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From The Socialist newspaper, 12 July 2007

South Africa: union leaders call off biggest-ever strike

ON 28 June, public sector unions called off South Africa's biggest-ever strike, involving nearly one million workers which began on 1 June. 17 unions took action, demanding a 12% pay increase.

Weizmann Hamilton, Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI, South Africa)

The suspension of the longest public sector strike in South Africa's history followed the collapse of the unprecedented inter-union solidarity that had sustained the strike for nearly one month.

The 7.5% increase attained has already been undermined by the increase in inflation to 6.5%, interest rates to 13%, a further increase in the fuel price, and food inflation set to go even higher than the current 20%. Despite this, the public sector strike brought about a turning point in the relations between the classes and in the political situation in the country.

The surrender produced a split amongst the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) affiliates. While the National Education Health and Allied Workers (Nehawu), Cosatu's second biggest public sector affiliate (and four other smaller Cosatu affiliates including the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union) led the capitulators, its biggest affiliate, the SA Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) led the resistance.

Standing firm with Sadtu, on the reduced demand for a 10% pay increase, was the National Professional Teachers Association (Naptosa) and the Public Servants Association, both independent unions.

The unions' decision to suspend the strike was preceded by the government effectively ending the negotiations, by tabling a signed final offer at the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council in the week before.

The government had threatened the withdrawal of the revised offer of 7.5% as suggested by the mediators, reverting to the previous offer of 7.25%. Such was the fury of "having a gun held to our heads", workers organised buses to travel to Centurion near the capital Tshwane (formerly Pretoria) to picket. The Bargaining Council meeting ended in chaos when workers entered the building one evening and discharged fire extinguishers.

By the following day, the government denied vigorously that it had issued an ultimatum only to follow this by, in effect, issuing a new ultimatum in the form of its final offer.

According to the Bargaining Council constitution, if either party puts forward a signed proposal, it remains on the table for 21 working days, after which it falls off if a majority has not signed.

Initially, there was not a majority for the 7.5% on the union side. For the proposal to become a council resolution, 50%+1 of the unions must sign acceptance. However, the balance was swung in favour of the proposal after the SA Police Union signed.

Significance

THE IMPORTANCE of this strike lies not only in its size and length. It is politically the most significant strike since the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994. Its repercussions will reverberate throughout the Tripartite Alliance (ANC, Cosatu and South African Communist Party) further weakening its foundations.

There will be consequences for the leadership of those unions that capitulated and, in effect, forced on the membership an offer that, to say the least, they are not enthusiastic about.

It has been said of the British labour movement that the working class are lions led by donkeys in the TUC (union congress). After the recent union leaders' cowardly capitulation in South Africa, it would be no exaggeration to say the same of the Nehawu and Cosatu leadership.

Strike tactics

Days before the suspension of the strike, the Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, in an address to a Young Communist League rally in Mpumalanga, claimed the 7.5% pay increase offer from the government represented a gain for public sector workers. Yet, only the day before, the Cosatu president assured demonstrators at a picket of the Bargaining Council that the unions would not accept the government's 7.5% offer.

It has been the Democratic Socialist Movement's (DSM - CWI in South Africa) position, from the onset of the industrial action, that the tactic of calling a so-called "indefinite strike" was incorrect. The Nehawu union leadership, in particular, with their eyes on the coming ANC congress, gave the impression they were determined not to repeat the 'mistakes' of past strikes. In reality, they were trying to compensate for the union leadership's opportunist capitulation of 2004, with an attempt to appear more radical, three years later.

It would have been more effective to have called a 'rolling campaign' of mass action, under the protection of an 'indefinite strike notice'.

As we explained in our third and final DSM special strike leaflet, an indefinite strike notice would have provided indefinite legal protection for carefully planned (once or twice weekly) mass actions by the public sector unions.

This action would have built up workers' confidence and organisation and been used as a build-up towards a general strike, drawing in the unions in the private sector, whose wage negotiations are now also starting.

In the end, however, the union leaders chose to defuse the mass working class militancy. It can legitimately be asked whether the calling of an indefinite strike was deliberately calculated to exhaust the membership and to prepare for the union leaders' capitulation.

In the view of some Nehawu shop stewards, their leadership adopted this militant posture to assure their re-election at the Nehawu congress, which took place within days of the suspension of the strike.

The government had also made a number of blunders during the strike. The Minister of Finance announced there was enough money to fund a 9% increase, drawing a stinging rebuke from the Minister of Public Service and Administration, whose husband is the Finance Minister's deputy.

There was further embarrassment over the proposals of the government's remuneration committee to recommend increasing the salaries of government ministers' and the president by between 30% and 57%.

Capitalist party

THE FACTS of the recent strike speak volumes about the character of the ANC. The ANC is a party committed to capitalism and which represents the interests of the aspirant black capitalist class and big business. This was confirmed by the outcome on the debates at its recent policy conference. Although the majority of ANC members supported the public sector workers' demands they were not even debated at the conference!

The DSM was the only left organisation that consistently communicated with workers during the strike by way of three editions of our special strike leaflets, which were warmly accepted by strikers.

Our call for Cosatu workers to take the trade union federation out of the Tripartite Alliance is finding an increasing echo. Many workers remarked that the independent unions, by and large, showed greater consistency, determination and clarity concerning the strike demands and on the prosecution of the strike.

The DSM calls for the lessons of the strike to be urgently digested by the workers' movement in preparation for the coming class battles. This includes struggling for unions democratically controlled by the rank and file, which will successfully resist the neo-liberal attacks of the ANC government.

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