(Trice Edney Wire) General Motors South Africa has shut down its plant in Port Elizabeth where some 200,000 members of the NUMSA trade union are demanding a 12 percent pay hike.
Support for the union walkout has poured in from the UK, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Namibia, Swaziland, and the machinist workers union in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
In a letter to the NUMSA General Secretary Irvin Jim, IAM’s international president wrote: “Dear Brother Jim: On behalf of over several hundred thousand members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, we stand solidly with NUMSA as you and your brothers and sisters struggle for decent wages and benefits. We are outraged over the lack of progress in your negotiations.”
“The IAM and NUMSA have supported each other for many, many years. As in the past, your fights are our fights and our fights are yours. As multinational corporations and their attacks on unions and workers grow, we must strengthen our resolve to battle injustice wherever it is found.” The letter was signed by R. Thomas Buffenbarger, IAMAW international president.
General Motors is demanding a two tier wage scale and other givebacks, despite a banner year in car sales, reaching an 11.5 market share, with volume growth up 16 percent over the previous year. Their new models, the Chevy Sonic and Chevy Utility, exceeded sales expectations with the light commercial vehicle “retaining 80 months of consecutive segment leadership.”
The union is demanding a 12 percent increase for workers while the employers have proposed a three-year deal that includes raises of 8 percent the first year. Talks between the parties are continuing.
Demands for wage gains are a long time coming. South Africa suffers from the widest income disparities on the planet, according to the World Bank. Executives earn as much as 300 times the average wage of workers and the economy remains dominated by white people and politically connected blacks 20 years after Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
In a press statement, the vehicle maker expressed confidence that it could meet its domestic and export customer demands for the medium term.
NUMSA, in an open letter to employers posted on their website, said the union was aware of the weak state of the global and local economy. Yet despite high rates of unemployment, they pointed out, capital was taking excessive profit.
“Large numbers of NUMSA members have lost their jobs,” the statement noted. “Unemployment for young people was 47.5 percent in the third quarter of 2013. 26 million South Africans live in abject poverty. Overall the 20 years of democracy have been disastrous to the working class of our country.”
“The strike can only end once the employers put a proper offer on the table,” Mphumzi Maqungo, NUMSA’s national treasurer, said in a press interview. “We need a full response for all of our demands including a pay raise and benefits.”
A full blown strike with the South African Municipal Workers Union, joined by Cosatu, the South African Community Party and the ANC is possible if authorities fail to address worker grievances within 14 working days.
In a related development, agricultural workers in neighboring Swaziland have ended a three-week strike for a living wage with a 10 percent wage increase and improved benefits for seasonal workers.
The strike targeted Ubombo Sugar, the Swazi subsidiary of South African sugar giant Illovo, which is 40% owned by Swaziland’s monarch Mswati III and 51% owned by the UK’s Associated British Foods, involved some 3,000 workers.