On May 1 1985 the big Sarmcol BTR factory in Howick was dead quiet. Over 1000 workers stayed at home. They were very angry. The Sarmcol bosses did not want the workers’ union, MAWU — the Metal and Allied Workers Union — at their factory.
Now, more than a year later, the Sarmcol workers are still out of the factory. The bosses say that they are fired. The workers say that they are still on strike — and they will get their jobs back.
‘LIFE IS LIKE A TIGHT SCREW’
Mr Lawrence Zondi, chairman of the Sarmcol workers committee says, “Life is like a tight screw. We must turn the screw to make it loose. When life is hard, we must try to solve our problems — just like when a screw is tight — you have to struggle to make it loose.” And that is what the Sarmcol workers are doing.
THE FIRST AFRICAN FACTORY
“We have not worked for more than a year,” Mr Zondi told us. “Our families were starving. People felt sorry for us. They gave us food. But we wanted to do something to help ourselves.”
“We decided to start printing T-shirts for people. So we started a T-shirt Co-operative. We call it SAWCO — the Sarmcol Workers Co-operative.
” In the co-operative, or co-op, we all work together. We all choose our managers. But let me tell you something, the manager is not the boss. We all decide what we want to do. We are all equal. We are proud to be the first African factory in South Africa”
PRINTING THE T-SHIRTS
“Since we started, we have printed more than 10 thousand T-shirts for unions and other organisations. People tell us what they want on their T-shirts. Then we do the rest.’
‘We write or draw what people want, onto a small screen. Then each T-shirt is pulled tight across cardboard. We put the screen on the T-shirt and pull the coloured ink down. If people want more than one colour on their T-shirts, we have to do this again — until we have all the colours on the T-shirt.
“Then someone irons each T-shirt to make sure that the ink sticks. Some men felt very shy to iron. They said it was woman’s work. But now they understand that ironing is just part of our work.”
Today the T-shirt co-op is not the only project the Sarmcol workers have started. They have six projects altogether. They are the T-shirt project, the health project, the Sarmcol play, the farm, the bulk buying project and the news gathering project.
THE SARMCOL CLINIC
Joseph Mthetwa and Ernest Buthelezi both work for the health project. They tell us how the health project works. “The health project looks after the families of the SARMCOL strikers. We started the clinic because we did not have money to go to the doctor.
“Doctors trained eight Sarmcol strikers to help at the clinic. So, now when people get sick, they come to us. We have a doctor and a nurse who work part-time at the clinic. We want to start another clinic. We also want to open the clinics for other people in Howick. But at the moment we do not have enough money for this.
“THE LONG MARCH”
Simon Ngubane was a worker, but at the moment Simon is an actor. He acts in the play that the Sarmcol workers made. They put on the play at union meetings. And they also use the play to make money for the Sarmcol strikers.
“Our play is called THE LONG MARCH.” says Simon. “The play is the story about how we got fired. It is the story of our struggle. We want the whole world to know about our problems. A lot of people really like the play. Mr Zondi, our imbongi and our chairman, wrote it.”
WORKERS BECOME FARMERS
Mr Zondi is a man who can do many things. Not only is he an “imbongi,” he is also a farmer.’ ‘We were very lucky,” says Mr Zondi.”Some priests gave us a farm to use. We planted cabbages, spinach and carrots. We have just started. When the vegetables grow, we are going to sell them. Or maybe we will give them to the bulk- buying project.
“We have a lot of land. But we still need animals. We want to get a cow for milk. And we hope that someone will give us some sheep. Then our farm will be a real farm.”
FEEDING THE STRIKERS
“The bulk buying project buys food for all the people who were fired at SARMCOL. Every week we each get 5 kilograms of mielie meal, 1 kilogram of sugar, tea, soup or sugar beans,” said France Hlabangani, who works in the bulk-buying project.
“We take the profit from the T-shirt co-op and the money from the play to buy the food. But we do not make enough money to pay for everything. So, the union helps us.”
KEEPING IN TOUCH
Devaraj Govender works on the new Sarmcol project. He says. “We want to collect news for all the people who were fired with us. We want to start a newspaper so that the Sarmcol strikers know what the others are doing.
“Right now it is very difficult to get all the people together Some people live far away and others are working. We hope to keep the strikers together with our newspaper. We also hope to write about what is happening in our country.”
The Sarmcol workers are very happy with their projects. But there is one big problem. Only 100 strikers work in the new projects — and a thousand workers were fired. People need their jobs at Sarmcol.
So, the Sarmcol strikers are taking their case to the labour court. The court must decide if the Sarmcol bosses are wrong. If the court says that the bosses are wrong, then the Sarmcol strikers will get their jobs back. The strikers are sure that they will win. They say, “We did not do anything wrong. We all wanted to join MAWU but the bosses locked us out of the factory.”
THE PROJECTS MUST CARRY ON
“But even if we win, we are not going to close our projects. Those who want to go back to Sarmcol, will go back. But those who do not want to go back, will work with the projects. And other people who are not working right now, will join them.”
THE STRIKERS TALK
‘ There are some things we want to say. We want to thank MAWU for everything they have done for us. We also want to thank other trade unions and all the people who helped us. ‘
‘The people who took our jobs are killing us and our children. They are happy because they have our jobs now. But the bosses haven’t changed. If there is any problem at Sarmcol, the new workers at Sarmcol will be fired — just like us.
‘ The last message is for the bosses. We want to tell them that if they think we are suffering, then they are wrong. Right now we are not suffering. We have just started something new. The best is still coming.”