Steel and engineering workers take national strike action

A 2014 Numsa Day of Action Against the Youth Wage Subsidy

The Marxist Workers Party (CWI South Africa) stands in solidarity with the steel and engineering workers who began national strike action on 5 October. This action on pay is being led by Numsa, the dominant union in the nearly half-million strong workforce. Marches have taken place in Johannesburg and Durban, with one journalist, reporting live from Johannesburg, remarking that this is the largest worker-action seen since the pandemic began.

This strike is particularly welcome after more than a year-and-a-half of a relentless assault on the working class, as a whole, under the cover of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over one million lost jobs and savage cuts in social spending have resulted in significant declines in living standards. The struggle of the steel and engineering workers has broken out just weeks before the local government elections. All the indications are that the African National Congress (ANC) governing party will bleed further support without any of the major opposition parties able to take advantage. Therefore the significance of this strike lies beyond the immediate battle between Numsa and the steel and engineering bosses.

In 2014, after a heroic five-week strike, the steel and engineering workers pushed the employers from 7% to a deal that saw the lowest-paid workers receive three consecutive years of 10% increases. There is no reason that a similar outcome cannot be achieved in this strike.

Capitalist class’s propaganda campaign

The entire capitalist class has been pushing a relentless propaganda campaign. In the face of the pandemic and economic crisis, they claim any demand for a wage increase amounts to an act of economic sabotage – workers must just tighten their belts until better times. Just two months ago, a majority of public sector trade union leaders succumbed to this pressure and capitulated on the issue of public sector pay. A few weeks later the leaders of the local government unions followed suit. Now the steel and engineering bosses are trying to follow in the footsteps of the rotten public sector pay deal, just as we warned they would.

But the steel and engineering workers are now creating their own ‘propaganda of the deed’ and smashing any idea that mass working class struggle is impossible during the pandemic. The public sector pay dispute should have been the starting point for a wider struggle of the entire working class, drawing in private sector workers. Now the responsibility to act on behalf of the class, as a whole, has shifted to the private sector with the steel and engineering workers to the fore.

Public sector workers will be watching this strike jealously. They will be thinking: this is the strike we should have had! The anger, especially of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) workers, at their sell-out leaders, already at a high level, will swell. The likelihood that they will get away with another sell-out in the next round of public sector wage negotiations is looking less and less likely, especially if the steel and engineering strike ends in a victory, or even a partial victory.

The Cosatu leadership’s credibility was significantly damaged by their capitulation in the public sector wage negotiations. Fearing that it is going to be outflanked on the left in a strike led by Numsa, Saftu’s largest affiliate, the Cosatu leadership has called a “National Day of Action” for 7 October. This is a desperate attempt to reverse the collapse of what is left of its authority. Incredibly their call for action makes no reference to the steel and engineering strike. Instead, they protest against the austerity policies to which they have just capitulated!

Out of frustration with their leaders, it would be understandable if many Cosatu members first thought is to ignore the call. However, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) leadership should seize the opportunity that has been handed to them. They should make Cosatu’s call for a national day of action their own, by organising a new round of strike-marches on 7 October and appealing to Cosatu members to join them. This can help build a bridge between the two federations for the workers trapped in Cosatu.

Full advantage should also be taken of the fact that the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers has issued a statement explicit in its support for Numsa’s demands. This comes after a good wage deal at Harmony Gold that saw NUM co-operating with the unaffiliated Amcu union. This co-operation is now being carried over to negotiations in at Sibanye-Stillwater. Mineworkers have clearly become exhausted by the bureaucratic union rivalries in the mining sector and pressured their leaders towards greater cooperation.

Socialist alternative

Steel and engineering workers begrudgingly accepted a pay freeze in 2020 in the face of the shutdown of the economy under the lockdowns. Workers thought that the hardships they endured to ensure businesses in their sector survived would be rewarded. Now, with contempt, the bosses have thrown that sacrifice back in workers’ faces. Right at the start of the pandemic, we warned that the bosses would use the crisis to call for the pausing of the class struggle. We said it was a trap that class-conscious workers and working class activists must reject.

Those union leaders who sowed the illusion that some sort of Covid ‘social compact’ was ever possible were mistaken to do so. Any attempt, under the pressure of the ruling class, to bring the steel and engineering strike to a quick end, by settling for less than determined action is capable of winning, would be a serious mistake. There is no way forward for capitalism – another battle will be inevitable.

The intransigence of the steel and engineering bosses has not fallen out of the clear blue sky. The capitalist class has no confidence in the future of their system. They are only united by the idea that the working class must be made to pay the bill for the crisis of capitalism. The battle lines between the classes will be drawn even more sharply in the future.

The struggle to build unity in the battles in the workplaces must also be reflected in a struggle to build unity on the political plane. The contradictions in Cosatu are continuing to deepen. The federation’s leadership is calling for a vote for the ANC in the local government elections but its largest affiliate, Nehawu, is refusing to campaign in protest over the public sector pay deal. The Saftu-initiated ‘Working Class Summit’ is preparing to reconvene.  A campaign should be conducted to ensure that every workplace in the steel and engineering sector sends delegates to the Summit. It is crucial that the Summit move ahead and implement its 2018 resolution on the creation of a workers’ party. This is the vehicle needed to unite the struggles of workers in the public and private sectors, and draw behind them the masses of the unemployed, the youth, and working class communities. Such a party can offer a socialist alternative to the dead-end of capitalism. The launch date of the new workers’ party should then be linked to a call for a united general strike of public and private sector workers, early in the new year.

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October 2021