South Africa: Metal workers’ strike

Industrial action must take forward call for a new workers’ party

Last week the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) issued a statement [see below] replying to the bosses’ accusation, repeated continuously in the media as a fact, that the metalworkers’ strike and the platinum strike before it are ruining the South African economy. To its credit, Business Report, the bosses’ financial daily newspaper, carried our statement in full as an opinion piece by WASP’s President, Moses Mayekiso. (Mayekiso is also a former general secretary of NUMSA, the union leading the present metalworkers strike.)

Firstly, this confirms the credibility of our claim that the media’s economic ‘experts’ are simply spokespersons for the bosses’ economic interests – what WASP had to say in defence of the metalworkers and the working classes’ right to strike was so novel it was newsworthy in its own right. But of course the editors of Business Report had to preface the printing of our statement with an editorial dripping with class hatred. Our statement so angered the editors that they broke from their editorial norm which is to print opinion pieces “usually…without comment”. Our defence of the metalworkers was described as “tedious claptrap”, a “superficial analysis”, combined with “outright lies” which has “taken the ranting of empty vessels to a new low with [WASP’s] latest outpouring of left-wing dogma”.

Business Report invited its readers to “make up their own minds”. WASP has waited patiently for any sort of comment from Business Report’s readers but we have heard nothing; we have waited for Business Report’s editors to reply to our arguments rather than just insult us, but again, we have heard nothing. It seems no one can defend the claims of the economic ‘experts’.

Instead the same economic ‘experts’ continue to make their claims. For example, on 15 July, the media gave front page coverage to Pahli Lehohla, Statistician General, who repeats the claim that strikes are having an “adverse” effect on the economy. Lehohla then says that 188 000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2006 and seems to blame workers and worker militancy for this. WASP has already answered the lie that strikes lead to job losses. But we will repeat it again. On the one hand, if a strike wins workers a pay rise, the bosses will often try and undermine that legitimate gain by making retrenchments to take back with one hand what they have been forced to concede with the other. This is borne out by the report that 48 000 jobs have been lost in mining since mineworkers began struggling for – and winning – significant pay rises from mid-2012 onwards.

On the other hand, jobs are ‘lost’ overseas either when the bosses themselves make the choice (it is not inevitable) to move production to lower-wage countries again in the pursuit of maximum profit or because of the bosses’ adherence (managed on their behalf by the ANC government) to the neo-liberal dogma that demands open markets, removal of trade barriers and the unfettered rule of competition. The result of this dogma for the working class internationally is a race to the bottom for wages and conditions. In the wake of the 2008 world financial crisis over one million jobs were lost without a single strike. Strikes do not cause this race to the bottom, they are an attempt to stop it. In January 2013, Amplats threatened 14 000 retrenchments in response to the fluctuating price of platinum. It was only strike action by the mineworkers that stopped those job losses! Left to themselves the mine bosses would have thrown another 14 000 workers on the scrap heap. WASP awaits a reply to this point from the economic ‘experts’.

Lehohla’s then goes on to say that output from the mining industry has declined 24.7% and that output from manufacturing has declined 4.4%, figures we’ve no reason to doubt. Strikes in these sectors have shut-down production so of course the statistics show a drop in output. As the Business Report editorial said, this is a matter of “numerical fact”. But this takes us to the crux of WASP’s argument that in a capitalist economy the workers and the bosses have different interests which are at odds with one another. So the mine bosses, and the capitalist class in general, lament the damage done to their investments through a 24.7% decline in mining output resulting from the closing of the mines for five months by the strike. But from month end, mineworkers will be at least R1 000 per month better off and receive hefty packages as the wage rise won by their strike is back-dated. What the bosses register as a loss, the working class registers as a gain.

Similarly, when Lehohla looks back at the “good times” of 2006 when the economy grew 7.5% he does not mentioned that in both mining and manufacturing wages were well below their present level which have increased since 2006 as a result of regular strike action. What the bosses register here as a gain with their “numerical facts” says nothing about increasing wages for workers. Nor does it say anything about the share of wealth going to the working class as a whole. It is quite possible to register economic growth at the same time as widening inequality and decreasing wages. In fact this is what has happened in the South African economy since the end of apartheid – in 1993 wages as a share of national income were 58%; in 2012 that has declined to under 52%. This is also the story of the world economy over the last thirty years. As NUMSA president, Andrew Chirwa, correctly said, “the working class is already in a permanent recession”.

A ‘political’ strike

All of this is why WASP calls on metalworkers to embrace the idea that their strike is ‘political’. This is the common thread running throughout the history of the trade union movement since before the birth of Cosatu. It is absolutely correct to raise the banning of labour broking and demand that the bosses refuse to implement the youth wage subsidy. Besides, everything that the bosses say about the strike and about the economy is ‘political’ in the sense that it speaks to the bosses’ interests. Workers must respond to the bosses by asserting their own interests expressed in the ideas of socialism and call for the nationalisation of the big manufacturing monopolies under democratic working class control, alongside other key industries, to lay the basis for expanded and sustainable industrial development.

The metalworkers strike, the lies heaped upon it in the media by the economic ‘experts’, and the confusion sown about what is really happening in the economy shows the urgent need for a mass political party of the working class. The bosses and their ‘experts’ would not be able to get away with their lies as easily if there were such a mass party that could answer them publicly in front of the working class. The publishing today of an opinion poll showing that one third of South African adults “definitely think” that a “a new political party, a workers’ or labour party, will assist with current problems facing SA” shows the rotten ripeness for this development and the desperation of the working class for an organisation that stands firmly and unequivocally on their side. It is no accident that the same poll shows 91% support for the idea (if the ‘definites’ and ‘maybes’ are combined) in the North West – home of the platinum miners and the scene of the Marikana massacre.

The political struggle and the industrial struggle cannot be separated. In the ideological battle that has inevitably accompanied the real class battles taking place, we can see how the creation of a mass workers’ party would compliment and advance the struggle in the workplace. The bosses know this which is why they decry with such outrage the ‘political’ nature of the metalworkers’ strike.

The Workers and Socialist Party was formed to begin the process of assembling the forces that could lay the foundation for such a mass party of the working class. This included standing in the 2014 elections to try and popularise the idea and raise the banner. WASP’s manifesto was written to provide the political basis for the unification of the struggles of the working class and to begin to assemble the forces that could lay the foundations for a workers’ party. We have always recognised that the creation of such a party would require the millions of organised workers’ in particular to embrace the idea and make it their own.

We call on the NUMSA leadership to urgently accelerate their process towards the formation of a mass workers’ party. The conjuncture of determined strike action by the two most decisive sections of the working class – the mineworkers and the metalworkers – is the most opportune time to give birth to such a mass party. The unity forged in struggle, not just within these two groups of workers but between them, as demonstrated in the promise of metalworkers to turn their strike “into a Marikana”, gives a glimmer of the potential. All that is missing is for the call to be made and given their position within the organised working class that responsibility falls first to the NUMSA leadership.

Reaching out to the entire working class – and the mineworkers in particular – a conference should be convened immediately to begin a process that can rapidly lead to the formation of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. Out of the experience of struggle by the two most decisive sections of the working class such a party would be catapulted forward and the unity of the working class in the struggle for a socialist society where all would enjoy full employment, decent wages and high living standards would take a major advance.

Defend the Metalworkers – End the Lies

WASP Statement (10 July 2014)

The bosses, the capitalist politicians of the ANC and the DA, and the media are howling at metalworkers and denouncing them for going on strike. They want to blame metalworkers for the problems of the capitalist economy. The media is full of ‘experts’ who in reality are just spokespersons for capitalism. These ‘experts’ are all saying that the metalworkers strike will “cripple the economy” and bring ruin to South Africa.

Is this true? No! It is all nonsense and lies to try and turn people against the strike and against metalworkers and their unions. In reality it is the bosses who are sabotaging the economy.

Strike ‘violence’?

To soften people up to hear these lies the strike is portrayed in the media as ‘violent’. The ‘experts’ like to talk about the ‘right to work’, by which they mean the right to scab and undermine the strike! The Democratic Alliance even wants to pass legislation saying that if a strike is “excessively” violent it will be declared unprotected which would allow the bosses to sack striking workers.

The DA’s proposal is a charter for the use of agents provocateurs by the bosses and the capitalist politicians. If such legislation passed, to end a strike, all they need to do is send in hired thugs to cause trouble so they can declare the strike unprotected and force workers back to the job with the threat of sacking. The ‘Democratic’ Alliance is only interested in the rights of the bosses.

Who creates the wealth of society?

But, where does any of the wealth in the economy come from? Fundamentally, it comes from the new value added by workers in the process of working – especially in industries like manufacturing. The ‘experts’ say that this strike will be so damaging because manufacturing accounts for 15% of the economy. That means that an entire 15% of economic output is generated by just 230 000 metalworkers in a country of 52 million!

Why do the ‘experts’ not thank and praise this enormous contribution of such a small number of workers to the total wealth of the country and the profits of the bosses? Metalworkers must be the most generous people in all the land to create 15% of the economy but receive such low wages! In reality, this just shows the super-exploitation of metalworkers by the bosses who are so greedy that they are fighting tooth and nail against a modest 12-15% pay rise!

What do they mean by ‘the economy’?

As part of the bosses fight against the workers, they try and confuse us with the economic ‘experts’. The ‘experts’ love to talk about ‘the economy’. But whenever they use this phrase, workers must hear an alarm bell! The ‘experts’ are not really talking about ‘the economy’ but rather the bosses’ interests within the economy. The bosses’ interests are not the same as the workers’ interests.

Manufacturing accounts for 15% of the economy. After the strike, even if metalworkers win their wage and other demands, manufacturing will still account for 15% of the economy. All that will change is that the share of that 15% going to manufacturing bosses’ as profits will be lower and the share going to metalworkers’ wages will be higher. The only reason that the manufacturing sector would shrink as a result of higher wages for metalworkers would be because of sabotage by the bosses. The bosses might decide to retrench workers or close factories so that they can restore their profits. In other words they would seek to undermine the gains of the strike. This would be the bosses’ doing, not a result of the strike.

Is the strike stopping the bosses from investing?

The usual response of the ‘experts’ is then to say that if the bosses have lower profits then they won’t be able to invest and create new jobs. Well, all we can say to this is, what are they waiting for? The share of national wealth going to wages has been steadily decreasing for years. SA businesses have R500 billion of cash stockpiled. They have more money than they know what to do with! That money could be invested today to create jobs. But for the capitalists it is more profitable to speculate with that money on the financial markets. And all they care about is profits.

Why is it that the metalworkers’ strike, which started last week, is now the reason that the capitalists can’t invest? This argument is obviously nonsense. In reality the capitalists have been on an investment strike for years – business investment in South Africa in 2014 is 3% lower than it was in 2008! Is this the doing of metalworkers? No, all this time the bosses have been sabotaging the economy.

Will the strike make SA ‘uncompetitive’?

The ‘experts’ will then say that higher wages for South African metalworkers will make South Africa ‘uncompetitive’. They say that manufacturing will move to parts of the world where wages are lower. The ‘experts’ present this outcome as inevitable as the sun rising in the East. But this is a lie. Again, the bosses are threatening to sabotage any gains from the strike. What they are really saying is that they will close their businesses in South Africa and move them abroad in order to get higher profits for themselves rather than pay metalworkers a fair wage.

But the capitalists want it both ways. The ANC, supported by SA big business, has gone along with the dominant neo-liberal ideas of world capitalism that say trade barriers must be removed, services and the state sector privatised, markets opened and competition allowed to rule supreme. Globally this has been the strategy of the big capitalists of America and Europe to shift power and wealth away from the working class to themselves. When it suits them the SA bosses support this; when it doesn’t they blame the workers. For workers, neo-liberalism creates a race to the bottom in wages. For example, the factories moved to China because wages were lower are now moving to even lower wage countries in South-East Asia!

Socialism can answer the lies

These are all problems of the capitalist system. That is why workers must be armed with socialist ideas. The capitalists’ problems do not need to be our problems if we have a clear understanding of the socialist alternative. Workers must demand the opening of the books of South African companies that claim they cannot compete with foreign importers. Workers’ committees should then scrutinise their profits, senior pay levels, input costs, the wages they pay their workers and the prices they charge for their goods or services.

But even in those cases where companies can prove they can’t compete, workers should not support capitalist profits by asking the working class to pay high prices for goods and services or by holding down wages on the capitalist classes’ behalf. If companies genuinely cannot compete, in the first instance we will demand their nationalisation under workers’ control. This must be the principle demand of the trade union movement struggling to defend jobs from foreign competition.

But ultimately, a socialist society is needed to end the race to the bottom and give jobs and high living standards to all workers and their families. As well as being organised in trade unions workers need to be organised politically in parties like the Workers and Socialist Party to complement the struggle in the workplaces with the united struggle of the working class for a socialist society.

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