Co-ops & Zionism in the Clover strike

Posted on January 25, 2022


(First published in Fin24 and in City Press, South Africa)

And so the old year rolls into the new, with the two-month-old Clover strike a prime labour focus.  And, unless a settlement is reached within the next week or so, the countrywide stoppage at the branded food and beverages group is likely to escalate — and to gain wider support.  

The “support a boycott” raid by union members on several supermarkets this past week, along with a solidarity meeting on Wednesday, are indications that a long-term fight is in prospect.  On Tuesday, members of the General Industries Workers’ Union (Giwusa) and the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) employed a classic example of non-violent direct action by loading supermarket trolleys with Clover products and leaving them in the aisles, along with leaflets explaining why a boycott would support worker demands.

Politics will also play a part since the strong local Zionist lobby has already entered the fray, claiming that “extremist groups” are attempting to “hijack and manipulate” the strike.  This because the unions and anti-Zionist groups have apparently — and somewhat belatedly — taken up the fact that Clover is now owned. by a consortium headed by Israel’s Central Bottling Company (CBC).

In 2019, when CBC, through its subsidiary, Milco, moved to take over Clover, Milco’s potential BEE partner, Brimstone Investments, pulled out after pressure from the anti-Zionist Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) group.  But the takeover went ahead, although with conditions that were apparently not met.

It was therefore inevitable that the fact that Clover is now an Israeli company would come to the fore because the majority of unions in South Africa, along with the government, are, at least in principle, opposed to the ethno-religious policies and practices of Zionism in Israel.  Along with human rights groups that include B’tselem in the Zionist state, the ethnic policies employed by the Israeli government are equated with state-led ethnic oppression epitomised by apartheid.

Milco bought out Clover in 2019.after reaching an agreement with the local Competition Tribunal and Clover was subsequently delisted from the Johannesburg Securities Exchange.  At the time, it was agreed that, while there would be 277 retrenchments, some 550 new jobs would be created over the following five years.

But the unions claim that 2,000 jobs are now at stake, 800 have been lost, another 800 workers have accepted voluntary redundancy, and the company has reneged on paying the historic 13th cheque while also cutting pay by 20%.  The company has responded by citing difficult trading conditions exacerbated by the pandemic and insisted that all legal processes have been followed.

There is actually more than a hint of irony in one of the union demands:  that Clover become a co-operative.  Because this company, formed in 1898, started out as a co-operative venture by a group of KZN Midland dairy famers.  However, this was a producer co-operative in which workers — the core producers — were never involved.

The advantages of co-operation among scattered farming communities soon became apparent and the law caught up with reality in a 1922 Act that recognised co-operative ventures.  Clover, that had expanded considerably and  had taken over the Johannesburg Milk Supply Company in 1903, was formally registered as an official co-op in 1923.

Ten years later, this co-operative was often the agro-industrial mainstay in many of the 32 centres around the country in which it then operated.  As the unions point out, this is a crucial element of the Clover project:  although a producer co-operative, it provided jobs and livelihoods to otherwise deprived rural areas.

The union argument is that continued decentralisation, under co-operative, worker control, would ensure that the company remained economically viable while, more importantly, maximising benefits to the community at large.  At this level, the conflict is seen as a matter of supporting either greater benefit to the majority or increased profits to the shareholding few.  And many, perhaps even most, of these shareholders do not live, let alone work, in South Africa.

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