Test of strength in South Africa's car industry

Issue 

By Norm Dixon

JOHANNESBURG, August 20 — The national strike by car assembly workers entered its third week with no end in sight. The struggle has become a test of strength as the employers steadfastly refuse to offer more than a 10% increase despite an expressed willingness by the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) to settle with a 10.5% raise. The rejection of this offer led the union to revert to its 12% demand.

NUMSA has vowed that the dispute will continue until its demands are met. The car assembly workers began their strike for a wage rise on August 1 and the elimination of apartheid-era wage differentials over three years. The Automobile Manufacturers Employers' Organisation (AMEO) says it needs four years to end racist pay scales.

NUMSA's chief negotiator Gavin Hartford said that AMEO's hard line had nothing to do with affordibility but was a "principled" stand. "Employers are trying to realign the power relationship within the industry and reassert control." This is underlined by the fact that the 0.5% difference would cost employers R600,000 a year to meet while the strike has cost employers around R1.5 billion in lost turnover.

In a blaze of publicity Mercedes Benz and the Delta Motor Corporation announced on August 15 that they were reopening their plants. It offered to pay those who turned up to work the 10% increase and back pay them for the period of the strike. However, for three consecutive days neither factory was able to start its production line due to a lack of workers. Both companies refused to disclose how many workers returned but said they had been "gainfully employed". NUMSA spokesperson Roger Etkind charged that the handful were put to work sweeping floors.

"Employers have misread the situation if they think they can divide us ... They forget that this strike is the result of a transparent and democratic process culminating in a ballot in which our members voted overwhelmingly to take this action," Etkind said.

Meanwhile, metal and engineering industry employers and NUMSA reached a settlement of 9.5%. The agreement has defused a threatened strike by 280,000 workers. NUMSA had been demanded 12% while employers were offering 8%.

Talks are continuing between the National Union of Mineworkers, representing 385,000 miners, and the Chamber of Mines. The NUM has reduced its claim to 11% from 12% a rise, while the Chamber has offered 9.5%. The NUM said it will begin a strike ballot if talks fail.