There were slogans. There was toyi-toying. There were long discussions among comrades. Speeches. Friendly handshakes. Freedom songs. Messages of support. But most of all, there was the will to unite and move forward with the workers’ struggle and to lay the foundations for greater unity.
March 4 and 5 1989 were two historic days for the working people of South Africa. More than 700 workers from COSATU unions, NACTU unions and independent unions came to the ‘Workers Summit’ at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“Never before have there been so many different unions from so many different walks of life and coming from different traditions and practices meeting to chart the way forward for the workers in this country..,” said Elijah Barayi, president of COSATU.
And all present understood that history was in the making. For the first time, trade union federations agreed to leave their differences behind and instead, to cast their eyes forward. The road that they see before them may be bumpy. It may take a long time to travel. But there is an end in sight — a united working people joined together in one powerful federation.
RIPE FOR ACTION
The idea to organise a ‘Workers Summit’ came after the three-day stayaway in June last year called by NACTU and COSATU. The stayaway was to protest against the government’s Labour Relations Bill (LRB). The LRB aims to protect the bosses and not the workers.
The LRB says that a company can sue the union for the losses it suffers if there is a strike. Trade unions have to apply 21 days before they go on strike to get permission to strike. The LRB aims to take away the right of workers to strike.
The June stayaway was a big success. Over one million workers stayed away from work. But, even though unions and workers showed that they are not satisfied with the Bill, it was passed in Parliament in September last year and is now a law called the Labour Relations Amendment Act (LRA).
Elias Mosungutu of the Post and Telecommunications Workers’ Association (Potwa) told us: “After last year’s stayaway, COSATU and NACTU saw that the time was ripe for all the workers in the country to join forces and fight the government and companies.”
JOINING THE ROAD TO UNITY
First, COSATU organised an Anti-Apartheid Conference (AAC). It invited all anti-apartheid organisations to attend, including organisations that fight ‘independence’ in the homelands such as the National Seoposengwe in Bophuthatswana. But the government banned the conference.
After this, NACTU called for a ‘Workers Summit’. COSATU supported the idea, and it was organised this year. But at the last moment, NACTU decided that it could not attend. “Building unity is a serious question,” says James Mndaweni, president of NACTU. “NACTU needed more time to discuss the question. And COSATU did not want to postpone the summit.”
COSATU trade union members wanted to go ahead with the summit. They said that the government and businesses were already running ahead and that unions had to get organised as soon as possible.
But even though NACTU did not attend the summit, eleven NACTU unions were there. In their statement they explained: “We have decided to attend the ‘Workers Summit’ because we see it as something aimed at bringing unity to the working people. We believe that the road to unity must not be blocked by us.”
PULLING DOWN WALLS
Lebona Tsotetsi of the Food Beverage Workers Union (FBWU) — a NACTU trade union — said: “When I heard there was going to be a ‘Workers Summit’, I jumped with happiness. This is because I knew that the time was right for us to build unity. I always hoped for the best from it.”
“The summit was a success,” says Nelson Ndisa, a member of the South African Railway and Harbour Workers Union (SARHWU), a COSATU union. “We pulled down the wall that divides us into different federations and that keeps us apart.
“We discussed our problems as workers who are faced with the same enemy — the apartheid labour law. Our differences are nothing compared to our belief in the unity of workers.”
“Of course, there were also some differences,” says Elias Mosungutu. “Especially when we discussed sensitive points. But everybody was very disciplined. People with different opinions exchanged ideas as workers, and not as members of different trade union federations.”
A WORKERS’ LRA
Workers at the summit discussed ways of dealing with the attacks on workers in this country. “The Labour Relations Law is a serious attack on workers in this country,” says Geoffrey Majiyesa, also a member of SARHWU.
“At the summit, we decided to write our own Labour Relations Act. Our LRA will cover all workers — and it will include farmworkers and domestic workers, who have no protection at the moment.
“Public sector workers, like Post Office workers are also not covered. So public sector workers came together to discuss their common problems. They discussed the government’s aim of selling public services such as post offices to private companies.” The Labour Relations Act that workers are going to draw up, will be presented to employers by 2 May.
Employers then have thirty days to respond to the demands. After that, unions are going to declare a national dispute and there will be a vote on another stayaway.
Elias Mosungutu says the summit achieved much more than just calling workers to take action against the labour law. “To me, it became clear that our slogan — ‘One Country, One Federation’ — was becoming real. The trade unions that did not come lost the chance of taking the first step to building one federation. But there will be many other summits in the future and lots more time for us all to come together — in strength and in unity.”
NEW WORDS the will — when there is the will to do something or to make something happen, nothing can stand in the way to chart the way — to make plans postpone — to put something off until another time