South Africa

Two strikes later, Numsa remains the angry voice of the Alliance

By Greg Nicolson 9 September 2013

The National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa) must be spending a lot of time in its war room. While juggling strikes in the auto manufacturing and motor retail sectors, it’s also leading the campaign to defend Comrade Vavi and defeat the National Development Plan (NDP). In its fight to be heard, the union refuses to be part of any ANC campaign promoting the NDP. By GREG NICOLSON.

On Sunday, Numsa advised motorists to fill up their tanks as at least 70,000 employees in the fuel retailing industry go on strike and another 230,000 workers are legally entitled to join them. The industrial action could halt the fuel and motor retail industries, meaning getting petrol to get to work might become a challenge. Numsa wants double-digit wage increases, the ban of labour brokers, shift allowances and changing of the industry’s peace clause.  Marches are planned in Cape Town and Randburg, expected to see a total of 30,000 to 40,000 demonstrators, said union leaders on Sunday.

“We are not coming up with extravagant demands,” Numsa General Secretary Irvin Jim told media, claiming the Fuel Retailers Association and Retail Motor Industry Organisation had been irresponsible as negotiations broke down. He pleaded: “These are the people who stand out there in the cold, wintry nights filling petrol.”

The strike follows the conclusion of negotiations in the auto industry, where workers at manufacturers such as BMW, Toyota, and Nissan walked off the job, halting production for three weeks, which an industry body said could have cost the industry as much as R700 million a day. Employees at most manufacturing plants will go back to work today with wage increases of 11.5% this year, 10% for 2014 and 10% for 2015, plus increases in short-time, shift, and travel allowances. Members at five of seven manufacturing plants accepted the offer, while those at Toyota in Durban and BMW in Pretoria are holding out for a better deal.

The first step in achieving those pay increases is unity amongst union members towards achieving a common goal. Numsa, SA’s biggest union, has been determined while at the same time has shown a willingness to negotiate its demands.

It has also been the protagonist in a play that illustrates the disunity amongst the ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu alliance. On Tuesday, Numsa will go to court to have Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s suspension for having sex in the office with a junior colleague overturned. The union argues the meeting which decided the suspension was not organised according to Cosatu’s constitution and a faction against Vavi predetermined his fate in order to sideline him. Because of Vavi’s comments on corruption, poor service delivery and the state of employment, he is seen as being in opposition to President Jacob Zuma and his allies in Cosatu, the SACP and ANC who would prefer he take a more positive stance.

ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe last week called Jim “a lone voice within the federation” who “is going out every day alone”. The SACP’s Mpumalanga leadership said, “Irvin Jim and his crew have fallen directly into (the trap of imperialism) wittingly or unwittingly, acting like imperialist agents.” On Sunday, the Gauteng SACP said Jim’s comments “will elevate falsehoods, lies, slander and malice to a strategic level in the struggle for socialism”. It asked him to provide evidence SACP leader Blade Nzimande and Mantashe are partisan towards a faction.

Numsa continues to reject the National Development Plan (NDP), adopted by the ANC at its 2012 Mangaung conference, and said it would not campaign for the document ahead of the 2014 elections, despite the plan being a cornerstone of the ANC’s efforts to convince the public it can address the country’s challenges. “From where we stand, the NDP is (Democratic Alliance) in character. We simply will not campaign for the NDP. We reject the NDP,” said Jim. “The NDP seeks to entrench the dominance of white minority capital… In other words, it wants starvation wages.”

He challenged journalists to present a statement that says Numsa plans to leave Cosatu and the tripartite alliance, claiming the union will continue to fight for policies of redistribution within the structures. “But the ANC can’t have a blank cheque,” he added. “We are prepared for what will come.”

The battle over Vavi and the NDP highlights the chasm splitting the tripartite alliance. Unity is the buzzword. Even at the alliance’s economic summit last week, the need for unity, rather than a coherent economic policy, was the key theme. When Zuma retained his position as ANC president last year, he stressed that it was time to unite.

Meanwhile, alliance members have discarded their veiled criticism of each other, which only the experienced could interpret, and are discrediting their “comrades” by name, in public. The courts have become the key arbiter for settling leadership disputes and almost every case comes with the same premise – in order to win, a faction has gone against protocol so their leader can access power and resources and sideline the opposition. These traits were most evident in the lead up to the ANC’s last national elective conference, but are also on display in Cosatu and within unions.

Unity within a union is paramount to achieving better pay and conditions for workers. The alliance’s emphasis on it, however, shows just how disunified it is. Numsa, with over 300,000 members, will not be able to resolve its differences with the ANC. And it is unlikely Vavi will be able to return to the head of Cosatu without his wings clipped. Even if he does, the alliance is currently stacked with Zuma supporters who would prefer he hides in the shadows.

Numsa says it is fighting these battles because its members want it to. If that is an indication of what workers want, many unions will not be able to legitimately represent their members while at the same time telling them to vote for the ANC (if the party continues to pursue its economic ideologies of the last 20 years).

Eventually, the alliance will need to go through a period of restructuring. If the links between political power, patronage and corruption traverse an alliance, factionalism will be a given. The workers, members or citizens will suffer and ultimately that partnership is unsustainable.

For now, however, Numsa will keep pushing its agenda from within the alliance. The ANC is at a crossroads. It has the impossible task of accommodating different groups who both claim to want to get to the same destination, but are dead sure they each know the right route. It’s best you fill up your tanks ASAP. Ahead of the 2014 elections, it’s going to be a rocky ride. DM

Photo: Numsa General Secretary Irvin Jim briefs media on Sunday. (Greg Nicolson)


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