The most important lesson from the public sector strike is that the Cosatu leadership were in the forefront of protecting monopoly capital. The leadership are well aware that the public sector strike does not directly impact on the profits of capital and that support from the industrial working class is decisive. Despite the decision at last year’s Cosatu national Congress for an end to one-day General strikes and for the calling of a minimum of two-day general strikes, the Cosatu CEC adopted a call for only a one day strike and left it up to affiliates to mobilize. (The debate at the Congress even raised the question of calling indefinite general strikes to tackle poverty and unemployment.)
Further, while the government shifted its position only slightly, the union leadership shifted their position massively down from 12% to 7.5%. The resultant agreement was thus still in line with the IMF and World Bank guidelines of keeping workers wages down within a narrow band thus enabling massive profits to monopoly capital. The agreement, which amounts to CPIX (official inflation) plus 1% for 2 years, is a wage cut as workers and the lower middle class spend much more on food and transport than the CPIX accounts for. Food inflation, for example, has already been 15% for the first half of the year and is projected to rise by 30% by the end of the year.
In the last 2 weeks of the strike the Cosatu leadership called for it to end, without taking steps to call for further pressure from the industrial working class, such as a follow-up general strike. This amounted to preparing the ground for persuading workers to accept the wage cut being offered. In this context, the 21 days settlement offer to the unions was to give the union leadership sufficient time to sell the offer as a ‘victory’. Government and Cosatu leaders were united in their call for the strike to end. In past years the level achieved in the public sector has set the trend for the settlements for the rest of the working class. A defence of the public sector strike was in fact a defence of the living standards of the entire working class. Thus the low settlement figure in the public sector sets the scene for capital to launch a further attack on the working class through wages cuts as can be seen from their offers of 6% or less in the negotiations in most of the industrial sectors.
The pro-capitalist nature of the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance exposed
The rushed settlement during the period of the ANC conference helped sustain the myth that the ANC is a ‘home for workers’. Forgotten was the mass dismissal of 5000 nurses; forgotten was the attack on the right to strike; forgotten was the role of the leadership of the SACP in justifying the wage cut (Fraser Moleketi), in teargassing and arresting strikers (Nqakula), in spying on and harassing strikers (Kasrils). What the strike shows is that when monopoly capital is faced with a serious challenge from the working class and the lower middle class, the tripartite alliance leadership will act as the champions of the capitalists.
Other important lessons
Despite the failure of the Cosatu leadership to fight the GEAR-linked wage offer in the public sector, the broader working class understood what was at stake. This was demonstrated through the massive support by the parents of the school pupils, who raised no objections or opposition to the month-long strike. This is partly the result of 11 years of suffering the effects of wage cuts, collapsing of public services and increasing unemployment while the capitalists have made unheard-of super-profits. The efforts of the state to drive a wedge between industrial workers and the public sector strikers, through an intense propaganda campaign in the capitalist media, had little effect. The almost total shutdown of Durban during the one-day solidarity strike demonstrated the unity of the transport sector and the industrial working class with the strike. It also showed what was possible if the Cosatu leadership had seriously mobilized support.
The tactic of public sector employees surrendering their workplaces during the strike is a continuation of the ANC-tradition of stayaways. The ANC perspective was never to challenge big capital for workers to take over control but merely for the ANC to be incorporated into the system, to get a share of the capitalist spoils. The stayaway at the schools surrendered, without a fight, the terrain of the teachers to the non-strikers and reactionaries. Many opportunists among the non-strikers clocked in at school but sent students home, thus not having any salary deductions during the strike. Some student groupings developed which marched against the strike. The parents were left as bystanders. Strikers had to meet outside their workplaces, making it difficult to maintain unity. WIVL had consistently proposed the setting up of joint parent-teacher-student committees to run the schools providing alternative education (on the GEAR policy, etc). This approach would have posed the challenge as to who should really control society, the capitalists or the working class. This would also have immediately provided a working class base to take forward the challenge to the GEAR-linked wage cut. Unfortunately this proposal was not taken up. It is still important to acknowledge the principle of working class leadership of struggles, for future battles with the capitalist class and its state.
Unity across colour-lines also holds enormous potential as demonstrated by last year’s transport strike which brought the country to a standstill. This time there was an historic unity of almost all teachers as well as many public sector employees. In the industrial sectors, broad working class unity can bring capital to their knees. While the public sector strikers have heroically led the start of the challenge to GEAR, it now passes to the industrial workers to take this fight to its conclusion. This is already beginning by most industrial sectors deadlocking against Gear-related offers by the capitalists.
THE WAY FORWARD
a) A sliding scale of wages
To counter the approach of monopoly capital for multi-year agreements which are linked to CPIX (official inflation) we propose that workers demand a sliding scale of wages. This means that whenever prices of essentials such as food and transport increase, wages should automatically increase, even if this occurs several times a year.
b) The urgent need for a central bargaining conference
Given the Cosatu leadership’s role in placing capitalists’ interests ahead of workers’ demands it is important for all workers in industrial sectors to demand the urgent calling of a central bargaining conference. This will enable workers to co-ordinate their struggles, such as calling for a uniform date for the start of their indefinite strikes; the setting up of joint industrial area strike committees; the mobilization of the broader working class and the lower middle class (including the public sector employees who are still very angry over their GEAR-linked increase); the setting up of community-based strike support committees, etc; the pooling of resources to advance the strike. There is a real danger that the union leadership will leave all the strikes isolated and sit out the fight while workers get frustrated and tired. It is important to contest the workplaces during the strikes and not to surrender these at the outset through stayaways. It is also important to support the demands of the soldiers for a double-digit percentage increase.
c) The need for mass strike committees
There is a need for mass strike mandating committees to counter the ease by which leaders could water down and change the mandate of the strikers, such as in the public sector strike. There should also be mass gatherings of strikers at the venues of the negotiations to pressurize their leaders and to assist in preventing them from backing down from workers’ demands. The negotiating teams should be broadened with mass participation from workers. Every effort should be made to include all unions of strikers in all the activities.
d) Time for changing the leadership
The events of June show that if workers embark on a radical programme, they need the leadership who place workers’ interests above that of big capital (and their lackeys in the state), they need leadership who can stand by the principle of working class independence. From the track record of the current leadership, workers need to stand up and change their union leaders, examining the leaders at every level and wielding the axe where appropriate.
e) Time for the building of a new working class party
Given the treacherous role of the SACP leaders against the public sector strikers, it is high time that workers stand up to form a new, working class party. Otherwise, each upsurge of the working class is going to be misdirected, leaving the capitalist system intact. Workers International Vanguard League (WIVL) stands ready to assist with the process of establishment of this new, working class party!
FORWARD TO A CENTRAL, LIVING WAGE CONFERENCE!
FORWARD TO A SLIDING SCALE OF WAGES! DOWN WITH GEAR-WAGE CUTS!
FORWARD TO THE FORMATION OF FACTORY, AREA, REGIONAL, NATIONAL STRIKE COMMITTEES!
REPLACE PRO-CAPITALIST LEADERS WITH INDEPENDENT WORKING CLASS FIGHTERS!
FORWARD TO A DECENT LIVING WAGE AND HUMAN DIGNITY!