Winning Letter The trials of being a shop steward

As a shop steward I’ve dedicated myself to being a defender of workers’ rights, to mediate between employer and employees. But seemingly for doing all the duties of a shop steward, I am being misinterpreted as a bad influence, corrupt, destructive leader who wants to destroy my employer’s business.

For approaching management on their attempt to implement short time without consultation and informing the bargaining council, I was said to be corrupt and destructive.

For mediating between the employer who constantly used abusive language to an employee by calling her a “bitch”, my employer claimed I wanted to destroy his company that he had worked so hard to build.

For asking management to assist on a job that I couldn’t cope with, following the procedures of the company where it stipulates “if you can’t cope, shout for help”, I was said to be ‘irritating management’, ‘a bad influence to workers’, ‘not obeying lawful instructions to perform duties’, ‘insubordination’ by creating unacceptable working environment, then I was charged and given a final written warning which will be kept on file for 12 months. How’s that for fair labour practice!

If a shop steward is supposed to be a good example by being quiet whilst workers are being selfishly used, unprocedurally disciplined and abused by employers, then what’s the use of having a shop steward in a workplace?

Can you please comrades make me understand the meaning of a good shop steward and the roles of an exemplary shop steward! Maybe that comrade will bring peace between me and my employer.

Maybe then he can stop telling me that he’s “had enough of this union, this is his company, we can’t tell him what to do”, he will stop calling us abusive names like ‘bastards’. Then we will have a healthy and cheerful working environment.

Siphiwe Dhladhla, Springs

The last hurdle – closing the apartheid wage gap

Comrades, we have a Goliath in our camp. It is sticking out like a hairy wart on the otherwise smooth face of transformation – the apartheid wage gap!

Yet for one reason or another, nobody wants to acknowledge publicly that it poses a challenge.

The apartheid wage gap, since its birth, has been a ‘tsunami’ in our economic lives. It wreaks havoc among the lives of blacks in this country. It calls for us to sharpen our spears, chant our war songs, rattle our shields and gird ourselves for war.

Let us address it in the following manner:

“¢ for each white manager earning a salary of R40 000 per month, each black manager should earn the same

“¢ for each white foreman earning a salary of R40 000 per month, each black manager should earn the same

“¢ shopfloor workers should earn R10 000 per month

“¢ general workers should earn R5 000 per month.

Since the birth of democracy in Mzantsi, the majority of the ills of apartheid have been successfully addressed. Others are still being addressed and the rest will be addressed with success.

The reason behind these successes is because they were confronted and are still being confronted collectively by the formerly disadvantaged communities of this country.

Issues of forced removals, the land, the renaming of provincial names, towns and streets, the judiciary, the ‘batho-pele’ policies, the police and the army, the pension benefits for the aged, grants for the poor, the orphans, you name them, they have been addressed.

These achievements are wonderful. They are aimed at generating the concept of self-actualisation, a sense of coherence in the lives of the poorest of the poor.

But regardless of the political freedom we have won, in this relay race, those favoured by apartheid have been placed some 500m if not kilometres in front of the rest of us.

They have the baton in their hands and are running hard, without us dreaming of catching up with them, ever!

The policies of apartheid jumped the gun! What remains is to declare this one-sided race null and void and start all over again.

Some will say: Let us forget about the past and strive to build a better future together. Others will say ‘yes, the economic policies of apartheid were a sin to the formerly disadvantaged communities… surely comrades, we cannot right a sin by committing another sin?’

But one question begs an answer. How then, do you reverse those draconian policies? The answer: by pulling the very same lever the other way. Reverse the apartheid wage gap!

Education in this country is being transformed to eradicate the ills of Bantu Education.

Government is giving black schools more resources and retraining educators in critical subjects. The major aim is to empower the black child to excel in schools for the benefit of the ‘self’ and country as a whole.

But there is a defective cork in the whole machinery. The bigger slice of the wealth in this country is in the hands of the few – white versus black families. In this scenario, educational resources will make very little difference as long as the wealth of this country is distributed in a skewed manner.

In addition, the Coleman report of inequality in the US education system show that “pupils from a more prosperous family background will do well, independent of the funding levels of the school that they attend and pupils with a poorer background do badly, independently of how well funded the school is that they attend.”

As long as this is the norm, the psychological health of blacks will remain a pipe dream. As long as this is the status quo, the achievement of the black child at school will be just a drop in the ocean.

Of course there are exceptions but they are a minute fraction compared to what the apartheid wage gap has harvested over the centuries.

When there is a thorn in your shoe, you pull off the shoe and extricate the thorn and put the shoe back on. That is of course if you are determined to take the long walk to freedom.

The apartheid wage gap, this gaping oozing wound, this sepsis, has now developed the early warning signs of gangrene. We are now confronted, on a daily basis, by this ugly national anthem: casualisation, contract workers, mass retrenchments and the strong rand.

The diagnostic assessment is simple. For various reasons, unionised permanent employees are retrenched en masse. Two or three months later they are recalled as contract workers. Because of their current status, they are told they will be earning grade G wages.

They are now caught in the middle. They were retrenched but now feel lucky that they are re-employed, though on different conditions than before. That is, losing their former grades. On the other hand, they are lulled into a sense of well-being by the prospect of their loans being fully deducted from their provident funds.

But then, when you confront them and remind them to remember that they are still comrades, you are confronted with traumatised glazed stares and expressions of hostility and horror in their faces.

You can almost read their minds: ‘I was retrenched and nobody fed my family. I am now a contract worker. So what? I am now looking after the interests of my immediate family first!’

These shell-shocked comrades are now focused solely on satisfying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And it will take some time. By the time they reach the summit of those needs – the need for affiliation and self-actualisation, Numsa will be an amputee.

Comrades, the apartheid wage gap is our last hurdle to economic freedom. Let us collectively place ourselves at the starting line-up of this marvellous race. As it is, we are spiralling down the gaping hole of poverty at an alarming pace. It is a vicious circle.

We did not create this problem. But since it is our baby now, let us own it and address it accordingly. We have no safety net.

Aluta continua!

Nicholas Mani, Brits(this letter has been shortened)