Motor: Let’s celebrate our victory

As motor workers celebrated getting wage increases above the inflation rate and three weeks after the previous agreement expired, Numsa News asked Numsa motor sector co-ordinator, Sam Tsiane , to reflect on what the organisation has learnt since the 6-week strike in 1998 and what still needs to be done to further improve the lot of motor workers.

Just remind us of what happened immediately after the 6-week strike? Just after the six-week strike, we signed an agreement with the Retail Motor Industry (RMI). However the two white unions, the Motor Industry Staff Association (Misa) and the South African Motor Union (Samu) objected to the gazettal of that agreement. They claimed that they were excluded from negotiations. They were excluded because they didn’t participate in the strike and therefore employers felt that the only union that could negotiate a settlement was Numsa. However Samu and Misa rushed to the department of labour. They claimed that the agreement was illegitimate and could not be gazetted. We had to go back to the two white unions to persuade them to sign the agreement. They felt proud that they had vetoed an agreement and therefore any future agreement would not be gazetted without them. In the following years we had to make sure that we are together even if they wanted to perpetuate starvation wages for the lower grades.

How has Numsa tried to lessen the two white unions’ power since then? We have used clause 32 of the Labour Relations which says that if the gazettal will promote centralised bargaining then the minister of labour can publish the agreement even if not all the unions have signed the agreement. We then made our presentation to the minister where we proved that the agreement does promote centralised bargaining. The two white unions tried every effort to block the publication. They threatened court action and applied for exemption from Mibco for their members, but they could not succeed.

What happened this year? In 2003, employers came to the negotiations and offered 8,5% on minimum rates of pay as their first and final offer. The two white unions accepted the offer with two hands. Numsa rejected the offer in no uncertain terms. We then engaged employers through the media, protest marches throughout the country, threats eg. secondary strikes and we also continued with formal and informal negotiations. Ultimately we emerged victorious. We’ve consolidated our gains that were achieved in 2002. This now means we are key stakeholders in Mibco.

To what do you think we owe our success? Our victory is a result of the shift in mindset of Numsa’s leadership. The Central Committee paid a lot of attention to the motor negotiations but more importantly the NEC held in August 2003 pledged R10 000 to each region that submitted a mobilisation programme. Previously the union structures had overlooked the sector and the members felt neglected. Head office is receiving many telephone calls from forecourt attendants and other workers from the motor sector enquiring about the addresses of our local offices.

Have things changed between Numsa and the employers? There is a gradual change from employers. They see that Numsa is a force to be reckoned with and that there is a need to improve the lives of the workers in the industry. This is contrary to the past when they did not take us seriously.

What are the challenges that remain? Our media should play a support role. But in the battlefield our structures must play the key role. Take the example recently when the US was attacking Iraq . Even when it was on the seventh day and Saddam Hussein’s troops were about to be defeated, the Minister of Communications kept on saying, “US troops are dying in big numbers and they’re about to be defeated,” while television screens behind him clearly showed triumphant US troops. We mustn’t make the same mistake. In our case although Gauteng regions managed to mobilise and stage a successful march in Randburg, our coastal regions and Mpumalanga were limping.

What about membership in the sector? In the car dealers (cluster 6), 22 000 workers out of 41 000 are organised. 12 000 of these are Numsa members. But we don’t have strong shop steward committees. In the petrol stations we only have about 6 000 members out of 40 000 forecourt attendants. We must recruit forecourt attendants and use the shop steward election campaign to build shop steward committees in the car dealers.

Why is building shop steward committees so important?In our other sectors we have strong shop steward committees. Their role is to mobilise members and to defend members that have been disciplined. But in the motor industry most workplaces do not have structures. The shop stewards and their structures are the pillars of the union. If a union is to be strong, it needs shop stewards with shop steward committees.

Matter of fact: Numsa News No 5, 2003 said that all motor employers that belong to RMI and FRA must pay the new wage increases from September 1. This is not correct – they should pay from September 29 like all other motor employers. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.