From 2004 through 2010, LabourStart ran five campaigns in support of South African trade unions.
Though the campaigns have been relatively small, they have attracted 960 South African trade unionists to LabourStart’s mailing list.
And in at least two cases, the campaigns contributed to significant victories for the workers.
Three of those campaigns were run at the request of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), a COSATU-affiliated union claiming 107,000 members.
The largest of those campaigns was launched in December 2009 under the headline “Sun International must negotiate with strikers – not try to break their union”.
The other two were “Support striking workers at Dis-Chem” (June 2010) and “Woolworths engages in union-busting” (October 2008).
These were not large campaigns by LabourStart standards. The Sun International got just over 3,600 supporters; Dis-Chem had less than half that (1,700 supporters) and the Woolworths campaign was smaller still — just 937 supporters.
We reported on an agreement reached between Sun International and the union in February 2010. According to the IUF, “The seven-week strike by SACCAWU at South African hotel chain Sun International has ended with a negotiated settlement which brings important gains for union members. SACCAWU’s January 25 official release (which warmly thanked the workers’ international supporters for their solidarity during the long and bitter conflict) on the settlement describes the strike as ‘marked by an extreme intransigence on the side of the company, coupled with violence from the SAPS and private security on the picket-line, including racist and sexist insults, extreme provocations, assaults as well as arrests of numerous strikers, a full-time shop steward and a union official’.”
But we don’t know much about how the other campaigns turned out. For example, the last news story on LabourStart about Dis-Chem is from July 2010 and reports on Cosatu’s support of the strike. There has been no news about Woolworths on our site since October 2008.
It would be hard to find out from SACCAWU itself, as its website no longer exists.
A campaign launched by LabourStart in June 2009 in support of shop stewards sacked for going out on a safety strike also contributed to the resolution of the dispute. This was a campaign in support of Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (CEPPWAWU), a COSATU affiliated union claiming 67,000 members. The campaign came to us from their global union federation, the ICEM. It generated a respectable 2,300 messages sent and according to the ICEM, “the parties came to a negotiated memorandum on the issue of suspension of shop stewards and others, following unprotected safety strikes in April and May. A 4-page memorandum was signed August 5 putting and end to the conflict. There were no dismissals, and that is good news, considering Sappi had originally sought job dismissals on some. … The ICEM thanks all those who supported this campaign and congratulates both Sappi and CEPPWAWU for putting this dispute behind them.”
The earliest campaign we did in support of a South African union was back in August 2004 when we built support for the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which is also COSATU-affiliated and claims 44,000 members. The campaign protested job cuts and attracted considerable media attention. LabourStart was thanked in the union’s print publication for our contribution. There has been continuing coverage of Telkom and the union ever since on LabourStart.
It’s important that we build upon these experiences and learn lessons. Here are some random thoughts:
1. The campaigns are bigger, and we get more detailed reports on how they turned out, when we work closely with global union federations. The GUFs are able to get the local union activists to provide news — and the two campaigns we ran with GUFs involved (Sun International and Sappi) did considerably better in terms of the number of supporters.
2. Now that we have close to 1,000 South Africans on our mailing list, it’s important that we make a special effort to reach out to them when we have a South African campaign. We certainly didn’t have this base of support in country back in 2004 when we started.
3. We should consider adding at least one of the 11 official South African languages to our campaign system — possibly Afrikaans or Zulu. This would send a clear message to all that our campaigns are not just targeting the elite, but all workers.
4. We must make it clearer to unions that we expect them to inform us when a campaign can be closed, and what the result of the campaign was. This is especially true in the case of SACCAWU.
5. There are many important disputes taking place in South Africa today and we must be more pro-active in encouraging unions there to allow us to help them campaign. The fact that we have not done a campaign there since June 2010 is not good, because there have been some real possibilities for large-scale campaigns — such as SACCAWU’s campaign against Wal-Mart. That would have gotten considerable global attention and might have helped the union, which has been struggling — not least to raise the funds for legal work on this.
6. The fact that we have made a considerable contribution to resolutions of disputes in Sun International and Sappi is not well known in the South African labour movement and we should do more to let unions know what we have done, and what we can do in future, to help them.