The recent South African public sector general strike represents the high water mark of working class resistance since the global financial crisis began in 2007. Although it has now been sold out by the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), worker anger is still on the boil, and could yet pose a direct challenge to the South African elite.
The three week action was brought to an end by COSATU bureaucrats on 6th September, just at the point when private sector solidarity actions were being considered. They then presented their membership with a pay ‘deal’ of 7.5 per cent – just half a per cent higher than the government was offering before the strike, and one per cent short of the strikers’ demands.
If the deal is passed, public sector workers will be out of pocket after a campaign in which they have been vilified by the press, denounced by the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, and faced water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades from police. While the strike was on, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi dusted off his most militant rhetoric, denouncing the luxurious lifestyles of President Jacob Zuma and his ANC colleagues. But behind the scenes, Vavi and his team were conducting negotiations with what he had labelled the government “predator society”, and stitching up a rotten deal.
There are initial signs that the union rank and file is extremely unhappy, and could break with the leadership when the twenty-one day ‘consultation’ period comes to an end. “Unions were shocked by the manner of the rejections”, one local official told reporters, “the mandate was unambiguous, it was a no”. Meanwhile union leaders were chased out of a Johannesburg meeting, when members reacted angrily to the proposals.
The Johannesburg scenes were reminiscent of those at the Indianapolis GM stamping plant last month. This is because although union leaders can sometimes offer militant rhetoric, when it comes to the crunch their interests force them to bow before the demands of international finance and the state, and the mask falls. With class tensions rising, the ‘crunches’ are now coming thick and fast.
A similar objective relationship between bureaucracy and rank and file exists in the UK, where this week’s Trades Union Congress conference saw some of the most apparently angry attacks on the sitting government since the times of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. It could hardly be otherwise, since public sector spending cuts of around 25 per cent are being openly discussed, as the coalition government tries to make the working class pay for the bank bailouts.
However, when push comes to shove, the UK union leaders’ rhetoric will be shown to be as hollow as those in South Africa, Indianapolis, Greece, and all over the world. If this historic assault on working class living standards is to be beaten, a democratic rank and file movement must be born, equipped with a perspective based on international solidarity and workers’ control.