South African autoworkers strike key industry

Workers’ struggles continue in South Africa despite the successful resolution of strikes in the automotive and mining industries.

Auto industry settlements were reached between the National Union of Metalworkers Union of South Africa and BMW, Nissan, Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota, Mercedes and General Motors. Union negotiators resolved the work stoppage by obtaining an 11.5 percent salary increase in the first year and 10 percent in the following two years.

Issues are still to be resolved between the workers and bosses at Toyota in Durban and BMW in Pretoria. It was not clear whether employees would accept the contract and return to work as of Sept. 9.

Some 30,000 workers went on strike on Aug. 19. The affected companies annually produce 278,000 automobiles for export to Europe, the United States and the African continent. The industry contributes 7 percent to South Africa’s gross domestic product.

Nonetheless, other sectors within auto — including component producers, service station workers and panel beaters — walked off the job on Sept. 9.

The sectors’ 76,000 NUMSA members insisted on double-digit wage hikes and better employment conditions. Their absence can cripple the auto industry overall. The union says the non-represented workers in the sectors’ 300,000-member labor force also have the right to strike.

Industry bosses say that such labor actions could potentially damage existing jobs. With 25 percent of South Africa’s work force unemployed, the bosses utilize this as a bargaining chip.

The Sept. 9 Financial Times quoted Thapelo Molapo, Automobile Manufacturers’ Employers Organization chair, “[W]hen they stop working we cannot operate. …. They supply us with the components [for] our manufacturing processes. If this thing goes on for any more than a week it will be affecting us badly. … It is a high settlement … we had no option … it’s going to have an impact, our industry … [is] competing on a global scale. There’s a lot of capacity [worldwide] to manufacture and in most places they can do that a lot more cost efficiently than we can.”

Gold miners settle at Harmony

The National Union of Mineworkers has settled with the final company in a large-scale strike, beginning Sept. 3, that impacted gold production throughout South Africa. Workers had remained on strike at Harmony Gold despite settlements at Anglo American and other firms the previous week. On Sept. 8, the company finally agreed on an 8 percent pay hike, opening the way for the resumption of full-scale production.

The rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which represents about 20 percent of workers affected in the strike, did not participate in the NUM-initiated strike. AMCU rejected the 8 percent wage settlement, and is threatening to take its workers out if a larger offer is not made.

AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa told workers in Carletonville, “We have confirmed and voted for a strike.” (SABC, Sept. 9)

AMCU and NUM have competed over who will represent mineworkers. In 2012, in the Northwest Province’s Rustenburg area, a police massacre killed 34 miners, and some lost their lives or were injured in internecine conflict.

Differences between NUMSA and Alliance partners

A struggle over the status of the Congress of South African Trade Unions Secretary General Zwelinzimi Vavi has erupted publicly. He was suspended over alleged misconduct. COSATU is the country’s largest labor federation.

NUMSA has accused the ruling African National Congress and the South African Communist Party of unwarranted interference in its internal affairs as a labor organization. NUMSA says that COSATU should not be the ruling party’s “labor desk.”

In a sharp response to this crisis — which escalated as a result of a post-Tripartite Alliance economic summit report — the SACP’s Provincial Council in Guateng accused COSATU of attempting to undermine the Alliance. This Alliance has ensured ANC dominance in South African politics since 1994 when the first non-racial elections were held after the racist apartheid system collapsed.

The SACP Sept. 8 statement claims, “The Provincial Council noted desperate attempts by the General Secretary of NUMSA, comrade Irvin Jim, to draw leaders of the SACP and ANC into problems facing [COSATU]. At its Special Central Executive Committee meeting held mid-August, … it suspended … Vavi.” (sacp.org.za)

A report entitled “State of the Alliance: The Previous Five Years” was issued by the ANC following the Alliance’s economic summit; it takes on the problems inside the coalition of national democratic forces in South Africa.

In it, ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe says, “In the bigger part of the five years the alliance has worked well and carried out common programs. However, assessing all the structures of the individual alliance partners, we … conclude that the alliance is at its weakest at the moment.” He also criticized the South African National Civic Organization, saying it now has no presence on the ground. SANCO played a pivotal role in the anti-apartheid struggle during the 1980s and early 1990s.

National elections are scheduled for early 2014. The Alliance’s role will be crucial in the ANC’s ongoing efforts to remain in power.