By Norm Dixon
JOHANNESBURG — Twenty five thousand workers employed in South Africa's car assembly industry have begun a national strike in support a 12% wage increase and the elimination of apartheid wage differentials.
Speaking on August 2, the day the strike officially began, metalworkers' union (NUMSA) organiser Gavin Hartford told reporters that car workers voted on April 27 "for a new government and our members expect that it is going to bring about real change in terms of overcoming wage disparities based on the apartheid wage curve in the companies".
Even before the strike had officially started, workers at most of South Africa's seven car companies — Toyota, Mercedes Benz, VW, Delta Motor Corp, BMW, Nissan and Samcor — had already walked out. Almost 80% of NUMSA members in the industry voted in a ballot in late July to strike. Workers at Nissan's Pretoria plant had already been on strike since July 28 in protest at racist abuse by managers.
The strike is the most significant yet in the wave of industrial action taking place in South Africa. Employers claim that the strike will cost them R110 million (A$44 million) in lost production of 1500 vehicles for each strike day.
NUMSA demanded that employers in the Automobile Manufacturers Employers' Organisation (AMEO) agree to a 15% wage increase and rectify wage anomalies from South Africa's racist past over the next two years. After 250 hours of negotiation, AMEO offered 9% and promised to end apartheid's pay differentials over four years.
Other unresolved issues include the amount of training required for black employees to be considered skilled workers. AMEO wants workers to undergo twice as much training as the union considers necessary for promotions, but is offering to pay for only half the studies NUMSA members would require. NUMSA is also demanding that employers guarantee there be no retrenchments as a result of the expected restructuring of the South Africa's motor industry.
Enoch Gondongwana, NUMSA general secretary, announced on August 2 that "in the interests of expediting a settlement" the union was prepared to accept a 12% increase and the closure of the racist wage gap over three years.
Gondongwana charged that AMEO's hardline stance was the result of pressure from the giant Anglo American conglomerate which owns Samcor. Samcor pays the "bare minimum" in the industry — R850 ($A340) a month.
Hartford said Samcor was the company "most strongly resisting correction of the apartheid wage structure. We can only believe that is the result of Anglo American's influence". Hartford said that Anglo fears that a favourable settlement which closes the wage gap and addresses apartheid's neglect of education will have a "knock-on effect in the mining industry and across the country".
"Anglo American must now recognise that to end apartheid is a more profound exercise than just a national election," Gondongwana said. "More than anything else it involves ending, in the shortest possible time, the twin evils of a racist wage structure and the results of discriminatory education and training ... That will cost them money. They cannot escape from this hard reality."
Gondongwana rejected employers' calls for a blanket no-strike agreement. "They were saying we could not strike over anything during the currency of this contract; that we can make a commitment in respect of only those issues covered by the contract. Their demand is basically absurd."
Hartford added that such a no-strike demand was ridiculous in a context in which supervisors were poorly educated and had no problem-solving skills. It is common for managers to refer to black workers as "baboons" which then provoke stoppages. "No number of no-strike clauses can prevent those sort of strikes," he said.
Hartford said that the union's decision to revise their demands to a 12% increase and non-racial wages in three years "is not a bargaining tactic". He explained that NUMSA arrived at its original 15% claim because "for the last four or five years we've been accepting increases at inflation, and last year, less than inflation".
According to Hartford the South African motor industry is facing major restructuring as it begins to be reintegrated into the world industry.
"The industry has been historically protected by a 115% tariff and surcharge, now being reduced to 45% over the next five to eight years. Overcapacity in the world industry is 10 million units. It is a highly competitive industry and the South African manufacturers are looking for ways in which to radically upgrade, particularly human resources, to be able to survive the reintroduction into the world market and not to be killed by imports.
"Over the past two years there has been a growing push by employers to upgrade levels of investment in capital equipment and their workforces' education, training and skills ... The South African automotive industry is well behind the rest of the world with regard to [this]. It is also well behind in terms of capital investment, automation and quality of management."
Hartford agreed that a loss of jobs in the assembly sector of the car industry was inevitable. He told Green Left Weekly that NUMSA was insisting on a very strict procedure to ensure employment security. "We have what we call 'Work Security Funds' based in the various regions which allow people to access new training and to be deployed into new, growing sectors of the market."
Hartford said that the South African industry had to concentrate on the expansion of the vehicle component sector of the industry. He believed that total employment in the motor industry could be maintained at 25,000 if employers followed that course.
Late on August 4, NUMSA delegates walked out of talks accusing employers of negotiating in bad faith. Despite progress on non-wage issues, AMEO refused to budge on its wage offer. Hartford predicted that NUMSA members would "dig in" and the bosses would be in for a "protracted" strike.
In a separate dispute, NUMSA and the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (SEIFSA), whose members employ over 200,000 workers, are no closer to an agreement. NUMSA is demanding a 12% rise and SEIFSA is offering only 8%. Both parties have agreed to mediation but NUMSA leaders warn that it is increasingly likely that strike action will be necessary to break the deadlock.