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SAFTU celebrates three years of workers’ struggle

Three years ago, on 23 April 2017 the South African Federation of Trade Unions was born, at the end of an historic three-day founding congress at which 1,384 voting delegates from 24 unions and other non-voting unions, representing 700,000 workers, launched a new, vibrant, independent, and democratic workers’ federation.

Its theme was – Building Working Class Power in every Workplace and Community – and, guided by that theme, SAFTU can proudly celebrate solid growth and many victories over the following three years, despite the immensity of the tasks it has faced, and the challenges, of which the founding congress was well aware:

“Time is not on our side. Unless we urgently mobilise our forces to confront the quadruple challenge of unemployment, poverty, inequality and corruption and revive the trade union movement, turn the tide and fight back against their appalling conditions of life, we shall slide into a new age of barbarism, and even worse exploitation of the working class and the poor.”

Those challenges remain. As we noted at SAFTU’s inaugural Central Committee meeting on 18-20 November 2019:

“We are rebuilding the trade union movement and strengthening the rest of the working class formations under conditions of not our choosing. The trade union movement has been weakened by their own mis-steps. It has been fragmented as seeds of disunity were planted by those serving the political interests of the class enemies of the working class – the ruling class.  More importantly the trade union movement is not immune to the societal bigger problems. The rampant capitalist culture of, amongst others: ‘Me first  – to hell with everyone else is invading every aspect of societal life’.”

Today the conditions under which we are working have become even more daunting. Even before the Coronavirus pandemic struck the economy was shrinking – down by 1.4% in the fourth quarter of 2019, three months in which 7 out of 10 industries contracted, with agriculture seeing a massive 7.6% decline.

All the credit ratings agencies condemned the economy to ‘junk’ status and investment was falling as big business continued its ‘strike of capital’

Unemployment in the fourth quarter of 2019 was already at the appalling levels of 38.7%, by the expanded definition which includes people who have stopped looking for work – one of the highest rates in the world. Inequality was the highest on the world and the corruption and looting of public money was still flourishing, with none the perpetrators being brought to justice.

The jobless bloodbath was still in full swing with one big employer after another announcing retrenchments, in both private forms and state-owned enterprises.

And employed workers were facing less job security, worse working conditions and downward pressure on pay with more and more outsourcing, zero-hour contracts, bogus ‘self-employment’ and thousands of workers not even earning the poverty national minimum wage.

More employers were undermining collective bargaining and using amendments to labour laws to make it impossible for workers to exercise their constitutional right to withdraw their labour and being assisted in this by the Department of Labour trying to deregister SAFTU unions.

63% of the population were living with poverty and hunger, while social services for the poor continued to decline. Crime, drug dependency and violence against women and children were rampant and ruining the lives of thousands of South Africans.

At the root of all these problems lay the ANC government’s catastrophic neoliberal economic policies, seen at their most brutal in Tito Mboweni’s budget full of savage austerity cuts in money for vital public services, which were already providing pitifully low levels of service to the poorest communities and which in many cases were on the verge collapse from a lack of funds. The budget was a declaration of war on the working class and the poorest of the poor.

All of these statistics reflect the situation before the onset of the Coronavirus crisis, which will lead to a far deeper plunge in the economy, even higher unemployment and millions more being condemned to a life of poverty and hunger.

For three years SAFTU and its affiliate unions have fought valiantly to resist all these assaults on their members’ living standards and democratic rights, with important victories in insourcing jobs and winning court actions against anti-union employers.

The federation has also mobilised workers in the streets, notably the inspirational mass strikes against the poverty and slavery national minimum wage and the Thatcherite attacks on workers hard earned right to strike, in April 2018.

Another historic initiative was the Working-Class Summit in July 2018, when more than 1000 delegates representing over 147 South African working-class organisations assembled to unite workplace and community struggles in the Working-Class Summit.

It launched a campaign to unite the landless masses, the marginalised rural poor, the informal sector workers including waste pickers and small traders, youth formations, students’ organisations, women formations in urban and rural areas, those battling environmental destruction and fighting xenophobia and other forms of discrimination, in order to form a single movement of the working class.

Much must be done to ensure that the inspirational resolutions of the founding congress of SAFTU and the Working Class Summit are taken forward. Work remain outstanding to ensure that the resolutions of both the Special Central Committee and the inaugural Central Committee are taken forward.

SAFTU must do more work to ensure that it does not disappoint the expectations of millions of workers. Millions of workers remain unrepresented. The most vulnerable casualised and outsourced workers are still not being organised and their grievances remain sidelined.

Now that we have to confront the Coronavirus crisis, it is even more urgent to build this movement. SAFTU fully supports the lockdown, believing that saving lives must come before all else, but rejects the idea that the pandemic and the lockdown have ‘brought us all together’ in a common cause and are suffering equally. The reality is that they have ruthlessly exposed the stark inequalities and class and racial divisions in our country.

Wealthy families in big houses with big gardens, access to all the DSTV channels and ‘zoom’ communication have not suffered inconvenience but nothing remotely like the crisis for poor and unemployed families, now joined by informal sector workers, small traders and waste-pickers who have been plunged overnight into total poverty, many with no access to food.

The owners of global monopolies, many of them living overseas with their money stashed away in tax havens are not suffering like the shack-dwellers in Durban whose homes, in which they were ordered to stay inside, have been demolished, nor all those who have been forcibly moved to ‘camps’ which are virtual prisons, with no protection from the coming winter weather.

Thousands of the poor face starvation and assault by police and soldiers when they venture to get food. Spaza shopkeepers and informal traders are being forced to pay bribes to councillors to get a permit to trade, or having their goods looted by criminals.

The rich who succumb to the virus will still be able to get good treatment at private hospitals. Meanwhile Mboweni’s massive cut of R3.9 in the health budget will mean public health services, which were already suffering chronic infrastructure backlogs, will struggle to find the resources to combat the pandemic, become overwhelmed and could lead to hundreds more deaths among the poor.

We hope the President COVID – 19 injection of unspecified R20 billion in new funding to healthcare will hopefully be used to restore the capacity after Treasury’s R3.9 billion cut in the February 2020 budget.

The members of the poor majority of South Africans are paying a heavy price, not because they want to defy the lockdown rules, but because they are victims of a cruel capitalist economic system which denies them the most basic human rights – to jobs, a living income, houses, good schools, proper healthcare and a safe and healthy environment.

That makes it more than ever vital for SAFTU to mobilise the broader working class, the Xcluded majority of South Africans to fight for change. When Coronavirus is finally defeated, we must not just go back to the status quo, which was already inflicting hardship and misery on the working class and poor.

It will be even worse if monopoly capitalists and their cronies in the ANC government try to make the workers pay for their crisis by imposing even more austerity cuts in services, destroying thousands of jobs, further impoverishing the already poor and waging war on workers and the unions.

That is why SAFTU has called for a one-day general strike on 30 April 2020, to  defend the jobs and living standards of the public sector workers and to save the public services currently being dismantled through privatisation and austerity.

Already the attacks on workers is being intensified while our hands and legs are tied together by the coronavirus regulations.

The government proceeded to unilaterally alter the agreement it signed with unions at the PSCBC.

The government has now implemented the agreement as follows:

1.   That salary adjustment of CPI which is on 4.4 % will be effected to Salary 1-8 on conditions that all Public Sector employees agree to forfeit their pay progression for the year 2020,

2.   Salary 1-8 will not receive the 1% and 0.5% increment as agreed in Resolution 1 of 2018,

3.   That Salary Level 1-8 will not receive the full 4.4 % CPI but may only get 3% or lesser and the balance of 4.4% will be given to the employees through a once-off cash payment and capped leave which employees can only claim on retirement.

4.   Employees on salary level 9-12 will not receive any increase at all.

The total amount that the employer had budgeted for Pay Progression is 10 billion. The amount required to pay salary increase of 4. 4% CPI for salary level 1-8 is 15 billion, and the employer has only 10 billion, which was budgeted for Notch Progression.

This implies that the employer is going to give employees 0% increase in real terms. The government is stealing 10 billion from employees’ pay progression to give salary 1-8 increase below the inflation increase.

Workers must remember this is just the beginning. Government has cut a R162 billion rands from the salaries and conditions of public sector workers for the next three years.

Government is moving under the cover of coronavirus to privatise! SA Express has under liquidation and SAA is going the same route. Thousands of jobs are going to be lost as the private airlines will take over what was a very stable and profitable airline services. The people who looted the state owned enterprises are rooming the streets enjoying their ill-gotten wealth while workers suffer.

This is just a few examples that tell us that post the lockdown we be ready to unite and mobilise to defend our jobs and the economy. NUPSAW and YNITU our fastest growing unions are calling for a strike to respond to this government attack. The Working Class Movement has made similar calls. SAFTU must soonest discuss this and take this forward. This fight require the broadest unity possible within the public service and amongst the working class.

The way forward to defeat the coronavirus pandemic and pave the way towards a socialist future is the following massive programme of radical emergency measures:

•      Allow all who can to work from home, with special leave without loss of pay for others, except workers providing health services, food and other necessities, who must have safe working conditions, protective gear, anti-transmission training and regular testing.

•      Build a single, public national health care service for all.

•      Mass employment and training of health assistants and community healthcare workers to contain the spread and ensure treatment and services at point of need.

•      Immediate shutting down of schools, pre-schools, universities and colleges to limit the spread; provide special childcare for essential services workers.

•      Roll out free testing at temporary stations in all communities; quality medical services and medication for all.

•      Free soap, water and sanitisers in every public space, workplace and poor community.

•      Stop and reverse all water and electricity cut-offs and supply water to all households.

•      Basic income grant and free basic food supplies for precarious workers, the unemployed and others forced to stay home and in need.

•      Stop all retrenchments.

•      Nationalise all private health-care sectors and pharmaceutical companies

•      No profiteering from the pandemic

•      Suspend payments of rent, rates, water and electricity tariffs.

•      Emergency loans to small businesses in need.

•      No evictions.

•      Set up import-substituting industries to ensure continuous supply of all essential needs for which the country currently depends on imports.

•      Permanent, secure and decent-paying jobs and training for all workers including those in community health care, home-based care, food production, distribution and retail.

•      Massive public works programme to overcome backlogs in housing, schooling infrastructure, hospitals and clinics, piped water supply and safe public transport.

•      Reorganise the economy on the basis of public ownership of all key resources (banks, mines, big businesses) and a democratic plan to prioritise health, education, housing, work, water, sustainable food and energy production.

•      No restrictions on workers’ democratic rights to strike and organise.

•      Fight racism and tribal division.

Celebrate SAFTU’s third birthday! Don’t mourn – mobilise! Socialism is the only viable option!

Amandla! Matla!