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South African teachers, health workers on strike

Published Sep 1, 2010 5:58 PM

Some 1.3 million workers in the Republic of South Africa walked off the job on Aug. 18 after talks with the government collapsed. The government failed to meet their demands for an 8.6 percent increase in wages and a housing allowance of $170 per month.

President Jacob Zuma of the ruling African National Congress has ordered his top-level ministers to return to the negotiating table with a mandate to work out a settlement to end the strike. The government has offered a 7 percent wage increase and a $94 housing allowance.

Other sectors of the economy may soon be impacted. Unions representing mining and retail are threatening to join the South African Democratic Teachers Union and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union.

The strike has closed down schools throughout the country and severely hampered the ability of hospitals and other public health services to function. The government ordered the military into the hospitals to provide basic services and to handle maintenance.

Mass demonstrations by the striking workers and other unions initially resulted in clashes between the police and protesters. The strike has escalated the debate over economic policy within the Tripartite Alliance, composed of the ruling ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions — to which both SADTU and NEHAWU are affiliated — and the South African Communist Party.

Membership and leadership in the Tripartite Alliance overlap. The general secretaries of the ANC and COSATU are also leading members of the SACP.

COSATU welcomed Zuma’s new initiative to settle the strike. It said in a statement Aug. 30: “The federation hopes that an improved offer will now be tabled and that the strike can be settled as quickly as possible, through an agreement that is acceptable to the workers.” (Mail & Guardian)

Zuma is concerned about the long-term implications of the strike. His government relied heavily on the trade unions to secure its overwhelming victory in the 2009 national elections, which brought the current administration to power with a mandate to increase public spending and directly address the concerns of the working class.

Other unions pledge to join strike

A number of unions have pledged to join the strike in a one-day solidarity action scheduled for Sept. 2 if there is no resolution of the workers’ demands. The National Union of Mineworkers, one of the largest industrial organizations in the country, issued a statement Aug. 27 saying it would temporarily stop work if a settlement is not reached.

“The NUM fully supports the public sector strike and would next week Thursday ensure that every mining operation, every construction site and every energy worker join the public sector strike in different forms. Mineworkers are angry that when ... the public sector workers ask for a mere pittance, they are met with resistance and threatened with dismissals by those in power.” (cosatu.org.za)

This statement of solidarity from NUM coincides with other labor struggles taking place within various sectors of the economy, which is the most industrialized in Africa. The National Union of Metalworkers in South Africa, which represents 70,000 people employed in garages, workshops and automotive sectors, held a march Aug. 28 in the city of Sandton. The march was designed to pressure the bosses in the motor industry to agree to the workers’ demands for wage increases and improved employment conditions.

Unions representing workers in the retail industry have also threatened to strike against the lowering of wages and the decline in working conditions. The South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union announced its participation in the Sept. 2 general strike if the dispute is not settled. In an Aug. 30 statement, SACCAWU said: “The Union has observed and experienced some disturbing trends in Industrial Relations within the wholesale and retail sector over the last few years. ... ‘Walmartization’ has now entered a new phase characterized by super-profit-driven unilateral restructuring, unilateral termination of collective agreements as well as an intransigent attitude which rears its ugly head during wage negotiations. ...

“Union members within the wholesale and retail sectors are more than ready to take the bull by its horns as they are no longer prepared to tolerate arrogance that has been displayed by various employers who treat workers and the Union with contempt in their drive for super-profits.” (cosatu.org.za)

In several Eastern Cape cities, a strike against Kentucky Fried Chicken Corp. has been ongoing since Aug. 19.

Policy debates continue amid global economic crisis

The current labor strife in South Africa has intensified debate within the various organizations that led the national democratic revolution to power in 1994. The former racist apartheid regime collapsed as a result of popular, armed and labor struggles from 1976 to 1994.

SACP General Secretary and Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande commented Aug. 29 in response to the current strike that “The wage gap in the public sector between the highest paid and the lowest paid is 91 to one.” (Mail & Guardian) Nzimande called for the government and the public sector unions to resolve the strike as soon as possible so that economic policy issues can be addressed on a national level.

Meanwhile, President Zuma has returned from a state visit to the People’s Republic of China where high-level discussions resulted in the strengthening of relations between the ANC and the Communist Party of China.

Various African states have increased their ties with the PRC amid the worsening economic crisis facing the capitalist world. As the decline in employment and wages continues in both the Western industrialized countries and the underdeveloped regions of the world, workers and the oppressed will seek alternatives to the imperialist states in both international trade and domestic policy.