A labour dispute at the then Midrand municipality in 1994 has rumbled on for 22 years and has again, this year, come to the fore. In the process it has thrown into sharp focus some serious problems facing the South African labour movement.
Above all, it has highlighted the debilitating factionalism in the Cosatu affiliated SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) and moves by groups of workers across the board to demand a return to grassroots democracy. This was the promise held out in the generally euphoric atmosphere preceding the 1994 elections.
At that time, many workers challenged the old order in a way they had not done before. And one of the challenges at a municipal level was directed at the allegedly widespread practice of workers paying bribes to obtain council jobs.
This was apparently tolerated by unions such as the racially segregated SA Black Municipal And Allied Workers Union (Sabmawu). But with apartheid crumbling, the majority of Midrand workers turned their backs on Sabmawu and joined the Cosatu-affiliated Samwu.
With newfound confidence and militancy, they also denounced the corruption they maintain applied in the council. Protests led to a lockout and to the dismissal of the workforce.
“I paid R120 and, because I had a matric certificate, I qualified to be an ambulance assistant,” says Stena Molepo, convenor of the workers sacked by the Midrand municipality. But he says he was appointed as a low paid general worker, told that payment of another R300 was necessary for a job upgrade.
By that stage, however, a degree of bureaucracy had already begun to creep into much union organisation. The concept of “democratic centralism”, a mirror image of employer demands for the “right to manage” or to hire and fire at will, was demanded. It came to mean that many elected union officials assumed to themselves the right to make decisions for the workers they represented, without necessarily referring to the workers themselves.
At Midrand in 1994 it resulted in a “selective re-employment” deal being concluded without the workers being consulted. The majority rejected this, confident that the new political dispensation would reinforce democracy.
But this was two years before the Labour Relations Act came into being and established the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration and the Labour Court. At the same time, what became the union business also grew apace.
Hundreds of labour organisations were registered, some by self-confessed labour brokers. Established anti-apartheid unions also became increasingly bureaucratic; the days of all elected officials being recallable by the members and being paid no more than the highest paid member, had gone.
Instead, leaderships elected for two or even three years dominated and full time shop stewards, their salaries paid by employers, became a management layer between the union bosses and the membership. As bureaucracies crytallised and union investment companies became commonplace, the Midrand workers petitioned their union and Cosatu.
There were protest marches, some led by union officials. “But there was no follow-up,” says Molepo.
So the sacked workers, who still meet together almost every Sunday, decided to take the matter to court. They wanted their jobs back, but also claimed their pensions had “disappeared”.
But their case was never heard: it was struck off the roll because of inadequate paperwork prepared by a lawyer who turned out not to be qualified.
Hopes were later raised when former Johannesburg mayor, Amos Masondo, agreed that the workers had a case and that it would be followed up. But his successor, Parks Tau, apparently reversed this decision.
By then, and amid claims of political interference, the workers were aware that not only do the wheels of justice and bureaucracy grind exceeding slow, they often cease to grind at all. But, in an incredible example of solidarity, they did not give up.
Their hopes are now pinned on an appeal to Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba and on the support of the Democratic and Allied Workers Union (Demawusa), a breakaway from Samwu that was registered last year. Both Demawusa and another Samwu breakaway, the Municipal and Allied Trade Union, now in amalgamation talks, lay claim to be going back to democratic basics.
Both new unions have also aligned themselves with the putative labour federation being established under the auspices of the National Union of Metalworkers. It is scheduled to be launched in March.
However, amid ongoing factional battles within Samwu, an outstanding Hawks investigation, along with manoeuvrings on the political front, the Midrand workers can only hope that their claim for jobs and unpaid pensions will not again be sidelined.