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The long journey

Railway workers strike for a living wage

Thousands of railway workers around the county went on strike at the beginning of November in support of their demand for a living wage. Learn and Teach spoke to the workers and officials at the South African Railway and Harbour Workers’ Union (SARHWU) about their struggle and the events that led to this massive strike.

Two and a half years ago, in April 1987, 18 000 railway workers went on strike. When the strike – which was to cost many lives and much hardship­ – finally came to an end nearly three months later, many people thought that the South African Transport Services (SATS) had learned an important lesson – that it would in future treat its work­ers with more respect and listen to their problems with more understanding.

But, as they say, some people never seem to learn.

Sats workers found this out when they went to Sats management in October 1989 to demand a living wage and to raise problems they have with their working conditions. Sats again refused to talk to its workers and turned a deaf ear to what they had to say. And so, once again, the workers decided that they had no choice but to take action.

The strike began on 1 November when 800 workers in the southern Transvaal region put down their tools. Within days the strike spread to Natal, and then to East London.

Soon the strike was nationwide ­workers were on strike in Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Kimberely, the eastern and northern Transvaal, as well as other areas. The workers’ union, Sarhwu say that almost 40 000 workers are on strike.


On the day we visited the union’s Johan­nesburg offices – 45 days since the strike started – the workers had just held a meeting to talk about the events of the day and to get reports from their representatives about what is happening and how the strike is progressing.

The workers were sitting and standing in groups of twos and threes talking about their situation. Sats had already dismissed 15 000 workers. Six people had died and many more injured in clashes between the striking workers and non-striking workers and scabs. There has been much damage to property, especially to railway coaches which were set alight.

But despite all these hardships and problems, the workers have remained strong and united in their struggle. Those we met were keen to speak to us about the strike, their problems and how they feel. They wanted other work­ers in South Africa and other countries to know about their struggle with Sats.


“For a long time we have been troubled by the low salaries we earn. I have worked for Sats for 18 years and I am only earning R666. After deductions I take home R554. I am married with with five school-going kids. How do I live with this money?” one worker asked.

Another worker said: “I started working for Sats in 1971 as a labourer. Since then I have done various jobs such as parcel deliveries and letter sorting. At the moment I am a ticket-examiner. I earn R1120 a month after all these years.

“I support my wife, my mother, my grandfather and five children. We live in a house built with a loan from Sats – I have to pay R647,90 every month towards the repayment of the loan. I am left with only R394 which must be used for our living expenses for the whole month.

“We often spoke about these problems and felt that the only way of fighting this exploitation was to go and negoti­ate with management. Before we went to management we asked our union to find out how much profit Sats makes. We wanted to be fully informed.”


“Sats says that its profits are only R147 million,” says Catherine Mavi, Sarhwu’s regional legal affairs officer. “But the results of our research showed that Sats made a profit of R849 million for the year 1988/89.”

Mavi explained that Sats’ profit was in fact much more than R849 million. If you do not count depreciation costs, the profit comes to over R1 billion. She referred us to an article in the Financial Mail to prove her point.

Sarhwu officials took this information to the union’s membership. The workers, knowing that Sats does not recognise their union, decided to elect a committee to go and meet with Sats management.


“We wrote a letter to a senior Sats Manager, Mr Anton Moolman, and informed him about our wish to meet with him. He refused to see us – we were knocking on a closed door,” says David Mnisi, a shop steward at the Kazerne depot near Johannesburg.

“We believe he wouldn’t talk to us because Sats does not recognise Sarhwu. This is because the union is not registered with the Department of Manpower.”

Mnisi explained that the only union Sats recognises is a “sweetheart” union, the Black Trade Union (Blatu). But, he says, workers who don’t belong to this union still have a legal right to go to management.

In terms of Sats rules-clause 19(4) of Sats Act of 1988 – a group of workers who do not belong to a trade wages and working conditions. “When we approached Sats we had this clause in mind,” says Mnisi.

“The issue of non-registration and non­recognition of Sarhwu was therefore not relevant. As far as we are concerned Sats is using this registration issue because they did not want to talk to us.”


It was only after the workers went on strike that Sats agreed to talk to them. A national workers’ committee was elected and met Sats on 9 November.

Says Mnisi: “We wanted to negotiate wages, safety measures, disciplinary code, grievance procedure, safety measures and the privatisation of Sats.

“Our demand was that Sats should pay workers a minimum wage of R1500 per month. Management refused to negoti­ate with us because they said they had already reached an agreement with Blatu and the Labour Council to give a 10 percent increase to the workers.

“Our position is that we are not repre­sented by those bodies and therefore not bound by the agreement reached with them. In any case we wanted an improvement on the 10 percent offered. At this point negotiations broke down and we went back to the work­ers. Our membership decided that we would continue with the strike.”


At the meeting with Sats after the strike began, the workers’ committee had a mandate to begin with the wage demand. Since the talks broke down, the workers didn’t get a chance to raise the other grievances they have. We asked David Mnisi about these grievances:

What grievances do workers have with the disciplinary code?

Mnisi: In September 1988 a new disciplinary procedure was introduced and we are not happy with it. The depot managers now have the power to charge or dismiss a worker. We are very unhappy about this situation because many plant managers are not fair to us.

What are the complaints with the grievance procedure?

Mnisi: In fact at Sats we don’t have an acceptable grievance procedure. When we have problems we don’t know where we go to. This is what we wanted to discuss with Sats officials.

What about the issue of safety measures?

Mnisi: Many clerks and ticket collectors feel unsafe. They often get attacked. Sats has insured its property but its employees are not insured. The workers want to feel safe and be protected.

Did workers intend raising the issue of privatisation at the meeting?

Mnisi: Yes. We have heard that Sats is going to be privatised in the near future. The workers have not been consulted about this. We believe that privatisation will have implications for the workers, such as retrenchments. We want to know exactly what is going to happen.


After negotiations between the workers and manage­ment had failed, Sarhwu approached Sats with the aim of resolving the dispute. At first Sats refused to meet them, but finally agreed to meet the union on 21 November.

“We told Sats the workers were unhappy with the 10 percent increase. After several meetings negotiations broke down once again,” says Elliot Sogoni, Sarhwu’s National Treasurer.

Sogoni said that the union is still willing to go back to the table with Sats. “We want to see the situation returning to normal. We call on Sats to resume negotiations with the workers’ committee or with Sarhwu.

All the striking workers we spoke to said the same thing. They too want the situation to return to normal because they are worried about their future, their wives and their children. But they are also equally determined to continue with the strike until Sats agrees to negotiate.

Said one worker: “We must make this point- the longer Sats takes to resolve this issue, the more bitter and angrier we become -and then anything can happen.”

As we left the union’s office one worker said: “Comrades, there is an old Setswana proverb that I want you to pass on to Sats – ‘Gao ruile ntja mme o e tima dijo, etla gore moraga ya go lorna, mme ga e go lama o tla tshaba legae mme otla itshola’ – which means that if you have a dog and you don’t give it food, it will bite you one day, and when that happens you will be sorry because you will be too scared to go home!”


depreciation – if you buy something, it will be with less and less as time goes on. This is called depreciation to make representations – to make a serious request, complaint or statement to a government, or another body, like the management of a company privatisation – when public services that are controlled by the government are sold into private hands, like individuals and other companies. implications – the results of a particular action

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