Unions on course for mass action

Trade unions representing over a million workers are on course for national strike action which would form a turbulent backdrop to the tricameral elections. Worker action has to be finally endorsed by a labour summit involving the Congress of SA Trade Unions, the National Council of Trade Unions and non-aligned unions. At its congress, Cosatu resolved to recommend to this meeting a week of ”co-ordinated and sustained” worker protest from the beginning of September. 

Cosatu wants the protest to focus on the controversial Labour Relations Act (LRA), the ”racist” elections and general state repression. Although unionists refuse to pre-empt the summit by speculating on its outcome, sources say a national stay away is a distinct possibility. They say employers are unlikely to meet union demands in time, and point out that the campaign urged by Cosatu is directed at more than just the LRA. Responding to the threat of large scale industrial action, a key employer spokesman warned of the possibibity of a tough management response.

SA Consultative Committee on Labour Affairs (Saccola) deputy chairman Anton Roodt added that such action could jeopardise ongoing negotiations between the unions and the employers on the restructuring of the LRA. And in related developments, the government announced yesterday that it had asked the National Manpower Commission to investigate the LRA – and particularly its contentious section 79 (2), which broadens unions’ liabilities for damages in illegal strikes- while Saccola and the union movement are to meet for a third negotiating session over the legislation in Johannesburg today. Two meetings have already taken place between the employer body and representatives of Cosatu, Nactu and independent unions. 

South African Transport Services and the National Manpower Commission were also represented at the last meeting. The unions announced earlier this year that unless there was ”significant progress” in the talks, a ballot of their members and national protest action would follow. Warning that massive industrial action on the LRA could draw ”tough action” from management, Saccola’s Roodt said it could also ”lead employers to consider further discus¬sions with the unions fruitless”. ”It would be a pity if a promising process was upset, not on issues of principle, but because of time considerations,” he added, arguing that Saccola’s success in drawing Sats and the NMC into talks had been an important step forward.

Nactu general secretary Pitoshaw Camay confirmed his federation would attend the proposed workers’ summit, although its date had not been settled. In terms of the unions’ original timetable, thy summit was set for August 5, but Cosatu is under¬ stood to have asked for an extension to the 18th. Asked what they would consider ”significant progress” in the Saccola negotiations, Camay said the unions wanted a written commitment that employers would uphold the principles listed in a letter of demand to the Saccola on June 1. These embraced one labour Act covering all workers, including those in the homelands; the right to strike, picket and stage sympathy strikes; statutory protection from unfair dismissal; and the scrapping of provisions undermining job security, democracy and non-racism in the union movement. 

Other demands were that unions and employers should submit joint recommendations to the state on legislation in keeping with these ”basic freedoms” and that management undertake not to use contentious sections of the present legislation. Dismissing the NMC inquiry into · the LRA as ”tinkering”, Cosatu’s assistant general secretary, Sydney Mufamadi, said it did not address the full gamut of the unions’ concerns. ”We have lived with the Act for nine months now – this explains the anxiety of our members,” he added. Union spokesmen said that whatev¬er the employer response, the ballot, of union members would go ahead, with Cosatu proposing that it take – place between July 24 and August 15.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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Drew Forrest
Drew Forrest has been working as a journalist for 40 years, with stints at Business Day, Mail & Guardian, Times of Swaziland and the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism. He has been a deputy editor, political editor, business editor and labour editor, among other positions. Author of a book on cricket, The Pacemen (Pan Macmillan 2013), he has also edited several non-fiction books. He is the managing partner (editorial) of IJ Hub, a regional training offshoot of amaBhungane.

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