Numsa general secretary interviewed on the 2010 strike season

Numsa’s national office bearers were very active in the press, on tv and in negotiations during the recent strike action. Numsa News spoke to general secretary, Irvin Jim, about the recent strike action.

Could you set the scene of how 2010 negotiations unfolded?

We had a very involved process of collecting demands in Numsa organised workplaces which culminated in Numsa regions consolidating their demands from different sectors and which ultimately resulted in us convening a National Bargaining Conference (NBC) in March 2010.

As National Office Bearers we declared to the NBC and subsequent Central Committee that bargaining teams would have to lead the negotiations without NOB involvement until such time that our assistance is requested preferably at the point of unlocking deadlocks.

How do you feel about the recent strike action?

I want to applaud and salute workers’ revolutionary unity during the recent strike action in the motor, auto and tyre sectors. Workers showed extreme courage and were prepared to sacrifice.

I want to thank Numsa comrades for lifting the Numsa banner very high.

This confirms our belief that where workers are guided in any action by a correct revolutionary theory rooted in concrete conditions of struggle with correct revolutionary working class analysis, workers’ unity cannot be defeated.

What difficulties did you face in this round of negotiations?

We had to bargain against the backdrop of the global financial crisis of capitalism. Our economy had lost about one million jobs. In Numsa sectors alone we had lost just more than 62000 jobs.

To make things worse CPI was at 4,5 %. We knew that demanding high wages was not likely to win public sympathy especially in the face of the influential media that was taking a very hostile and anti working class stance.

The bosses had also launched a powerful campaign. They said any talk of high wage increases, especially double digit percentage increases, would plunge the already fragile economy into crisis mode and destroy the industry.

Despite all these factors, we took a very firm working class stance for our members.
In addition Numsa commissioned research into the buying power of metalworkers and in this regard the Labour Research Service (LRS) confirmed that: “purchasing power of workers in the automobile and motor industries is likely to be almost 10% worse off than they were three years ago.”

The LRS also held that an “8.6% increase is required in 2010 to maintain the 2007 buying power”

How did you defend Numsa’s high wage demand above the CPI to employers?

We said we wanted to maintain the 2007 buying power of our members.

We argued that workers have experienced a fall in real wages since the last bargaining round held in 2007.

This has added a blow to the workers’ share of income that has been falling since 1994.

We said our demands were modest. They did not necessarily mean that workers’ quality of life would improve.

Anything less than our demands would mean that workers would be financing companies’ fall in the rate of profit during the recession.

And how did you challenge the media who said Numsa’s demands were ‘inflated’ and ‘unreasonable’?

We said we did not remember and have never seen any sharing of wealth during good economic times.

Now that we are faced with difficult times, it was unacceptable that workers should now sacrifice more.

Tens of thousands of retrenchments have taken place in our sectors alone as companies have reduced employment levels to maximize profits during the recession.

What other arguments did you use to defend Numsa’s demands?

We argued that there is no comprehensive social security net for those that have lost jobs.

High fuel and electricity prices are a burden on the majority who are already paid poor wages.

Unless Numsa demands better wages, workers are forever condemned to be the working poor because they work but their living conditions never improve.

We further stated that better wages during a recession are not necessarily bad as lower wages kill buying power whereas higher wages can stimulate the buying power of workers and therefore boost the domestic markets.

We were negotiating under extremely difficult conditions. We knew we would have to push employers to make meaningful offers.

But we would not stop until we achieved an improvement of workers’ wages and their conditions.

The NBC mandated the union to negotiate for a one-year agreement. What happened to this demand?

The NBC mandated us to get alignment in the expiry of agreements so that we do not march separately but strike together. All employers rejected this demand from the onset.

In fact employers held back on making substantive offers unless we agree do longer term agreements.

We realized that employers were not going to budge on a one year agreement but we nevertheless went into strike mode with a one year agreement however as part of the concessions we dropped this demand.

Why was the decision made to go on strike?

We soon reached deadlock in all the sectors. Employers were just not making any offer to improve the wages, conditions of employment and benefits of Numsa members.

Strikes in all these sectors were the only solution.

In auto it took two weeks to secure a better agreement; in motor almost 3 weeksand in tyre, five weeks.

In House Agreement companies we still have disputes and strikes which is in the process of being attended to.

What is your view on the outcome of these negotiations?

We know we didn’t secure everything we went on strike for.

But overall considering the negative conditions that militated against our demands, we think that the union has gone a long way to secure victories for workers.

What did you achieve?

A major achievement was the ban on labour brokers in the auto and tyre and rubber sectors.

This is a critical precedent for the Cosatu campaign of banning labour brokers and must send a clear message to the minister of labour to move swiftly to ban labour brokers across all other sectors.

In the component sector we could not achieve the ban of labour brokers.

However we secured an agreement that during this three year agreement, employers will reduce labour brokers so that at the end of this agreement only 35% of their workers will be sourced from labour brokers.

We have also secured a principle that Numsa reserves the right at plant level to continue to demand the ban on labour brokers that includes participating in the Cosatu strike calling for the ban of labour brokers.

Dunlop, now called Apollo South Africa, has finally agreed to pay tyre industry rates and to shift workers from the current level 2 to level 3 after 12 months in this company.

What about fixed term contract workers?

We have secured an agreement that all fixed term contract or short-time contract employees will enjoy all the benefits enjoyed by permanent employee’s eg medical aid and severance pay.

The union must monitor those on fixed term contracts and put pressure on the employer to make them permanent.

And short time?

The tyre sector has guaranteed to pay workers for a 32 hour week during short time; in the auto sector, employers will continue to put 10c per worker per normal hour worked into plant level short time funds and use UIF and the government training layoff scheme to supplement.

It will also work with Numsa and government to ensure that workers do get paid during short time or lay off.

In other sectors, especially the component sector, there is no agreement. We must take this issue to the tripartite forum of government, business and Numsa or deal with it at plant level.

How did negotiations take place?

The principle we as National Office Bearers (NOBs) adopted in all these negotiations was to allow bargaining teams to do their tasks but work together when the need arose.

The role of the national leadership is to support, provide leadership and make democratic interventions as mandated by the collective.

We debate issues collectively and decide on what must we fight for, given the balance of forces with a continuous reflection on workers’ mandates.

At a point in negotiations and in a strike situation, the negotiating team must reflect on the offer on the table. If there is a decision to recommend a settlement to workers, we convene a constitutional structure meeting, the NEC.

This was the case in the motor industry dispute.

The NEC and the bargaining team grappled with the wage offer on the table of 9% 1st yr, 8% 2nd yr and 8% on 3rd yr when we knew workers were demanding 10%.

We also debated the fact that the employers were refusing to omit the peace clause.

The NEC agreed with the recommendations of the bargaining team to go to members and recommend settlement to members.

What made the NEC recommend settlement in the component sector?

We could have continued with the strike. But at the NEC, regions told us that the strike was getting weaker and weaker with workers at garages, panel beaters etc beginning to go back to work.

Auto employers were also openly stating that if the strike does not end in the component sector, they will have no option but to shift production to other countries.

If auto employers had shifted production, there would be no components sector needed.

Instead of dealing with the strike to improve wages, we could end up dealing with retrenchments and plant closures and have lost all those jobs for just 1% on wages.

We know we always say as a union we stand together with our members and perish with them.

But in reality threats like these risk the job security of thousands of workers if these ruthless and brutal employers could act on their threat.

You cannot just say “vorentoe” or we are for “permanent revolution”. You have to deal with what is in front of you in a tactical and strategic fashion with the collective wisdom of the collective leadership.

Leadership unfortunately is not a popularity contest where you say what people want to hear. As leadership we must weigh up all these possibilities and risks. Capital’s mission is only profits.

Did all regions agree to settle?

Workers in the component sector in almost all regions were not happy about settling on the recommendation of 9% 1st yr, 8% 2yr and 8% on 3rd yr but after being convinced by the leadership they agreed.

Mainly they were demanding 10% or more and the removal of the peace clause.

There was just a problem in one region where workers were told that myself and the Deputy General Secretary Karl Cloete arrived in the negotiations, met with the employers and signed the agreement with no consultation or involvement of the bargaining team.

We were then not at all surprised to hear that workers in this region were refusing to accept the recommendation to settle on the offer that the motor bargaining team and the NEC had recommended to them.

Is this what happened? Did you and the DGS sign the agreement without consultation and involvement of the bargaining team?

No, it is a fabrication and in our view a deliberate pack of lies.

A member of the motor bargaining team from the Eastern Cape chose to distort the facts in report-backs to members despite being part of every step of the negotiations.

We have written to the bargaining team member concerned to clarify why he chose to misrepresent the facts of the motor negotiations and the well publicized allegation against the union leadership.

Give us some background as to where you think this unhappiness stemmed from?
Negotiations in the motor industry started way back in April 2010 and not a single employer from amongst the sectors/chapters made an offer to the union.

But once the union served notice for strike action, some employers immediately approached shop stewards and members on the eve of the strike.

They tried to break the strike by promising members a 13% or 12% wage increase on condition they did not go on strike.

How could we trust these promises that were only verbal?

The very reason that members went on strike was that there was no basis for trusting such employers!

In companies where employers are honest and are not bashing the union, they formally write to the leadership of the union and make their offer.

Such situations have been handled with absolutely no problem.

During the strike the employers then jointly made their 9% wage offer (including those that had originally promised 13 and 12% increases if there was no strike!).

But when the union recommended settlement less than these vague employer offers, our own members turned against their own union and said we had sold out.

What other reasons could have made components workers unhappy with the settlement?

Others asked us why they should settle for less than 10%, when auto had won 10%.

Whilst that is true, we all know that the auto sector (car manufacturers) continue to squeeze the components employers demanding that they must reduce costs every day.

We are also aware that components employers in this recession have been moaning and retrenching stating that high interest rates and small cuts that the Reserve Bank has been making, only contribute in strengthening the currency making it very difficult for them to increase their export business.

They told us that under the circumstances they can’t afford 10% like the car manufacturers.

As leadership we couldn’t just dismiss those factors.

Another reason is that employers didn’t really move on components’ workers demands around the bonus (4.3.3), removal of the ceiling in severance pay, peace clause and reduction of working hours.

Numsa has to take these issues forward in the tripartite forum.

What other criticisms are you aware of?

Some components workers are criticising Numsa saying that it keeps on settling on 9%.

The measure used to determine wages in South Africa is CPI. CPI at the time of the negotiations was standing at 4,5%.

It is Numsa and its leadership that have championed to settle way above CPI and this we have achieved.

We don’t think such a criticism is correct or accurate however it is our members' right to take any particular position by raising these matters.

We are not fighting with our members or to undermine their integrity but we sharply raising a debate with a view that members of the organization must appreciate that we went on a strike with demands we won some and we lost some.

What are the lessons to be learnt from the 2010 collective bargaining? What must we take forward?

Before and after the motor, auto and tyre negotiations, the NOB convened sessions of the sectors to analyse the manner in which our sectors are organised for example companies in the motor industry produce and supply components to the auto sector and yet they are in different bargaining forums.

As a result of this when the auto workers returned from strike action and the motr sector commenced with strike action, Numsa members in the auto sector in reality saw a continuation of strike action because their companies could not get parts from component manufacturers whose workers were on strike. Numsa must revisit how the component sector is demarcated.

Should we take components out of the motor sector and put them together with the component sector, body builders and car dealers so they all bargain together?

This restructuring however must be a product of research and defining a new organising and bargaining strategy for the organization.

We also learnt that in the car dealers, we are very poorly organized but the very same employers are very influential in the sector and blocked progress.

In 2011 we must go all out to organize car dealership workers to join Numsa. Essentially workers in the car dealers did not go on strike.

The union, specifically in the component sector, must continue to take a campaign against auto employers so that their suppliers eg Lear Corporation stop employing labour brokers.

This pressure could also include pushing these companies to address the 4.33 on bonus and reduction of hours of work without loss of pay.


Numsa news No 3, October 2010