other
words there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich
in the era of the current industrial relations system.
If the striking workers of the last three months are - horrors of horrors -
challenging this system of industrial relations, then they are doing us all
a service for which they should be applauded and not condemned.
Internationally, the trade union movement has often gone through periods of
stagnation and co-option only to be revived by internal rebellions against
the established industrial order. Trade unions originated in Britain as
�trades unions� � where the older term, �trades�, referred to the skilled
trades of craftsmen. The movement arose from two sources: one conservative
and protective of the old guilds and craftsmen resisting the hordes of
newly proletarianised, deskilled workers; the other a militant offshoot of
the 19th century radical Chartist movement. The first shop stewards were
factory (or �shop�)-based representatives who led a radical democratic
movement against the craft unions in the late 19th century and established
the modern labour movement.
Similarly in the USA, the older craft-based American Federation of Labour
(AFL) experienced a revolt by industrial workers in the 1920s against the
sweetheart nature of the AFL and its protection of skilled white workers.
These militant industrial workers, newer immigrants and many Blacks �
grouped under the Congress of Industrial Organisations - fought the labour
elite and forced it into an amalgam, the AFL-CIO, which is still America�s
trade union centre today.
So worker rebellions against �their own unions� and against the �legal
framework� for collective bargaining have a distinguished history.
Since Marikana there has been a strike wave of some 100 000 workers across
the country � from the platinum province, to the coal and gold mines of the
North West, Gauteng and the Free State, and from the workers at Kumba in
the Northern Cape; to Toyota in KZN; and even home-based textiles workers
in Cape Town. And now farm workers in De Doorns.
A common feature of these strikes has been that they were led and driven by
self-organised workers� committees in defiance of the existing unions and
of signed collective agreements made with these unions. This exercise in
self-organisation was even to impact on existing procedural wage
negotiations � notably the transport sector, where employers and unions
were about to reach an agreed wage settlement only to find that membership
on the ground rejecting the proposed agreement and forcing through a
The appellation, wildcat, may invoke images of an unruly mob. The
appearance of a Julius Malema at Marikana may play to perceptions that
striking workers are easily swayed bumpkins willing to believe any
snake-oil salesman. And the demand for R12 500 may appear unreasonable and
outrageous to commentators who can�t credit workers with any power to think
for themselves. But what has been the most striking feature of the strike
wave � particularly in the mining sector - has been the level of
sophistication displayed, with no full-time organisers, no back up offices
and no administrators; and against all the whole gamut of the state and
civil society - from the mine owners media, to the political parties and
the trade unions themselves.
For example AngloPlat declares, a month ago, that it has dismissed 12 000
workers. Then it says that they can return but by their imposed deadline.
Then it meets with NUM and Solidarity, where they sign an agreement for a
return to work. But still they can�t get back to full production and they
can�t bring in scabs. The workers simply say �the Strike Committee speaks
for us� and defy AngloPlat.
With each back down by management the strength of the Committee is enhanced
until, against all the procedures enshrined in the LRA and the collective
agreements with NUM, they are forced to sit down with the Strike Committee
and recognise its de facto power. As at Lonmin � where the company was
forced by the power of its strike committee to pay a 22% wage increase �
the workers at Lonmin and AngloPlat have changed the face of industrial
relations in South Africa. And this has been repeated at AngloGold and
across the mining sector.
As ever there are no guarantees and the best efforts of the striking
workers may be defeated by the sheer range of forces lined up against them.
But for now the Strike Committees across the mining industry have formed
their own structure, the National Strike Committee, and within this there
is lively debate about where this initiative will go and what its strategic
orientation will be -- whether a broad labour front or a new union or a
mass enlistment in one of the existing registered unions.
The strike wave has been greeted only with doom and gloom in the mainstream
media. Strangely enough, the same media and many commentators have also
lined up to speak to the threat to democracy posed by an increasingly
authoritarian and beleaguered ANC leadership. Business figures such as
Nedbank Chairman Reuel Khoza were lauded for having the �courage� to speak
up, while World Bank luminaries like Mamphela Ramphela are celebrated for
�speaking the truth to power�.
So why when striking workers challenge this self-same intolerant government
and the whole cosy edifice of the current order they are treated to this
discourse of fear and loathing? Surely it is time to celebrate the
possibilities for an expansion of democracy represented by the current
strike wave? Or is democracy only an effete experience for the well to do?
*Gentle* is the director of the International Labour Research and
Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for
activists in social movements and trade unions.
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