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(en) zabalaza #4: The Workers' Struggle at Wits University

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 25 Jun 2003 10:02:26 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

In 2000 the University of the Witwatersrand outsourced its
cleaning, catering, grounds and maintenance services. Over 600
workers either lost their jobs or found themselves employed by
'service provider' companies at drastically reduced wages.
Workers who had previously been paid over R2 000 per month now
found themselves receiving R1 000. They were robbed of medical
aid, free university education for their children and other benefits.
The workers, supported by some students and academics, fought
against this attack, but they were let down by the weak response
of NEHAWU, the bureaucratic COSATU-affiliated union which was
supposed to represent them, and were totally defeated. Workers
at most other South African universities have experienced similar
attacks over the past few years. (See our pamphlet Fighting
Privatisation in South Africa for more on this struggle.)

After NEHAWU had failed them, many of the outsourced workers,
particularly cleaners now employed by the Supercare company,
joined MESHAWU, a NACTU affiliate. But they found that this
union served them no better than its rival. While they bogged
themselves down in useless negotiations and accepted a 'sector
agreement' that gave workers nothing, the MESHAWU
bureaucrats told their members to wait patiently and be grateful
for what they had. In the meantime what they had was growing
less as food prices shot up during 2002.

Late in that year the frustration of the workers was sparked into a
new wave of resistance after the Wits branch of the Socialist
Students' Movement intervened. The SSM had originally been
established at the University of Durban-Westville; it was started at
Wits early in 2002 by a broad group of revolutionaries including
both anarchists and Marxists. In August and September 2002 it
gave the workers its support in defying the MESHAWU
bureaucracy and the bosses, and went on to assist in launching a
campaign for better wages and conditions. The Supercare
workers took the most active part in this campaign, although
gardeners from Sonke were also involved, and catering staff were

The achievements of the workers over the last few months of 2002
* A series of public meetings and the establishment of a
committee to co-ordinate the campaign independently of existing
* Marches on campus in which demands for better conditions
and restoration of pre-outsourcing wages were presented to
Supercare and to Wits management;
* An approach to the Combined Staff Association at the University
of Durban-Westville, with a view to setting up a branch of this
union at Wits. COMSA, which includes academic and
administrative staff as well as manual workers, is independent of
the major bureaucratic union federations; it includes a number of
revolutionary activists, although unfortunately no anarchists; and
it has achieved greater success in facing the challenge of
outsourcing than any other campus union in South Africa.

Various student organisations (other than the SSM) have
expressed sympathy for the workers, and a campaign to win the
support of academics has also been launched. But it is only the
workers themselves who can hope to achieve success in this
difficult struggle. They face major challenges, beginning with a
campaign of intimidation by Supercare management, known for its
harsh treatment, even by capitalist standards, even of workers
who are not actively resisting. The intimidation campaign includes
spying on workers' meetings; drawing up lists of 'troublemakers'
(one such list was captured and destroyed by student activists,
but no doubt there are others); and trumped-up disciplinary
charges and attempted dismissals (in December Supercare tried
to dismiss two workers, allegedly for drinking tea; the charge was
defeated but no doubt there will be more).

At the same time the workers face all the difficulties and
uncertainties of building a new organisation, in which they will
themselves make all the decisions and control all the resources
instead of handing these over to a bunch of bureaucrats. There
are internal tensions and disagreements. Political opportunists
are always ready to spread confusion. The connection with
COMSA has not yet been consolidated. And, faced with the
danger of losing their jobs, the workers are (for now) obliged to
defend themselves within the capitalist legal system, with all the
extra difficulties that involves. This relates to another matter that
will come to a head in 2003: Supercare's contract with Wits is
scheduled for review, and the workers must find a way to change
or replace it in order to improve their position.

There are no easy solutions to these challenges; it is up to the
workers to fight on with patience, determination and imagination,
and to revolutionaries to support them as best we can. But this
struggle raises questions of more general interest. How do
outsourced workers get organised - neglected by the bureaucratic
unions as they tend to be? And how does the revolutionary
struggle relate to these bureaucratic unions in general?

We reject the Marxist view that unions are inherently reformist and
can play no important role in bringing about revolution. Indeed, it
is in just such day-to-day battles as unions engage in that the
revolutionary struggle begins; and since the revolution is to be
made by the workers themselves, the organisations of the workers
are of vital importance. But we do see that bureaucrats and
sellouts can and frequently do emerge within unions, gain
positions of power and undermine the workers' struggle; and we
recognise that this can happen even in unions that are explicitly
revolutionary in their aims. For instance, leading members of the
CNT, the anarchist union which was central in bringing about the
revolution of 1936, hesitated to follow up the revolution and even
violated anarchist principles to the extent of accepting positions in
the Popular Front government.

It might seem that withdrawing from bureaucratic unions to start
new ones which are more democratic and more open to
revolutionary ideas is a positive step. But there is no guarantee
that such unions will not also develop in the direction of selling out;
and challenging the bureaucracy from within, while difficult, can
also be productive. Moreover working-class unity is vital whether
for daily struggles or in a revolution, and a split in workers'
organisations is always dangerous. But this does not mean it is
never correct or necessary. To take an obvious example, if a racist
union excludes black workers, they have no option but to build an
independent union of their own and try to win as many white
workers as possible; if this union takes a revolutionary direction
(as did South Africa's first black union) so much the better.
Perhaps the indifference of 'mainstream' unions to outsourced
workers justifies a similar direction. It is not always possible to tell
in principle which way will work best.

This article has raised more questions than answers. We cannot
tell where the struggle at Wits is going or what will be its broader
significance. For the moment, anarchists must do all they can to
support the Wits workers; make available to them the lessons
history has taught us; spread our ideas among them; and be ready
to learn from them the lessons of their fight for the great
revolutionary struggle.

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