On the 18th December, last year, 11 000 workers all around the country left the O.K. Bazaars branches where they worked. They did not go back to work the next day. In fact, they did not go back to work until the 2nd of March, when their strike was over.
“We were very angry,” said Gladman Jele, a worker at O.K. “In 1985 when we talked about increases, the O.K. bosses said that they could only give us R40. But they said if they made big profits, they would give us more money.
“We knew that the O.K. was making lots of money.
Sometimes, at the end of the day, the cashiers had to call people to help them count all the money they had taken. But we did not get an increase – we only got an extra half-day off.”
WE KNEW WE WOULD WIN
“When we told the O.K. bosses last year that we wanted a R160 increase for everyone, the bosses said we were mad,” Gladman went on. “They offered us R85 instead. But the bosses were playing with us – especially the people who have worked at the O.K. for a long time.
“People talked about a strike. So our union, the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA), organised for all the workers to vote. All the CCAWUSA members at the O.K. voted for a strike. So we knew before we started that we would win because we were united.”
STRIKING IS HARD
“It is easy to vote for a strike,” said Isiah Thoka, another O.K. worker. “But to spend two months without pay is very difficult. I was lucky -my brother is working. But everyone at home missed my wages. They all stood by me. They wanted us to win. So no-one ever moaned because I wasn’t bringing any money home. “Other strikers had it tough. People couldn’t pay their instalments and their furniture was taken away. Some people lost their houses because they couldn’t pay the rent.”
WE MET EVERY DAY
“In Jo’burg, we came together every day. We met at Cosatu House, where our union offices are. We sang freedom songs. If there was a meeting with the O.K. bosses, the shop stewards came and told us what was said. Then we talked about it and decided what to do.
“We also got food from the union. The union bought food. Then some workers cooked it and sold it to us for fifty cents a plate. The money was used to buy more food for us. It was a great help.”
“All this time, the Shop Stewards Council was very busy. They were making stickers and pamphlets for us to give out to people. We had to be very careful because of the Emergency laws. We could not say that people must boycott the O.K. – that is against the law.
“But we wanted people to know what was happening at the O.K. We wanted them to stop shopping there so that the bosses would agree to our demands. So we printed stickers that said, ‘I don’t buy from the O.K.’
“We also took turns to picket outside the O.K. Every day people stood at the main doors of the O.K. shops with posters, telling people about the strike. The posters worked – the bosses did not like people knowing about the bad things that were happening there.”
HARD FOR THE UNION
“The strike was difficult for CCAWUSA,” Comrade Vivian Mtwa, general secretary of CCAWUSA said. “It was the biggest strike we have ever had in CCAWUSA. The union did not have money to help so many people for such a long time. “The O.K. bosses were also ready for the strike. They employed lots of casual workers to take the place of the strikers.
“All the meetings we had with the O.K. bosses ended with no agreement. The bosses did not want to know anything about the R160 increase. “in the end we asked people to help us make an agreement. The O.K. bosses chose some people and we chose some people. The meetings were hard work. Sometimes they went on through the night – until half-past five in the morning.”
“In the end,” said Margaret Rathebe, “we did not get everything we wanted. But we got more than the bosses first offered us. We got an increase of R100 and a new staff discount of 12%, instead of the old 10%. The bosses learnt a lesson. Now they know that we are serious when we say we want something.”
LEARNING FROM THE STRIKE
“The O.K. workers who did not strike also learnt something,” Gladman said. “They were ashamed when we came back. And they thought that we would treat them ‘otherwise’. But we want them to join us in CCAWUSA.
“CCAWUSA has shown them that their unions do nothing for them. They say that CCAWUSA won better wages for all O.K. workers. Even some white workers want to join CCAWUSA now.”
“I think that CCAWUSA is great,” said Mma Motsoasele who has worked at the O.K. for twenty five years. “And through the strike, more workers have joined CCAWUSA. I say, Forward with the struggle.”
BACK TO WORK
“It was wonderful to come back,” Mma Motsoasele said. “The supervisors were not happy to see us on our first day back.
“The union got a letter from Gordon Hood, the big boss of the O.K. Now he knows the people who were on strike. But the people who stayed behind, the people who wanted to please him – does he know them? – No!
“When I came back from the strike, I was fat from my two and a half month holiday. After two weeks on the job, my back was aching again. And I wanted to go on strike all over again.”
BOSSES AND THE GOVERNMENT
But it will be a long time before the O.K. workers go on such a long strike again – even if Mma Motsoasele wants to. They are proud that they won after such a long struggle.
“We have learnt a lot,” said one worker. “We saw how the government helps the bosses in strikes. Many of our workers were detained while we were on strike. Now we know that our struggle is not just against the bosses, but against the hard laws of the government too.”