‘THIS is the last time we come here in peace, when we come here again we will vandalise,’ the leader of hundreds Community Work Programme (CPW) workers said outside the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg on Monday.
The CPW action is part of a huge upsurge in the South African working class and trade unions against the Cyril Ramaphosa ANC (African National Congress) government which has just passed a new law making it illegal to strike before conducting a secret ballot – a move described by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) as ‘a violation of workers’ rights’.
On Monday, the CPW’s Velaphi Ndaba, from Ekurhuleni region, said the workers have lost patience as they have not received any response after they submitted their memorandum of grievances a month ago on 12 August.
Known for marching with a brass band, the workers – clad in their orange overalls – blockaded Pixley Seme Street between Pritchard and President Streets.
‘We are not here to hand over a memorandum, we are here to seek answers,’ Ndaba added.
Region F representative Simphiwe Hlahla said the ANC must utilise its powers to empower the CWP workers. ‘The party failed to give us a simple answer. All we wanted was a simple yes or no,’ Hlahla added.
‘This is the last time we come here in peace. When we come here again we will vandalise. We will start at the Corporate Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) offices because it is the language they understand,’ he said.
During the previous demonstration, the workers handed in a memorandum demanding that their stipend be increased from R780 to at least R1000 a month.
The memorandum was at the time received and signed by the ANC’s Dakota Logoete who promised to revert back to the CWP leadership.
The last time they had marched to Luthuli House, CWP’s Pule Hlafu said they had been submitting memorandums to the party as early as 2012 and to date none of their grievances were ever attended to ‘until we decided to rather come unannounced to where our leaders are deployed and share our grievances in person’.
‘Our main issue is the stipend paid to our members. Our members are getting around R780 per month and we are saying that should be increased to at least R1,000 per month,’ Hlafu added.
In another militant action, Metrobus workers affiliated to Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union (Demawusa) embarked on a protected strike over pay on Monday leaving Johannesburg commuters stranded after the union halted services.
Metrobus management claimed to the striking workers that they are part of a minority union which has limited rights to make demands.
According to Demawusa leader Dion Makhura, employees are demanding to be paid a salary progression based on three-year periods of accumulated service.
They also want to be given offices and resources in all three depots.
However, Metrobus spokesman Goodwill Shivuri claimed the Demawusa union had limited rights.
‘The only thing they have now is administrative rights to be able to come to the building and recruit members,’ he claimed. ‘And their status has not changed, they are still a minority union.’
He said other unions, Imatu and Samwu, had offices in the depots because they were in the majority and, as soon as Demawusa’s scope changed, the company would reconsider its request for office space.
He claimed a bus that had been ‘hijacked’ in the early hours of the morning was later recovered, adding that the action was a ‘threat to scare off people who were working’.
‘Because of fear of intimidation, workers affiliated to other unions were forced to stop operating,’ he added.
He said Metrobus would meet with Demawusa and try resolve the impasse as soon as possible.
However, Dion Makhura said Demawusa would not concede to any agreement that did not meet their demands.
‘There is nothing in the Labour Relations Act or the Constitution that says you must be a majority to go on strike. They are lost.
‘How can the Labour Court give us a go-ahead to go on strike if what we are doing is not according to the law of the Republic,’ he said.
Makhura added that there was no agreement between Metrobus and Imatu and Samwu regarding pay.
‘Even if they can enter into an agreement (with other unions), there is nothing prohibiting us to go on strike,’ he said.
He said the strike would continue until their demands were met, adding that reports that a bus had been hijacked were a ‘lie and fallacy’.
Makhura said: ‘The first issue is the issue of salary progression; the second issue is where we are demanding that we have access to offices and resources at the depots. The workers must be paid according to the number of years they have been in service.’
Meanwhile, SAFTU says it will approach the courts this week to seek an urgent interdict against a new law that makes it illegal to embark on strike action before conducting a secret ballot.
SAFTU is joining the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) which has already begun the process of challenging the legislation at the Constitutional Court.
‘This is a violation of workers’ rights as enshrined in the bill of rights,’ SAFTU said.
The union said this law intends to ‘fatigue workers and unions from exercising their constitutional guaranteed right to strike and diminish the already shrinking power of the working class.
‘The right to strike is the only weapon workers have at their disposal to fight against their employers for better conditions and wages,’ SAFTU said.
The union said it also opens new channels for employers to veto powers over strikes called by trade unions.
According to the new amendments, ‘every trade union or employer’s organisation must, before calling a strike or lockout, conduct a ballot of members in respect of whom it intends to call the strike or lockout’.
It also relates to member rights in regard to failure or refusal to participate in a strike. The permit in regard to balloting stipulates a requirement for a trade union to obtain the consent of the employer to hold a ballot and the procedures to be followed when conducting a secret ballot.
Registrar of Labour Relations, Advocate Lehlohonolo Molefe said this gives members of trade unions a choice whether or not to embark on strike action and threatened that failure to comply with the legislation may result in deregistration of unions, cancellation of registration and placing the guilty party under administration.
Last week the Department of Labour issued a warning that if unionised employees go on strike without having conducted a secret ballot, then the strike is illegal.
Along with the National Minimum Wage Act, the secret ballot rule came into effect on January 1 as part of the changes to the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.
This followed an agreement that was reached between government, business and labour at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) in 2016.
The Department of Labour, in a statement issued on Monday, said that without the secret ballot, it is illegal to embark on a strike.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) called the labour department’s statement ‘factually devoid’ for saying that a strike is illegal if it is conducted without balloting.
Parliamentary coordinator Matthew Parks said in a statement that all South Africans have a Constitutional right to strike and that it is not illegal like murder or theft.
‘South African law does not allow for the police to arrest anyone for simply being on strike, protected or unprotected,’ Parks said. ‘Striking is not a criminal offence. This is 2019, not 1976. Workers do not need government or the employer’s permission to strike.’
Parks called for the labour department to retract its statement. ‘For workers this is an emotional issue. It is extremely irresponsible for the Department of Labour to have issued such a dangerous and reckless statement stating that unballoted strikes are now illegal.’
SAFTU said it is opposed to secret ballots and plans to challenge it at the Constitutional Court.
SAFTU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said the ballots are an attempt ‘to stifle the rights of workers to struggle for decent wages and working conditions’.
NUMSA General Secretary Irvin Jim described the labour laws as ‘draconian’.
‘We reject attempts by the government and the Department of Labour to tamper with the constitutional right to strike.
‘The introduction of compulsory secret balloting before a strike is nothing else but an imposition on the limitation on the right to strike. We are calling on the government to stop this vicious attack against workers,’ he said.