SA Workers’ Strike

‘Sound the Vuvus for Living Wage and Respectful Life’ 

(Dhiraj Nite, researcher at the University of Johannesburg, reports from South Africa on the 19-day long strike of teaching and health staff in that country.)

The teaching and health staff in South Africa went on strike on August 18. The primary and secondary schools as well as health centres (excluding the emergency services) were closed and the streets of townships all over the country brimmed over with the red T-shirt-wearing men and women. They sang, danced, shouted slogans, agitated, and picketed at the gates of hospital and school and in the neighbourhoods. An expert of South African labour history and sociology, Prof. Peter Alexander, says that "these comrades sing and dance to express their anger, too." The Vuvuzela (to which the rest of world was introduced during the world cup football series) has now become a whistle blower in the working class agitation.   
The strike demands included a revision in wages by 8.6 percent against the offer made by the government of 6.5 percent revision; 1000 Rand housing allowance against the government’s offer of 650 Rand; and uniform and universal medical care to all. The African National Congress (ANC) government, led by the president Jacob Zuma, has invoked financial constraints to explain its inability to meet these demands of public sector workers. In response, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) argued that they needed just 5 billion Rand to meet their demands against the ‘wastage of 23 billion Rand the party offered to White people for four weeks during the football world cup’. Notably, these unions were born in the 1980s out of anti-apartheid struggles and are now affiliated with both the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).
The agitated teachers employed in primary and higher secondary government schools and health workers employed in government hospitals form the 1.3 million strong workforce of the total population of 49 million. They emphasise that the ‘poverty wage’ paid to them is inimical to the idea of secure and dignified work. Public transport in SA is poor, a legacy of the apartheid days when the dominant White rulers did not regard it a worthy area of investment since public transport was for the blacks. Medical care is costly, compelling everyone to buy individual medical insurance schemes. The ordinary housing (only one room) rent hovers around 500 Rand per month against the salary of a teacher which is in the range of Rand 5000 a month. The great majority of teachers and health workers employed in township centres are blacks. Housing is a key demand of the black working class, who has suffered exclusion from the main city and confinement to shanty towns in the days of apartheid. 

Workers' Strikes Hit London Underground

London's tube workers went on a 24-hour strike on September 7. The entrance to an Underground station in west London was locked during the strike. Buses were diverted from central London because streets were at a standstill. The strike affected about 3 million passengers.
The strike was called by two unions -- the Rail Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) -- over plans by London Underground to cut 800 jobs.
Many of the jobs under threat are in the underground stations, mostly in the ticket offices. New technology means passengers can now buy tickets online and can also use machines to update plastic travel cards.

At a strike site, a journalist asked me, “Are you writing about why South Africa is the highest strike-ridden country in the world?” Her question spurred me to track down the history of working class movement in the Rainbow country. The urban working-class population has been the social base of liberation struggle against the apartheid system. It played a decisive role especially since the 1980s. Their struggle recognised the convergence of racial injustice and class exploitation at the hands of White masters. That history is the basis of the lasting alliance between the ANC and the SACP until this day. Categorically, the post-apartheid political regime has wanted to facilitate the formation a variant of African capitalism as well as a welfare polity. Such a policy faces the challenge of harmonious accommodation of the dreams of their militant social base. The working class has resolutely refused to go on that path. 
Convergence of
Race/Class Divide 

A large gathering of around seven thousand workers from just one part of a province, known as Central Gauteng, had their meeting in a Community Hall to deliberate and launch the strike programme on August 18. A placard carried by a nurse reads: ‘ANC: My Party, My Vision, My Dream’, reflecting the workers’ feeling that the post-apartheid government led by the ANC is their government; and therefore it has responsibility to discharge the mandate of redistribution, equality, and liberation. The speeches at the meeting highlighted the continuing class divide on racial lines that continues even today. They point out, “For whom are these (world cup) stadiums constructed? Our children are not going to use these.” The racial and class division largely continue to converge at the bottom strata of the labouring masses. There, the blue colour and fourth grade public servants are exclusively those, known as the Blacks and the Coloured.
The news agencies are in the hands of White business houses. A prominent paper, The Star, carries a story, ‘Chalks Down: Students Suffer’. In response, at the protest meeting, student leaders of primary and secondary schools declare (to enthusiastic applause) that “we care as much for regular classes as for the condition of working people, to which we belong.” Women strikers outnumber male comrades in the hall and on the street. (But only one woman comrade addresses the meeting.) 
The outcome of strikes of public service workers influences the lives of the rest other workers as well. A construction labourer, busy with his work as the other side of the road was full of slogan-shouting strikers, approves of the strike, “When the government revises their wages, it improves minimum wages. Its spiral effect is then felt in our wages, too.”
How long will the nationalist ANC legitimately claim to be representative of the society as a whole? How long will African working masses share the dream expressed on that placard ‘ANC: My Party, My Vision, My Dream’? That remains to be seen.

French workers' September 7 Strike

Two to three million workers took to the streets across France on September 7 in a nationwide protest against plans by the French government to raise the minimum pension age from 60 to 62 by 2018.
The maximum pension age would also rise by two years to 67 as has happened in a number of other European countries. The changes are especially unpopular among employees who perform manual work.
It was the biggest demonstration on any issue since President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007.
The 24-hour walk-out disrupted rail and air passengers, schools, hospitals and the postal service. Approximately 25% of all flights in and out of Paris were affected and an estimated half of rail and underground services were cancelled.
Union leaders said more people turned out than the previous protest in June, when two million people took to the streets. Dozens of rallies have already taken place in many cities across France.
The protests were timed to coincide with the introduction of Sarkozy'z legislation to make the change in the pension eligibility age and to "reform" other aspects of the country's national pension system.

Disappointing Outcome
The strike continued for nineteen days, witnessing protest meetings, marches, speeches, the negotiation, as well as water cannons, cane-charges, rubber bullets fired by police. At last, on 6 September, the leadership declared the strike suspended. The Zuma government has marginally shifted its position, promising the public service workers a 7.5 percent wage revision, and 850 Rand housing allowance. In addition, the new offer includes promises for a new government housing scheme, and medical care for the public service employees. 
But at a meeting where some 3000 workers have gathered to discuss the outcome in the Gauteng province, the mood is one of disappointed them, and they are apprehensive that the Government might break its promises as it has done in the past.
In particular, workers of a communist orientation are assessing their relationship to the Government. Some said, “the time has come when the SACP should snap its alliance with the ANC (an alliance formed in the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1960s) and contest independently.” The majority opinion at the meeting however was that “the working class activists should attempt to capture the ANC in order to see that it fulfils the promises of the Freedom Charter.” The latter document lays down the task of building a society in the multiracial, democratic South African Republic. The COSATU faces a real challenge of how to convince its social base about the decision to suspend the strike. 

Undoubtedly, the vuvuzelas of SA’s working class are not silenced – they will certainly sound again.