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27923South Africa-The Strike Wave and New Workers' Organisations: Breaking out of Old Compromises

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  • Cort Greene
    Nov 12, 2012
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      The 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
      protected strike.

      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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