JULY 1981 - VOLUME 2 - NUMBER 7
South African Workers Unite in Strikes at Colgate, Firestone, Ford, British Leyland, and GM
South African black labor unions are increasingly challenging multinational companies in recent months.
Since April, the Chemical Industrial Workers' Union of South Africa at Colgate-Palmolive's Boksburg plant has been seeking the right to negotiate with the Colgate management directly instead of through the Industrial Council, a national governing body which can set wages but has no control over working conditions or benefits.
Colgate, in a statement appearing in the Rand Daily Mail on April 23, said it could not allow its competitiveness to be jeopardized by wage levels higher than those offered by other companies.
The Colgate union's next step was a call in May for the first legal strike by a black union, which involves a tedious 18-month process established by the government two years ago through which workers must appeal to different levels of the Industrial Council.
"They are the first black union that is actually attempting to go through the cumbersome compulsory mediation procedure" said Sandy Boyer, a researcher at the American Committee on Africa (ACOA). All strikes have previously been considered illegal because they were begun without going through the formalized procedure.
In late May, the union called for a nation-wide boycott of all Colgate-Palmolive products in support of the union's goals. By a two-thirds majority in mid-June, the union voted to strike, completing another step in the legal strike process. A week later, management agreed to negotiate for terms of recognition with the union. "We've agreed in principle. The details are still being worked out," said George Row, spokesperson for international personnel at ColgatePalmolive.
Occurring concurrently with the threatened strike at Colgate Palmolive was a strike at the British Leyland vehicles company in Capetown. Management fired the plant's entire work force of 2,400 workers, some of whom belong to the National Union of Motor Assembly and Rubber Workers of South Africa (NUMARWOSA), in May after workers struck for higher pay. British Leyland workers receive wages lower than those at all other motor assembly plants in South Africa.
The dispute caused a loss of production of approximately 800 vehicles in just over a week, but Leyland began an intensive training program and began recruiting an average of 200 new employees a day. A rally was held in late June by the laid-off workers, who demanded that "British Leyland should pay up or get out of South Africa," said David Dlouhy, South African Desk Officer at the U.S. State Department. The company has asked the British government to intervene with the South Africans on its behalf.
In a sympathy strike which ended two weeks earlier, 3,000 workers at the Port Elizabeth plants of Firestone, GM, and Ford, led by members of the Motor Assembly Component Workers' Union of South Africa [MACWUSAJ, struck until Firestone workers and management reached settlement of a dispute over pension funds.
Disagreement at Firestone began in January when 1,600 workers, many belonging to NUMARWOSA, walked off their jobs due to the government's planned legislation to freeze workers' pension funds until they retire. The Firestone workers demanded they be paid their pensions in full immediately, rather than have them under government control.
After long negotiations through liaison committees in which workers elected their own representatives to appeal to management, Firestone asked for and obtained a promise from the government to exempt its workers from the proposed law, but workers refused to return to work until their pensions were paid to them in full.
In the meantime, Firestone had filled 160 of the 1,600 workers' jobs with other employees. "We found it necessary to hire (new workers) to keep the plant open," explained Firestone's director of government relations Bernard Frazier. The workers appealed to MACWUSA to demand reinstatement of the 160 workers immediately, and called for a nationwide boycott of all Firestone products until they were re-hired.
When two workers at Ford's Cortina plant in Port Elizabeth were suspended on May 18 for refusing to place Firestone tires on a new car, a wildcat strike broke out at Ford, sparking a strike at the nearby GM assembly plant, which was followed a day later with a strike at Firestone. Production was disrupted at the Ford Cortina plant, which was shut down until May 21.
The secondary strike did not sit well with Ford officials. "For us to handle negotiations for another company is kind of far-fetched," said Bud Williams of Ford's international division.
After the Firestone strike had gone on for 17 days, Firestone and MACWUSA agreed that the oldest 21 workers who were dismissed in February were to be rehired and that the remaining 139 were to be rehired as vacancies occurred. So far, 25 workers have been reinstated. Firestone recently announced plans to sell a 75% interest in its South African subsidiary.
The day after the agreement was reached, however, four members of MACWUSA were detained by the South African security police, according to the State Department's Dlouhy. The national chairman of MACWUSA, the MACWUSA chairman at GM, the union organizer at GM and a GM worker were detained under a regulation permitting the South African security police to hold anyone for 14 days without charge.
MACWUSA, one of South Africa's fastest-growing and most active trade unions, was formed in January, 1980 after a strike over union representation at the Ford Cortina plant. At that time workers broke away from the older NUMARWOSA, claiming that the union's officials had been too 'pro-management,' according to the Rand Daily Mail. MACWUSA has extended its areas of concern to all areas of living which affect workers, such as housing and education.
The incidents of the past few months have allowed MACWUSA to "demonstrate its power," said Sandy Boyer of ACOA. "They have proven they are the dominant power in Port Elizabeth motor industries," he said, adding that MACWUSA's willingness to fight as well as their understanding of political involvement have made their aggressive stance effective.