WSF (1996): “Looking Back:The 1995 Municipal Workers Strike”
From Workers Solidarity, magazine of the Workers Solidarity Federation, volume 2, number 1, first quarter 1996. Complete PDF is here
In 1995 the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) organised country- wide struggles for a living wage. Despite facing attack from all sides, the strikers showed that mass action can win.
It was a big victory for Black workers to win the right to vote, but many still live in Apartheid conditions. In 1995, the average municipal workers’ wage was R550 / month.
Where there is exploitation, there is always resistance. SAMWU launched a programme of rolling mass action to force the bosses to raise wages.
ROLL MASS ACTION ROLL
In August SAMWU members in the Orange Free State went on strike for 5 days. They won an immediate R250 increase and a commitment by the bosses to give more raises by the end of the year.
On 18 September 40,000 workers in 250 local authorities stopped work. The strikers also littered management offices and streets. Workers in the Greater Johannesburg area and in Central Pretoria came out on a sympathy strike. They supported their comrades, although they had won good wage agreements before the current struggle.
The bosses used every method to break the strike, including court interdicts, dismissals, lock outs, and scab labour. The police (the bosses’ professional strike-breakers) killed at least 1 striker, injured many more, and arrested more than a 100.
In many small towns, white right-wingers attacked the protesting workers. In Kuruman, racists attacked a workers march with pick-handles, and beat one worker to death. WORKERS SOLIDARITY says: we must fight to defend ourselves against the bosses, racists and cops.
Despite this repression, the media and Labour Minister Mboweni spent their time condemning the strikers for littering. So did the elected Gauteng legislature who called for the arrest of workers who trashed Johannesburg. The ANC said SAMWU must pay for all damages, and claimed that a “hidden hand” was using the strike to undermine the “democratic government”.
Both SAMWU and COSATU rejected these disgraceful views. When Dan Mofokeng of the Gauteng cabinet told a SAMWU rally that their militant actions had “achieved nothing”, he was jeered by furious workers and had to leave under a police escort.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
In early October, the bosses in Mpumulanga, Northern Province, Northwest and parts of Gauteng agreed to raise wages 20% for lower grades, 12% for middle levels and 7,5% for upper levels.
We must keep broadening our struggle. We must demand through SAMWU an immediate improvement in municipal services in the locations. The strike showed that unions are mass combat units of workers. It is in struggle that we learn that we are not powerless, that our mass action and our unions can beat the bosses and rulers and build stateless socialism.
To go all the way, we need to take on the reformist and obsolete ideas that dominate our unions, we need to fight for full union democracy. If you agree these ideas, why not contact us in the Workers Solidarity Federation?