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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Speakers' notes prepared by Zwelinzima Vavi, Deputy General Secretary at May Day 1998

1 May 1998


  1. May Day History and Global challenges
  2. Victories in SA since the 1994 elections
  3. Set-backs and Challenges
  4. Conclusion

  1. May Day History and Global challenges

Brief history of May Day

    1. In 1886, workers in the United States of America went on strike in demand of an 8 hour working day. During those years workers worked up to 18 hours a day. This strike was brutally ended by the police. This day has been observed by all progressive trade unions since then.
    2. Over many years workers fought in all parts of the globe for shorter working time, a living wage, a system of social security and improved working conditions. Through these historic struggles workers managed in many countries - including South Africa - to achieve countless victories.
    3. May Day is about the celebration of these victories.

International solidarity

    1. In many other countries workers are involved in major struggles to defeat military juntas and other like-minded dictatorships. We pledge our solidarity with workers in Swaziland who are involved in struggles to defeat feudalism, Zimbabwe where workers are involved in bitter struggles to improve their living conditions , Nigeria for a right to form independent unions and for democracy, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, East Timor, Australia - the list is endless. We call on the trade union movement across the world to extend hands across borders to defeat those forces whose interest is only to create conditions for capital to exploit workers.
    2. We call on the US government to lift with immediate effect their illegal blockade of Cuba. Let the Cubans determine their own fate.
    3. As we celebrate 150 years of the Communist Manifesto, let us recount our victories in the long road of the National Democratic Revolution. Let us dedicate ourselves to the working class struggles that lie ahead. Let us build socialism now and in the future so that political and economic power shall rest in the hands of the working class.

  1. Victories in SA since the 1994 elections

    1. This is the fifth May Day we celebrate as full citizens of our country.

      Workers' rights

    2. In the past five years, workers have made historic gains. These include:
      • The defeat of apartheid and installation of a new government led by the ANC.
      • A new constitution that has a Bill of Rights which recognises our right as workers to belong to trade unions of our choice, to organise, to strike and enter into negotiations with the bosses for agency and closed shops. Above all we won the war for the exclusion of the right of the bosses to lock-out workers, and this right has been enshrined in the constitution.
      • May Day is now a paid public holiday. Other important days in the calendar of our revolution (March 21, June 16 August 9 and December 16) are also paid holidays.
      • We have a new LRA in place which gives us many organisational rights, including the right to stop order facilities, to collective bargaining, and, most importantly, that all workers who benefit from the sweat and struggle of trade union members must join that union (closed shop) or pay a fee to the union (agency shop).
      • We have a new Basic Conditions of Employment Act. Some of its sections, in particular the provisions that ban use of child labour, are already working. The act as the whole will be enforced by September this year.
      • Health and Safety laws have been restructured to provide workers with more protection including the important right to refuse dangerous work (in the case of the Mines Health and Safety Act) and the right to elect safety representatives with full rights to inspect in case of accidents.
      • NEDLAC is finalising other important pieces of legislation to deal with the legacy left by apartheid. This includes the Employment Equity Bill that will force bosses to implement affirmative action at the workplace and the Skills Bill that will force bosses to invest in the training of workers.

      Other important socio-economic victories

      • The ANC government has made health more accessible to all. Today more than 500 clinics have been built, bringing health services closer to 5 million people. Pregnant mothers and children under the age of 6 enjoy free health care.
      • Over 1 million rural communities now have access to clean running water.
      • 385 000 houses have been built and 700 000 housing subsidies earmarked.
      • 900 projects of the community-based public works programme are creating 40 000 jobs.
      • More and more people, including those in the rural areas, have access to telecommunications.
    3. The list goes on. All these victories could not be possible without active support of workers, in the ANC and SACP, across the entire Alliance. These victories also represent the ANC's commitment to meeting the social needs of the people in line with our battle cry - a better life for all!
    4. These things represent a change in our struggle to improve the living conditions of the poor. Those who have been advocating a lie to the effect that there have been no changes since 1994 speak from utter ignorance or wanting to score cheap political points. These prophets of doom continue with their message that nothing has changed or things have become worse.
    5. The challenge we face is how to deepen these achievements. The NP, DP and other opposition parties have in parliament and elsewhere consistently tried to stop most if not all of these achievements.
    6. Some workers have been misled into voting for these parties. But their agenda is very clear: they seek to frustrate change. They want the status quo maintained. They want privileges which were accumulated through an evil apartheid system to be maintained. They serve the narrow interests of the bosses, and not those of the working class.
    7. The NP and DP were vociferous in arguing for the lock-out to be in the constitution. They opposed the LRA and BCEA. The DP is opposed to the Employment Equity Bill. They have argued that the government should not regulate the labour market through these laws. They demand that all those Ministers who have embarked on fundamental transformation programmes be fired. Workers should take note of this unfolding history and judge for themselves in terms of which political parties represent their interest and which represent the interests of bosses.
    8. COSATU's call on workers to vote for the ANC is based on these basic facts. We think it is absurd for workers to allow narrow sentiments and race to be used to suppress their interests as workers. Workers and the poor have voted for the NP in the Western Cape. This should not be allowed to continue. We owe it to our class build the consciousness of workers so that they can vote for a party that promotes their interest.
    9. The party that has brought all these changes in favour of the workers is the ANC.

  2. Set-backs and Challenges

Unemployment and macroeconomic strategies

    1. Unemployment and retrenchments remain the number one challenge which workers in South Africa are facing.
    2. South Africa has been experiencing jobless economic growth since 1985. COSATU has consistently argued that economic growth does not always translate into more jobs. In the recent period, the economy has been growing with retrenchments intensifying and unemployment rising.
    3. We have consistently called for measures to be put in place to stop this carnage. We need a macro-economic strategy whose main focus will be growth through redistribution, whose success will be measured on its ability to create jobs and to redistribute the wealth of our country.
    4. The Reserve Bank says that the total number of people employed is the same as in 1981. What the Reserve Bank is not telling us is how its conservative monetary policies have contributed to this crisis. COSATU argued without success that the powers of the Reserve Bank to determine monetary policy should not be absolute or protected in the constitution. The high interest rates, which the Reserve Bank is using as a blunt instrument to drive down the inflation rate, have had profound effects on our jobs and the economy. Whilst on one hand low inflation is good, on the other hand this alone does not put food on the table. Low inflation cannot be an end in itself, but has to be a means to an end.
    5. We remain opposed to the big rush to decrease the deficit irrespective of its consequences to the capacity of the government to deliver social needs. We call on the government to address this issue.
    6. We call on the Alliance Summit to be held later this month to review all macro-economic policies, so that the capacity of the economy to create jobs can be addressed. No policy can be cast in stone. Policies that are not delivering on the basic objectives of the alliance must be reviewed.
    7. The Presidential Jobs Summit must be used to look at appropriate policies that will lead to more jobs being created. We welcome the alliance decision to drive this process and co-ordinate proposals wherever possible into single alliance positions.
    8. We remain confident that the alliance will deal with these difficult matters in the manner consistent with our traditions of seeking consensus in the spirit of taking our revolution to new heights.

Deepen the gains and vote for ANC

    1. COSATU is determined to ensure that we deepen the gains that we have made in the past.
    2. This includes consolidating the gains listed above. Above all we must mobilise our members and their communities to vote in the next general elections. They should not only vote, but vote correctly.
    3. Voting correctly means voting for the party that entrenched workers' rights in the constitution. The party that passed a new LRA which remains the best in the modern world, that passed a new BCEA that for the first time gives rights to domestic workers, farm workers and temporary workers. The party that has proposed a Skills Bill so that workers can be trained. The party that has tabled a new Employment Equity bill. The party that has made health and education more accessible to the poor and workers, that has provided clean running water to over a million people, etc.
    4. To COSATU that party is the ANC.

Build COSATU and the Alliance

    1. It is now clear to all of us that in order for us to deepen the gains of the past period we need our organisations to be stronger than yesterday. Let us go all out to build strong workplace structures. Let us elect capable shop stewards to defend us against the attacks of the bosses. Let us retain our militancy, selflessness and willingness to serve our organisations without looking for hidden benefits. Let us deal with the corrupt elements including some organisers who just want to earn salaries without providing service to workers.
    2. Let us use this month to take the Autumn Offensive recruitment campaign to reach new heights. Let us consolidate the gains that we have made. Let go back to the workplaces we organised to elect shop stewards, to train these and take up grievances workers have against the bosses.
    3. Let us build and effectively co-ordinate our living wage struggles so that we can improve our living conditions.
    4. Let us build a strong ANC and SACP at branch level. COSATU calls on all its members to join these organisations so that we can be part of this unfolding struggle for fundament transformation of our country.
    5. Let us build a strong SANCO and other MDM formations like COSAS, SASCO, women's and youth movements. Let us build strong movements capable of taking up working class and women's issues.

Restructure the public service

    1. We acknowledge steps taken to restructure the public service. We welcome the measures announced by Minister Zola Skweyiya to introduce affirmative action above the provisions of the Employment Equity Bill. We urge the government to speed up implementation of these measures so that this sector can be representative - particularly at managerial level.
    2. COSATU pledges to work with the government to enhance a new culture of delivery, caring, professionalism and development of high standards by workers in the public service. We endorse the code of conduct developed by the government. In addition COSATU will organise a Service Delivery Conference later this year to discuss these matters. At this conference we will develop a code of conduct for all our members working in the state sector.
    3. Such a code should commit workers to this new culture. It should turn all workers into active campaigners against inherited corruption, mismanagement and nepotism. Our members should lead by example and be whistle-blowers on corruption. In areas like the Free State our members have started to take up this challenge.
    4. We reject the narrow and neo-liberal interpretation of the restructuring of the public service - in particular the calls for a slim state. Government's role cannot be limited to maintenance of the army, police and prisons. We see the state's role extended well beyond these areas. We want the government's capacity to deliver basic services - like health, education, water, electricity, municipal services, etc - not only maintained but deepened. Above all we want a government that has a capacity to intervene in the economy so that jobs can be created and redistribution of wealth and income can take place.
    5. We accept that there may be areas and some government departments that have more many workers than required. At the same time we know that there are many other areas where there are not enough public servants to deliver services. We want restructuring to take both of these matters into account. We want public servants redeployed to the areas where there are shortages of public servants. We want training, training and retraining and skilling of workers so that this redeployment can be possible. We reject suggestions that seek blindly to retrench public servants or simply to throw them into the streets to face poverty.
  1. Conclusion

We thank workers and their communities for joining the May Day celebration.