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Workers flex muscles as wage gap widens

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander Pictures: African News Agency Archive, Reuters – Against the background of rising living costs, workers in the public and mining sectors embarked on a slew of strikes in support of their demands for a living wage and better working conditions. The crisis of the ANC, Cosatu, SACP alliance is reflective of a broader societal malaise that is related to the political and economic crisis in South Africa and in the world. The strike by Transnet workers must be understood against this background of hardship and of unmet expectations, says the writer.

By Dr Trevor Ngwane

When the Transnet management offered a 3% to 4% wage increase in the 2022 negotiations, workers got anxious, especially with inflation at 7.6%. A palpable sigh of relief followed the termination of the strike by 30 000 workers represented by the United National Transport Union (Untu) and the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu).

The disruption of ports and railways threatened to bring the economy to a shuddering halt. Daily, goods worth R8 billion were blocked from being shipped – that is, 70% of the total merchandise (imports and exports) recorded by the South African Revenue Service. It is no exaggeration to say that the economy was on the brink of implosion, including the spectre of empty shelves in supermarkets this festive season, billions of profits lost by mining and agricultural exporters of primary goods, shortages of petrol and aviation fuel.

This national near-death experience raises the questions: How could this have happened in the first place? Why was such a debilitating strike not averted? And, fundamentally, who is in charge in this country? Satawu leaders approached the president and the minister of finance, among other senior ANC government officials, hoping that the ANC-SACP-Cosatu Alliance, to which they belong, would help in resolving a difficult and dangerous strike. They most probably found an alliance in political and organisational disarray, paralysed by a multitude of intersecting and contradictory interests and factions.

No one knows who is in charge and everyone hopes the ANC’s December national congress will clarify this question. Unfortunately, it won’t. The crisis of the alliance is reflective of a broader societal malaise that is related to the political and economic crisis in South Africa and in the world. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the after-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the sluggish growth of the global economy following the 2008 economic meltdown – these developments have arguably created political and economic conditions that are fraught with uncertainty, instability and insecurity. It is normal for the world’s ruling classes to shift the burden of their problems – of the capitalist crisis – onto the shoulders of the working class and the masses. When profit margins get tight, the first to be sacrificed are workers who often lose their jobs as part of cost-cutting and turnaround stratagems.

Workers celebrate May Day at an event organised by ANC alliance partner Cosatu in Daveyton in May 2014. It is normal for the world’s ruling classes to shift the burden of their problems onto the shoulders of the working class and the masses, says the writer. Picture: EPA

Capitalist governments do the same. They implement austerity budgets that involve cutting the wages of public sector workers, reduce social expenditure on housing, education, health care and social security, raise interest rates, with devastating effects on homeowners, and openly shirk their responsibility for job creation.

The strike by Transnet workers must be understood against this background of hardship and, more importantly, of unmet expectations. Untu, Satawu and Transnet signed an above inflation increase of 7.1% in a three-year wage agreement that spanned the 2018 to 2021 period.

Then came Covid-19, with its many difficulties, especially for the working class and the poor including short time, job losses, small business collapse, sickness and death. When the Transnet management offered a 3% to 4% wage increase in the this year’s negotiations, workers got anxious especially with inflation at 7.6%. Transnet group CEO Portia Derby took home R8.5 million, thus underlining the wage gap between executive pay and that of ordinary employees.

Meanwhile, former group CEO Brian Molefe, chief financial officer Anoj Singh and several executives appeared in court facing corruption charges, thus sowing doubt among workers about where the money goes. Workers expect Transnet, as a state-owned entity, to have a “developmental” agenda and reflect the mandate given to the ANC government by voters.

There is a pervasive anger going back many years, about how the ANC government, as the employer, has treated workers in the public sector. What is significant about this strike is that two unions belonging to two federations and different political traditions came together in a joint strike.

Untu is an affiliate of the politically non-aligned Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) which is multiracial and boasts a substantial white-collar and white worker membership, and is arguably “service-oriented” and “pro-capitalist” or “social democratic” in its politics.

Satawu is part of the alliance and comes from a tradition of militancy and socialist-oriented unionism. The two unions striking together is partly a reflection of the growing anger about living and working conditions on the ground for workers and the solidarity that engenders unified working-class organisation and action.

The strike ended clumsily, with recrimination between the two unions when Untu signed a three-year 6% wage agreement without, according to the Satawu leadership, consultation with it. This served to undermine the solidarity built during the strike.

Trade union rivalry is a result of an exclusive focus on fighting the immediate problems facing workers, of wages and working conditions rather than linking this to a broader struggle for emancipation – that is, for the abolition of the capitalist system of wages.

Both unions, in their different ways, have to arrive at this understanding if their future struggles are to be united, strong and based on working-class solidarity. The sigh of relief at the ending of the strike is understandable but we will have to contend with the consequences of the 10-day strike. Transnet was struggling to cope with processing cargo, with business complaining about delays and slow turnaround times.

The backlog must be cleared. Businesses lost money because of the strike and consumers will have the costs passed on to them. Big business is using the strike to argue for the privatisation of Transnet’s railway corridors and ports. There is a concerted attack on state-owned entities as aspects of a developmental state and agenda. Undermining the developmental agenda is to deny the responsibility of the state for redress and the need to roll back the legacy of oppression and exploitation that we inherited from colonialism and apartheid.

The American arch-capitalist, Rick Rule, enthralled the recent mining indaba when he said: “Capital is not interested in coming to South Africa to right past wrongs.” This is a myopic and self-destructive message that must be rejected before it too, like the strike, leaves the country teetering on the brink.

Ngwane is the Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg.