October 7 strike: ‘Lukewarm’ action amid Covid-19 crisis?

Covid-19 has battered workers. And this assault has come at a time when organised labour is arguably at its weakest: a deepening unemployment crisis, an increasingly casualised workforce and prohibitive strike legislation have each played their role in chipping away at the power of the trade union movement.

In the wake of all these factors — and restrictions on public gatherings because of Covid-19 — labour has failed to organise any mass mobilisation, until now. 

It is “scandalous” it has taken six months for any mass action to be taken up by the trade union movement, South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi says. 

“We ought to criticise ourselves,” he said, speaking to the Mail & Guardian outside the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) on Monday. 

Earlier, Vavi submitted a section 77 notice to the council’s executive director, Lisa Seftel. Section 77 of the Labour Relations Act grants workers the right to take part in protest action to promote their socioeconomic interests. A small cohort of Saftu members joined in on the action.

Saftu’s presence at Nedlac was in advance of next week’s planned national stayaway, spearheaded by trade union federation Cosatu and endorsed by the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), which are all represented at Nedlac. Saftu is not part of Nedlac, but will also participate in the October 7 stayaway.

Saftu is planning a series of major demonstrations and, in its section 77 notice demands, the federation calls for “a new revolution”. 

Issues raised by the trade union federations include the country’s ailing public transport system, inadequate service delivery, the undermining of collective bargaining and corruption.

The delay by trade unions in building a mass movement exposes the weakness of organised labour, Vavi said. “But it is better late than never,” he added.

The crisis triggered by Covid-19 should inspire unity between trade unions, as well as between the workers’ movement and community struggles, Vavi said on Monday. Pockets of dissent over the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis have led to action being taken, but this has often fallen outside the auspices of organised labour.

“I hope the crisis will communicate a clear message, a very painful message: without that unity, nothing is possible … Without the unity, you will toyi-toyi for another 26 years,” he said.

“As we toyi-toyi, the crisis of unemployment is getting worse. Poverty is getting worse. Inequality, corruption, environmental destruction, the pathetic levels of service delivery by the state are getting worse … We are right at the point of a precipice. If we don’t stand up and do something we may find an implosion.”

Vavi said Saftu’s participation in next week’s action will show that the federation is willing to work with Cosatu, which is seen as being on the other side of the political spectrum. When Saftu participated in a 2018 general strike — in reaction to the R3 500 national minimum wage and other new labour legislation, signed off on by Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu — detractors in Nedlac trade union federations deemed the action divisive.

Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali told the M&G that Covid-19 has made it difficult for trade union federations to collaborate on any mass action. 

“Our issue is that we can’t postpone this. As Cosatu, we need to be engaging on it.” 

Ntshalintshali said Covid-19 alone cannot be blamed for the problems faced by the trade union movement. “Business and government are undermining labour in any case,” the secretary general said.

“That is why we take issue with going back to normal. If we talk about going back to [the] normal before Covid [happened], this is not the normal we want to see. We were under duress. We were losing jobs left and right for other reasons, not because of Covid. What Covid has done is just make it seen by many people.” 

According to the International Trade Union Confederation Global Rights Index, released in June, in the past year South Africa’s global labour rights rating has worsened, indicating that the country has seen regular violations. This comes in the wake of severe restrictions on the right to strike globally.

Ntshalintshali said the trade union movement has struggled to bring workers into the fold and then to organise them to take collective action. Cosatu, the country’s largest trade union federation, has only about 1.6-million members. 

“Some workers will not join a strike. They will watch through the windows. You can see that their heart is there,” Ntshalintshali said. 

“Because losing an income for one day is a huge loss to them. But they need to make sacrifices at some point in time. You need to make a choice. What do you do? Do you sit back or do you go to the coalface and fight?”

He conceded that the stayaway might not be enough to show the power of the trade union movement to the government and workers.

“Normally when Cosatu goes on strike, workers want to be physically there. They want to go on marches … It is difficult this year, because they can’t be together. We were worried the virus would spread. That is why it is a lukewarm kind of mobilisation,” he said.

“People said we need to do something. But it is not in the tradition that we normally do. Cosatu, when we called this action, and said ‘don’t go to work’, people said: ‘But where will we go on that day?’” Ntshalintshali added.

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