South Africa’s biggest metal and engineering union has launched an indefinite strike over pay and conditions.
Around 155,000 members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) walked out on Tuesday and are still out. Their action could cause a shutdown of large parts of the engineering industry.
Striker Solomon Lindiwe told Socialist Worker, “We are very determined. Our pay is not enough. I have been working for a company for 12 years in a skilled trade and I get only 8,500 Rand (£420) a month.
“Many in my family have no job so I have to help them too.
“It has been hard during coronavirus but now we want to be paid our share. We must have rallies and make sure that nobody goes to work. It must be a strong strike, not days off.”
Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim has been denounced by right wing media for saying that "no rats should be allowed to go work during their strike”. It was seen as calling for violence against strikebreakers.
But it’s the strikers who have faced violence. A motorist ploughed into a group of workers on their way to a rally in Wadeville near Johannesburg and killed a Numsa member.
In nearby Booysens, police used rubber bullets against strikers.
In other areas, police and private security companies have attacked pickets and even shot at them.
In Johannesburg this week, thousands of strikers marched to the bosses’ offices. The union delivered a memorandum that condemned the companies’ aim “to bring back apartheid wages where super-exploitation of black and African labour becomes the order of the day”.
It criticised the “backward and union-bashing stance led, in particular, by right wing conservative employer associations”.
Irvin Jim told the crowd, “We are not backing down, this is an indefinite strike until all demands are met.”
Numsa is pushing for an 8 percent across-the-board wage rise in the first year of a pay deal. And for an increase equal to the rate of inflation plus 2 percent for the following two years. Annual inflation is currently about 5 percent.
Bosses have offered 4.4 percent for 2021, inflation plus 0.5 percent in 2022 and inflation plus 1 percent in the third year.
Numsa’s national spokesperson, Phakamile Hlubi Majola, said that in 2020, employers “asked us to sign a standstill agreement” because of the pandemic. Workers agreed and gave up an expected wage rise.
“So the workers have made huge sacrifices,” she said. “These bosses benefited from the fact that workers did not take a hike last year. And we were expecting that they would give back to the workers and their families. Workers feel betrayed.”
The strike is tapping into a much wider mood over poverty and low pay that was reflected in the riots and looting in July.
But this has organised workers at the centre of it.
The Cosatu union federation held a day of strikes and protests on Thursday as the government prepares a budget statement next month. It said workers had taken action in 28 cities and towns.
But the overall involvement was patchy. The Numsa strike has much more life and a clear objective.
“We want to win here and I hope other workers will do the same,” says Solomon.