A strike by 220,000 members of the National Union of Metalworkers in South Africa, the largest labor organization in the country, ended with a three-year agreement for a wage increase. The strike shut down production at General Motors facilities and other industrial locations beginning on July 1.
NUMSA Secretary General Irvin Jim said that the workers had agreed to a 10 percent pay hike for the lowest paid employees. Jim said his members voted overwhelmingly to accept the deal.
“We urge all our members to report for work tomorrow,” Jim told the international press in Johannesburg on July 28. The strike had impacted 12,000 firms throughout South Africa.
The metal workers’ industrial actions halted production at large companies, including construction and engineering group Murray & Roberts Holdings Ltd., beverage-can maker Nampak Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp.
To end the strike, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa agreed to pay the lowest earners an annual wage increase of 10 percent for three years. NUMSA and smaller labor unions such as Solidarity accepted that offer.
Nonetheless, another industrial owners’ group, the National Employers’ Association of South Africa, refused the wage deal, NUMSA announced. “We are not happy with the deal that has been done and will lock out the striking workers from Tuesday (July 29),” NEASA spokesperson Sya van der Walt-Potgieter told reporters. (moneyweb.co.za, July 28)
The strike reportedly cost the owners of the affected firms 300 million rand ($28 million) per day. A series of strikes have hit major industries in South Africa the last two years. Western-based financial publications no longer consider the country to be the leading economy on the continent. Nigeria, an oil-producing state in West Africa, is now regarded as having the top economy.
During the final days of negotiations the employer’s group SEIFSA and NUMSA reached a compromise. The union will be allowed to strike over issues unresolved in the talks.
The bosses credited South African Minister of Labor Mildred Oliphant for her intervention as a major factor in ending the strike. The African National Congress government has been quite concerned with the economic and social impact of extended labor struggles in the country.
SEIFSA Chief Executive Officer Kaizer Nyatsumba acknowledged that a deal had been reached over section 37; the employers’ group was satisfied this would shield firms from two-tier bargaining. He welcomed the end of the strike and praised Oliphant for her role in facilitating negotiations which were stalled for several weeks.
NUMSA strike tests political strength
This strike by NUMSA was also designed to test the political will of its members as well as public support for such an industrial action. The labor organization has been involved in an intense ideological struggle in the Congress of South African Trade Unions, where it is the largest affiliate, over its role in the Tripartite Alliance with the ruling ANC and the South African Communist Party.
NUMSA has accused the ANC and the SACP of advancing policies that do not serve the class interests of South African workers. At the same time, other COSATU affiliates and officials have charged NUMSA leader Irvin Jim with being an ultraleftist who is no longer functioning democratically within Alliance structures.
In addition, NUMSA has threatened to form a workers’ party that could challenge the ANC in upcoming provincial and national elections. NUMSA refused to endorse the ANC for re-election in the recently held national poll on May 7.
Despite the NUMSA leadership’s lack of support, the ANC still won over 62 percent of the vote and remains the dominant political party in the parliament and the administration. Two other opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, made gains in the national parliament.
The EFF was formed by Julius Malema, the former president of the ANC Youth League. The ANC expelled Malema along with other former ANCYL leaders during 2012-13.
Malema has advanced demands for the nationalization of land and mines by the South African state. The DA advocates neoliberal policies to the right of the ANC’s existing program.
The ANC says that it has not abandoned the Freedom Charter demands for land nationalization and people’s control over the economy, but its critics say otherwise. Debates about the future of the South African democratic transition will continue among the various parties and sectors of the working class.
Ultimately it will be the people, based upon the political balance of forces, the level of organization of the working class and their consciousness, who determine the future of the struggle. Whether NUMSA is successful in building an alternative to the ANC will depend upon these variables as well as the popular will of the South African masses.