South African Airways workers win wage increase after strike action

Workers' protest during SSA dispute. Grounded planes are visible in the background.

The outcome of the South African Airways (SAA) strike is a victory. The Cabin Crew Association of South Africa and National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) deserve the applause of all aviation workers, and the working class, as a whole. In picketing in support of a strike co-led by a union not affiliated to the federation, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) demonstrated not only the principle of working class solidarity in action. It was also recognition that what were at stake were not only the wages, jobs and conditions of SAA workers, but public sector workers as a whole and the working class in general.

The SAA management’s government–backed strategy was to bring the SAA workers to their knees, in preparation for a much wider assault on Eskom workers, followed by other SOEs and the public sector workers. The strike was also meant to serve as a testing ground for their new legislative weaponry in the coming wider class war – the Labour Relations Act (LRA) amendments calculated to cripple the right to strike.

That the LRA’s anti-strike provisions failed to intimidate the cabin crew workers, has set an example to the working class against whom these weapons will almost certainly be deployed in the battles to come. Management’s tactics also included a cynical attempt to use the well-known tactic of divide-and-rule by settling first and separately with the pilots who won a 5.9% increase and offering the cabin crews an insulting 0%. This was in fact an attempt to cut wages whose purchasing power is constantly eroded by inflation – ever-rising prices for basic commodities, services, fuel, transport etc. In addition, they sought acquiescence to the plans to retrench 944 workers.

Every strike is a battle for the hearts and minds of the public; for organised workers, those of the working and middle class public, in particular. Despite the capitalist media’s attempts to mobilise public opinion against the strike, by raining down a torrent of abuse on the workers and the unions, the strike enjoyed widespread public sympathy, including from inconvenienced air travellers.

The capitalist media is now trying to wipe the rotten eggs from their faces after this setback for the South African Airways management and their capitalist ANC government by belittling the outcome. In a piece in which he even found room to denounce the Cuban Revolution of 1959, through a naked falsification of history, Sikothinathi Manthantsha, Financial Mail, Deputy Editor, who, presumably for a second income, moonlights at the Daily Maverick, vented the hatred of the capitalist class. In a frenzied attack, that would not be out of place in the speeches of Hitler’s propaganda specialist, Goebbels, he rubbished claims of victory as a “red lie”, insisted that Numsa had been subjected to a “humbling” defeat, urged workers to ask what value unions bring for them, and denounced the government’s undertaking to secure funding for the full settlement as a pre-meditated act of criminality.

Misrepresenting facts, Business Day’s Carol Paton repeats the bourgeois line that SAA workers “took a beating”, because they had to settle for the 5.9% offer on the eve of the strike. The fact is that the unions mobilised to strike against the 0% insult. Once the 5.9% was offered on the eve of the strike to prevent it, workers were absolutely correct to attempt to press home the advantage of the bosses’ retreat. That they did not secure 8% does not detract from the stubborn fact that not only did they prevent a wage cut but they secured an increase no less than that obtained by the pilots. A blundering management first placed the 5.9% on the table on the eve of the strike, withdrew it, only to reinstate it under the pressure of the strike.

As if to reassure them, Paton claims that “business and those who are pro-economic reform watched the SAA strike play out with approval. The government stood its ground, was consistent in its message that the buck had stopped, and left the dispute to SAA management to resolve.”

However, this normally much more sober cadre of the capitalist class tempers her triumphalism with a note of sobriety: “But Eskom is a far more complex and important institution, and the energy transition — which is really what restructuring Eskom is all about — entails deep social and economic change, in which the entire society has an interest. It is intensely political with many trade-offs to be made. A face-off with the unions is not a viable strategy. Negotiations will need to be profound and meaningful”.

Placing the lessons of the 2018 strike before her class, she concludes: that the 2018 0% offer to NUM and Numsa at Eskom was a provocation.

Lessons of the strike

In the same way as the capitalists, the labour movement must engage in a sober evaluation of the outcome of the strike, as well as the strategy and tactics employed. This is so as to prepare for the next major battle in the class war that has been declared by the executive committee of the capitalist class – Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) government.

As Mantshantsha’s further remarks show, South African Airways and government have emphasised that “the implementation of that increase is highly conditional: it can only be implemented if and when SAA secures funds for working capital.”

The pressure on government, in effect, to renege on the agreement has already begun not only from the like of Mantshantsha, but from rating agency S&P and the IMF. They, post-strike, issued what the capitalist press portrays as a “big warning” to the government to press ahead with “reforms”, reign in public spending, especially the public sector wage bill, and create conditions for private sector investment, i.e. privatisation.

The SAA strike was a deliberate provocation to force a strike and create the climate in public opinion to justify wage cuts, retrenchment and privatisation. The cabin crew workers’ union, untested and unaffiliated, was considered a soft target, and deliberately isolated by settling first with the pilots. The propaganda tap was opened over alleged “over staffing”, SAA’s technical bankruptcy, and continued reliance on government bail-outs with money that could be spent on service delivery, as well as fighting corruption. These were all calculated to bring the workers to their knees and to win the public over to privatisation to save government money being poured into an “expensive and unprofitable luxury”.

No reliance can be placed on government’s undertaking to secure the funding to pay the settlement, in full. All the pretexts for this war on the working class, in which the SAA workers were supposed to have been the first casualties, are still in place: a widening budget deficit, declining tax revenue, low investment and low economic growth. The bosses and their government’s strategic objective remain to place the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of the working class. They, therefore, retreated before the SAA workers to prepare for an even bigger offensive against the Eskom and public sector workers after the February’ 2020 budget when the rating agency Moody’s “final writing warning” expires.

Public sector

Capitalist economists, like Investec’s Nazreema Moola, are already pressurising government to tear up the existing three-year public sector collective agreement before it expires in 2023, to cut annual bonuses, retention allowances (for Occupation Specific Dispensation jobs) and annual notch increases. Government itself has reneged on the 2007 and 2010 collective agreements to fill public sector jobs “within six months”. Instead they are cutting jobs by stealth by not filling vacancies and offering penalty free early retirement.

The South African Airways workers must therefore remain on high alert. More importantly, this battle was won with no involvement from the rest of the workers in the aviation industry, much less the public sector. It is now urgent that the entire aviation industry workforce be unionised, in the first instance, through a united front of existing unions, as well as a rapid recruitment drive to unionise the unorganised. SAA is the last bastion of state ownership in the aviation industry that has spun off subsidiaries like Air Chefs, Mango, Express, SA Express and Air Link. The unionisation drive must target workers employed by the parasitic service providers, like Bid Air, Swissport, Morena, Reshebile and Azda for insourcing. Workers complain that since the involvement of ANC ‘cadre’ in the companies contracted to the SOEs, exploitation has increased.

There is no question that corruption is a critical factor of SAA’s disastrous finances alongside the high cost of jet fuel – the biggest cost driver. The claim that a multiplicity of airlines and competitive tendering for the supply of jet fuel would create competition and thus bring down costs has been a resounding failure. The partial privatisation of Telkom reduced its workforce from 60,000, in 1994, to less than 10,000, today, with more job cuts contemplated. The telecommunication industry is dominated by a duopoly. Phone call and data costs are amongst the highest in the world. The same fate awaits SAA workers and passengers.

As SAA worker and Marxist Workers Party (MWP) member, Bongani Nkosi, points out, the National Transport Union (NTM), as well as the union from which it split away, the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), have played an absolutely shameful, strike breakers role. Comrade Bongani resigned from the NTM as a shop steward and member over the NTM’s collaboration with the bosses and corruption.

Sacca and Numsa must expand the united front forged during the SAA strike and make an appeal over the heads of these strike breaker union leaders, directly to the members themselves to cleanse their unions of corruption and class collaboration, or to join a union of their choice. By whatever route, they must be part of the preparations for the next battle for their jobs, conditions and wages that will come under attack.

We say:

  • Oppose privatisation and retrenchments
  • Establish a trade union and worker-led inquiry into the costs of SAA and the wasteful running of the entire airline industry
  • Demand the re-integration of SAA subsidiaries back into SAA to achieve economies of scale and bring down costs
  • Demand an end to outsourcing: Insource all workers on permanent jobs on the same wages and conditions as SAA workers; Terminate the contracts of outsourced companies
  • Re-nationalise Sasol
  • Terminate jet fuel supply contracts
  • Sasol to supply jet fuel to SAA at cost
  • Establish a united front of all unions in the aviation industry and all other SOEs
  • Prepare for solidarity action with Eskom, SOEs and public sector workers
  • Demand that SAA be run under workers’ control with representation from workers in the industry and from organised passengers

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) leadership’s announcement that it could support the partial privatisation of “non-strategic” SOEs, including SAA, is their most treacherous capitulation, yet. It is only exceeded by their support for Ramaphosa’s attacks on the right to strike in the LRA amendments. They have placed themselves at the service of the bosses and the government against the working class. But, in doing so, they are placing themselves on a direct collision course with their membership. In the looming attacks on the SOEs and the public sector, Cosatu members will want to fight back to defend their jobs, wages and conditions. They must organise to overturn the class collaborationist policy of their leaders, including the demand that Cosatu breaks from the Tripartite Alliance.

To assist Cosatu members to join the battle, Saftu should make a direct appeal to them – inviting them to join the struggle against job losses, austerity and privatisation, regardless of the policy of their leaders. The Cosatu membership could be drawn into a trade union united front by the creation of industrial locals – workplace and area level action committees – that unite in struggle the workers of all unions, federations and those not members of unions. The question of workers changing unions, or unions shifting affiliations, should be one possible outcome of the experience of united struggle. But it cannot be made a pre-condition for it.

To add to the momentum of such an initiative, and to pile the pressure on the Cosatu leaders, Saftu could reconvene the Working Class Summit (WCS), inviting ordinary Cosatu members and shop stewards to discuss the way forward for the struggle, including placing the idea of a general strike in response to the February 2020 budget on the table. As an integral part of organising a working class fightback, working class political representation must be discussed again, and a plan made to urgently implement the Saftu and WCS resolutions in favour of founding a mass workers’ party.


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November 2019