Two weeks into their strike, the country's biggest union, the National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa), has rejected the latest wage offer in the metals and engineering industry. On Sunday, it said its 220,000 striking members plan to intensify the industrial action, which is making a dent in the beleaguered economy. GREG NICOLSON breaks the situation down.
Both Numsa, which is the largest union in the bargaining process, and the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of SA (Seifsa), the largest employer body, have made concessions on their demands and offers, but the parties still can’t reach a deal. The union has rejected what Seifsa CEO Kaizer Nyatsumba said was its “very last offer”, a three-year deal offering the lowest paid categories 10%, 9.5% and 9% increases over three years and higher paid workers 8%, 7.5% and 7%. The offer was made after consultations with the Department of Labour and Nyatsumba said it was higher than the employers wanted to pay but was offered to try to end the strike. If rejected, it would be taken off the table, said Nyatsumba.
Numsa is clear: it wants double-digit increases. It’s pushing for a one-year deal with 10% but said it might accept a three-year deal with 10% increases each year. The union also wants a R1,000 housing allowance, which has been rejected by the companies.
The National Employers Association of SA (Neasa), which represents mostly small and medium-sized organisations, has accused the larger industry body Seifsa of offering exorbitant increases and, according to CEO Gerhard Papenfus, Seifsa has “turned against the interests of the economy and the poor which cannot find work in this industry”. Neasa wants an 8% deal with lower basic wages for new workers. Both Numsa and Seifsa strongly criticised Papenfus this weekend.
There’s more to the negotiations than pay increases. “Our members remain extremely angry and irritated by the refusal of employers to do away with labour brokers through an agreement with the union, as it has been the case in the auto sector and tyre sector in South Africa,” said Numsa General Secretary Irvin Jim on Sunday. The union wants a ban on labour brokers. The employers aren’t budging.
Then there’s the issue of paid leave for shop stewards who need to attend union meetings. Numsa wants union reps to get more than the offered five days off to attend to union work. Numsa has also called for employers not to use the Employment Tax Incentive scheme.
The suffering of the working class is inseparable from politics, often say union leaders. The same can be said of the metals and engineering strike, but here Numsa is more politically charged then most unions, apart from maybe the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.
While putting together the United Front, a collective of organisations in support of socialism, and distancing itself from the ANC, Numsa has made clear that it’s driven by the historically-created inequalities and abuses in SA and the disappointing efforts from the government to overcome them. “Numsa has endured, like all the black and African working class post-1994 in South Africa, sustained vicious attacks by the combined might of the capitalist bosses of all colours, its liberal media and right-wing political representatives led by the DA and black and African parasitic capitalist elites in the ANC and Alliance,” said Jim on Sunday. While the negotiations are chiefly about wages and conditions, they also give the union a chance to push its political position.
The union says it’s fighting for R5,600 a month for the lowest-paid workers, but widespread allegations of violence and intimidation, including dozens of arrests, have made it hard for Numsa to attract significant and wide-ranging support for their demands. The union says it doesn’t condone violence or intimidation and praised its members on Sunday for helping the police to arrest 10 people in Benoni who were committing criminal acts in Numsa t-shirts but aren’t a part of the union or the strike. “Nothing best confirms the discipline of Numsa members than this behaviour during the strike,” said Jim.
Seifsa has condemned the violence and Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega has expressed concern. Neasa, meanwhile, says Numsa can only garner support for the industrial action by using intimidation. If there were peace, said the group’s Papenfus, we could measure the strike’s real support.
Reportedly, the strike is costing the economy a whopping R300 million a day and the employers’ organisations claim it will further harm a struggling industry. Statistics SA released data last week showing a 7% drop in metals and engineering production in May, with only 2% growth in the industry over 12 months. Producers say they are competing with manufactured imports, the flow-on effect from the platinum strike, and low business confidence leading to negative profit margins. Neasa says the very future of small and medium enterprises is at stake, claiming 250,000 jobs in the industry have been cut in the last five years due to international competition.
The strike, coming so soon after the stand-off in platinum, is also worrying for investors. Reports suggest the strike, which affects up to a third of manufacturing output, could harm SA’s credit rating. “Continued weak investment, exports and overall growth will pose serious challenges to the government’s efforts to reign in its budget deficit and stabilise its debt metrics, a credit negative for the economically troubled country,” said credit ratings agency Moody’s recently.
Numsa says it can’t be blamed for the economy’s poor performance. “While we are fully aware of the state of the industry in the metals and engineering sectors, we are also very acutely aware of the miserable conditions of the life of the majority of the black and African working class who are the backbone of this industry [and] who survive on extremely low, colonial and very inferior, racist-inspired wages,” said Jim on Sunday.
He continued: “It is not the working class who are destroying the so-called ‘South African economy’, which apparently must only feature black and African workers as very cheaply and racially exploited human beings. Rather, it is the employers, their greedy colonial and racist wage strategy… This of course translates into superior profits for them. This is the real threat not only to the South African economy but to our entire society and any possibility of evolving into a truly free, democratic, prosperous and peaceful country.”
Negotiations resume on Monday. DM
Photo: Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim attends a news briefing after a meeting of the trade union’s central committee in Johannesburg, Thursday, 18 August 2011. (Werner Beukes/SAPA)
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