The hall in Tembisa was full. The union members were angry — very angry.
The government was talking about bringing in a new law to smash the unions. Somebody said the new law would set the unions back ten years. Everybody agreed the unions had to do something. They could not take this new law lying down. Some people called for strike action, others called for demonstrations, and others called for a stayaway.
Then a woman got up to speak — but instead of saying ‘stayaway’ she said ‘staysoft’. The whole meeting laughed, but the name stuck.
The three day ‘staysoft’ called by Cosatu and Nactu on June 6, 7 and 8 was anything but soft — it was a very hard action, which took the smiles off the bosses’ and the government’s faces. They never dreamed that so many people — between two and three million — would answer the unions’ protest call.
THE LONGEST IN HISTORY
The protest was the people’s way of showing how much they dislike the government’s new labour bill — the Labour Relations Amendment Bill — as well as the bannings of 17 organisations in February.
The stayaway was the longest in South African history. But the most important thing about it was that it happened at all in these difficult times. The government has done its best to crush any opposition from workers and communities. The state of emergency makes it illegal to even call for a stayaway.
Cosatu’s assistant general secretary Sidney Mafumadi says: “The protest action made sure that the basic demands of our people will be heard — for example, the unbanning of organisations and the lifting of the state of emergency.
“It means to us that the democratic movement is firmly in the hearts of our people and that the government will never win back the ground they have lost.”
“WORKERS ARE STILL POWERFUL”
Says Nactu’s general secretary, Piroshaw Camay: “The protest showed that the workers are still powerful even while there is a state of emergency. This bill is something which directly affects workers and how they do things on the factory floor.”
The strike forced the government to re- think their new labour laws. The Minister of Manpower, Pietie du Plessis, has said he is now ready to talk to the unions about changes to the law. But to really understand the importance of the protest, we must look at why it happened.
Mike Sarakinsky is from the Labour Monitoring Group, which studies trade union and labour issues. He says it was the employers who first pushed for the law. “The government wanted to get back the support of businessmen by pushing it through parliament. The bosses are worried about the growing strength of the unions.”
Cosatu’s Mafumadi says: “The bosses told us the great majority of them support the bill. This means the great majority of them support the government — but they don’t want to pay the price for supporting the government. They want us to continue to suffer all the hardships which come our way without protesting.”
The bill will be made a law by the government. But the protest was a victory for workers.
Soon after the stayaway the bosses ran to speak to the government. They asked the government to hold back on the law so that they could speak to the unions about it. Now they are talking to Cosatu and Nactu about changing the bill.
The stayaway showed the bosses that workers will not swallow laws that bash their unions. The unions have now said: “We are strong — you can’t make laws without consulting us.”
GOVERNMENT AND THE BOSSES
Mafumadi sees the bill as the government’s way of using the normal laws of the country to stop workers from growing stronger. He says they do not want to use the state of emergency too much because it has turned so many other countries against South Africa.
Camay thinks the new bill is part of the government’s plans for the future. “I think there will be this law for 1988, but there will be a different law for 1989. The ’89 laws will probably change this ’88 law.
“What the government will try to do is take care of the right wing at this stage, and in ’89 they will try to sweeten the unions. It also depends on what happens in the October elections.”
A NEW SPIRIT OF UNITY
The protest also showed a new spirit of unity between Cosatu and Nactu.
Camay says: “We would like to have a united view with Cosatu over things which concern us both. If the government and the bosses see there are differences between us, they will use them against us. If we are united, it will increase our bargaining power. “Our own view is that we should work together more on the ground. We should have more things like joint Mayday meetings. Out of joint actions, like on the labour bill, will come real worker unity.”
Says Mafumadi: “We have to move to a point where the ranks of workers are completely closed, so we can mobilize to fight this attack from both employers and the state. The only way we can be successful is to have one industry, one union, and one country, one federation.”
Remember them too!
The ‘staysoft’ will be remembered as the longest worker protest in this country’s history. But few will remember those who lost their jobs for taking part in the protests.
Wicks Mogotu has worked for the British company Cylinder Components in Roodepoort for the past 19 years. He is an angry man.
“Before we took part in the protest action, we told the boss that many of us may not be able to come to work because of transport problems and so on. We also told him it was a community decision to protest. But when I came to work on the 9th June I was surprised to find out that I was fired. They said I was ‘absent without leave’.”
Wicks was not alone. Twenty-two other workers in his factory got the sack. NUMSA, the union at Cylinder Components, is doing everything it can to get the 23 back to work. This gives Wicks hope.
FINAL WRITTEN WARNINGS
Another factory that dismissed workers was Richard Hirschmann (SA) on the West Rand. A shopsteward at the company, John Makwelo, takes up the story. “We stayed away for the three days. When we got back to work management gave us final written warnings. The following week we stayed away from work because it was June 16. The next day the whole membership who stayed away were dismissed. We were told we were on final warnings and we stayed away without a valid reason.”
But John Makwelo and his fellow workers are luckier than some others. On the day we spoke to them they heard they were going back to work. John says this victory must go “to the workers who remained united until the end. There were some difficult moments, but in the end we won.”
About three thousand workers were dismissed for taking part in the stayaway. But more than two thousand have now got their jobs back. Cosatu unions are launching a national campaign to get the remaining dismissed workers’ jobs back. Nactu unions are also fighting for their dismissed members. They say that they will fight this struggle from the factory floor.
NEW WORDS opposition — to fight against consulting — asking people what they think about something ranks — many people standing together in a disciplined way valid —true mobilise — bringing people together for mass action national campaign — a plan of action from people all over the country