The Multinational Monitor


G L O B A L   N E W S W A T C H

South Africa's Black Workers Strike at Ford, GM, and VW

South African subsidiaries of Ford, GM, and Volkswagen faced strikes and slowdowns in July and August, as South Africa's black labor force increasingly asserts itself against multinational companies.

Fifteen thousand auto workers at GM, Ford, and Volkswagen went on strike July 15 at the Port Elizabeth plants. This was one of the first times the workers have struck all three companies at once.

The strike was over wages. The workers and their union, the National Automobile and Allied Workers Union of South Africa, demanded a raise on their current $1.75 an hour pay. They initially sought an increase to $3.06 cents, and then said they would settle for $2.15. The companies said they would agree only to a $1.88 wage level.

"The union's position is based upon solid and sound economic reasoning," wrote Douglas Fraser, president of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) in the U.S., in a July 29 letter to the chairmen of Ford and GM. "In face of 16.5% inflation, it is extremely important that the union secure for its members significantly more than the 7.5% raise offered by your subsidiary." Fraser urged GM's Roger Smith and Ford's Phillip Caldwell to use "your personal influence in doing as much as possible to help resolve this critical situation."

The strike lasted a week, but the dispute - and labor unrest - continues.

Black auto workers succeeded in slowing down and interrupting production at the three companies throughout the end of July and early August.

GM and VW were operating at '/s to '/a strength," says John Christenson, international affairs officer for the UAW in Washington.

Ford shut down its Port Elizabeth plant from August 10-20 because of the worker's actions. "Regulation of production was being affected by line stoppages, and we couldn't insure the quality" of the goods being produced, says John Tome, Ford's international public relations manager.

Ford also laid off 507 South African auto workers on August 13; most of them worked in the Port Elizabeth plant. Ford denies that the lay-offs are related to the work stoppages. "The two things had nothing to do with each other," says Ford's Tome. "They are entirely different things." Tome says Ford cut back on its workforce because of South Africa's "market conditions." There was "a drop in sales," he says.

South Africa's black union sees the lay-offs differently. They are "attempts by the company to break the unity of the workers in the present wage dispute," said Fred Sauls, general secretary of the National Automobile and Allied Workers Union, at a press conference in South Africa on August 13.

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