Cleaning out super-exploitation

By James Pendlebury, ZACF

How can the most harshly exploited workers fight back against the bosses?

Cleaning workers throughout South Africa have been on strike since Monday 8 August. They are demanding a living wage of R4 200 per month, as well as a 13thcheque and shorter hours.

Many of these workers are now paid R2 000 per month or even less, and work under the harshest conditions. The vast majority are black, and a great many are women; their supervisors are often racist and sexist bullies of the worst kind. They are frequently compelled to use dangerous chemicals, without even the protection of gloves; these chemicals can make them sick, and some have died as a result.

In last month’s talks, employers initially offered a 6% wage increase, subsequently raised to 8%. This means just another R160 to workers who are getting paid R2 000.

On top of this, cleaners have often had difficulty joining unions to protect them. A big problem is that many are outsourced. They work in private companies, government offices, hospitals, universities – anywhere that needs cleaning. But the institutions where they work are frequently not their direct employers: rather, the institution hires a cleaning company such as Supercare or Impact, which employs workers at miserable wages.

A typical story is that of the cleaners at Wits University. Before 2000, Wits employed its cleaners directly at a wage of about R2 000 per month. In 2000, Wits outsourced cleaning, gardening, catering and other support services. It retrenched 613 workers; those cleaners who were re-employed by Supercare received a monthly wage of R1 000 (with inflation-linked wage increases, this had risen to about R2 000 by 2011). These workers also lost many benefits, including free tuition at Wits for their children.

Wits management outsourced its workers to reduce its wage bill – and to weaken their organisation. The workers were transferred to four different outsourcing companies, and the number of firms has grown. Instead of bargaining together for their wages with one employer, they were broken up to fight four different companies. Nehawu, the main union that had represented the workers at Wits, was completely defeated in the fight against retrenchments, lost most of its members on campus, and has never recovered. Companies like Supercare constantly threaten any workers who join unions or try to organise, and try to ban meetings at the workplace. By dividing workers and preventing organisation, they keep workers frightened and keep wages low. Similarly to labour brokers, that is why these companies exist in the first place.

Nonetheless, the cleaning workers have succeeded in organising a national strike, and have held out for more than two weeks so far, sticking to their demands. Yet even so, the strike in many ways reflects the division and weakness of the workers. This was shown when the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union accepted management’s 8% offer on 28 August, completely betraying the demands of workers, and leaving the other seven unions seriously weakened. With more unions selling out, even those that remain have been compelled to call off the strike from Monday 12 September – not to accept the bosses’ offer, but to ask the state to settle the matter. On past experience, it is quite likely that the state will favour the bosses, now that the workers’ greatest weapon of the strike has failed. Why do such betrayals and defeats happen; why do they happen so often?

Unfortunately, most unions today are controlled not by their members but by highly paid bureaucrats who spend more time talking to the bosses than hearing from ordinary workers. All too often, they try to end strikes and make peace with the enemy; they are prepared to accept smaller offers from the bosses in order to stop the strike quickly. Involving more bureaucrats increases the danger.

Another source of weakness and disunity is the fact that the cleaners are striking alone – and here, too, outsourcing is a great weapon for the bosses. A strong union is a union that brings together all the workers in each workplace, each company, each industry, so that when the cleaners strike, they are joined by the drivers and the machinists and the clerical workers. This would hit the bosses that much harder. But here, not only are the cleaners striking alone, but thanks to outsourcing they are not even striking against the same bosses!

And on top of that, the bosses have brought in their favourite weapon: scab labour. It’s hard to tell where the scabs are coming from, but they are easy to find for jobs like cleaning. All the bosses need to do is head for the townships, find some unemployed people on the street, offer them a couple of days’ work. Class consciousness in South Africa today is not strong; many people do not realise how far scab labour weakens the working class.

The one thing that can prevent the employment of scabs is for striking workers to stay on the premises. Solid and permanent picket lines outside are almost as good, but sit-down strikes are even better. If strikers are always ready to toyi-toyi when scabs appear, who is going to scab? Such actions would be illegal – but the law is there for the bosses, not the workers. This, too, is a problem with union bureaucrats: they live by negotiating and “reasoning” with the bosses, so they don’t want to break the bosses’ laws. If the workers controlled their own unions, and knew who their enemies were, they need have no such scruples.

At Wits, there have been some steps in the right direction. This year, the Wits Workers’ Solidarity Committee has united workers from many outsourcing companies with a small group of Wits students, academics and support staff. The committee has already won one victory: it has forced the resignation of Ian Armitage, a racist Wits manager tasked with dealing with outsource workers, and known for insulting them as “k*****s”. This has raised the fighting spirit of the workers as it has never been since 2000. And now the committee is campaigning against scabs, calling for their removal from campus. Wits management has been compelled to acknowledge the right of students to speak to scabs and try to persuade them to stop what they are doing. Students have taken action to make a mess on campus, making things harder for the scabs. But this is still too little. How much more could be done if all working-class students joined this campaign? How much more if striking workers were on campus all the time?

This strike is in danger: from many divisions among workers, from union bureaucrats, from scabs. The strike might have been won if workers held firm, if they extended their actions and sought ways to enter the workplaces, if they watched their “leaders” closely to prevent more sellout deals. But how much further could workers go? The Wits Solidarity Committee aims to force the university to end outsourcing and re-employ workers directly. This will end one major division, and open the way to end others.

All workers and students at Wits – all workers in any workplace – should be united into one big union, facing the bosses as a single great force. Such a union should be controlled not by its bosses but by its members, held together by our common needs and common power as the working class. And One Big Union can bring together all workplaces, all sectors, can reach even beyond the workplace, can bring together employed and unemployed to put an end to scabbing. Such a union, strengthened by an anarchist understanding of the workers’ cause and the workers’ power, can, in the end, be our weapon to smash the oppressor, to remove the bosses, to put an end to exploitation once and for all.