May Day Statement

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Posted by Congress of South African Trade Unions on April 30, 2001 at 22:49:46:

Press statement issued by the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

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Brief History of May Day

The tradition of celebrating May Day as the workers' holiday comes from the struggle for the eight- hour day in 1886 in the United States and Canada. On 1 May 1886, during national strikes for an eight-hour day called by the Knights of Labour, Chicago police attacked striking workers, killing six. The next day a bomb exploded at a demonstration against the police brutality, killing eight policemen. They arrested eight anarchist trade unionists and put them on trial. Whether they were guilty or innocent was irrelevant. They were labelled agitators, fomentng revolution and stirring up the working class, found guilty and executed.

In Paris in 1889, to commemorate these murdered workers, the International Working Men's Association declared May 1 an international working class. The red flag symbolises their blood in the battle for workers' rights.

In the dark days of apartheid, South African workers proudly adopted May 1 as their day, and staged some of their biggest stayaways and demonstrations to support it. These played a major part in bringing down the old regime and winning the democratic rights we enjoy today.

The struggle for jobs and against poverty

Today, workers face the old enemies of poverty, racism and inequality, as well as a new one - massive job losses - and the challenge of building our new democracy. That means that on this May 1 we must again rededicate ourselves to the struggle for a better life for all our people. For this reason, the theme for this May Day is Stop the Job Loss Bloodbath, Crush Poverty - Create Quality Jobs!

The job-loss bloodbath continues unabated and poverty is still rising. We have lost a million jobs in the past decade, and one in three workers is now unemployed.

Government tells us that we have seen an increase in informal jobs, which partially offsets the loss of formal jobs. But what do they mean by "informal jobs"? They include things like parking cars on the street and hawking tomatoes by the roadside. In other words, they agree that the quality of jobs is on the decline, with good paying jobs being replaced by activities that only help to create an army of working poor. Analysis of the data and the experience of our affiliates and members shows that we are still losing jobs at an alarming rate. We still have two worlds in a single country, although a few black businessmen and government officials have managed to get visas into the privileged state that the white minority has always enjoyed.

Our people have gained in terms of government services, but improvements due to better housing, water and electricity are offset by job losses. Racism against workers, in particular in the farms and small enterprises, has barely changed from the apartheid era.

Last year COSATU began a campaign against the jobs bloodbath, demanding that we create quality jobs and crush poverty. The campaign was a resounding success, with approximately four million workers participating in the general strike on May 10. Workers came out in their thousands in cities and villages across South Africa.

The campaign's single most important achievement was to place the issue of job losses at the centre of the national debate. It tilted the balance of forces in our favour and shook business out of its complacency. We won important demands, including:

A reform of the insolvency act to prevent abuse by employers,

Strengthening of the National Framework Agreement on State Owned Enterprise,

Agreement from big business, at least, that we should be able to strike against retrenchment - although this proposal must sell be finalised with government, and

Agreement to hold sector job summits to look at ways that each of our industries can protect and create jobs while building a more equitable and strong economy.

We still need to make sure these agreements are implemented. COSATU is therefore continuing the campaign by fighting for better labour laws and economic policies, based largely in sector jobs summits. As part of this struggle, we must also intensity the fight against privatisation.

The Labour Law Amendments

Our demands for a stronger protection against retrenchment and job losses in the labour laws aim to protect jobs in the short run. Initially, government did not meet our demands, and indeed introduced amendments that would have stolen from workers many of the gains made after 1994.

After long and hard negotiation with government and business, we now stand on the threshold of a major breakthrough in this regard. The concessions include the right to strike against retrenchment and protection for workers whose employers go bankrupt or transfer them to another company.

As always, this victory has come about, not just because of the skill of our negotiators, but also because of our collective power. But no agreement has been signed yet and there is still a risk that business will renege on the deal.

If the agreement falls through, we will call a general strike. That will require that we all mobilise in order to succeed. Otherwise we could end up with weaker, not stronger, protection. We must remain vigilant to against attacks on our labour rights.

On May Day, we as workers must remember our place in the worldwide labour movement. We can see our struggles on labour laws in the context of the international struggle for the ILO's Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The declaration argues that "the guarantee of fundamental principles and rights at work is of particular significance in that it enables the persons concerned to claim freely and on the basis of equality of opportunity their fair share of the wealth which they have helped to generate, and to achieve fully their human potential."

COSATU supports this ILO declaration, but insists that it not be left at words. There must be action around the world. International worker solidarity is central to our strategy. We need to build a new world where there are decent employment opportunities for all and where poverty, disease, ignorance and divisions become only a memory from the past.

Sector Job Summits

In the longer run, to end job losses and protect jobs we need to reconstruct the economy - something we will never achieve with the free- market, neo-liberal policies of the GEAR. That is why we demanded sector job summits, where we can work out measures to restructure our economy to make it grow, create quality jobs, and improve the conditions of our people.

GEAR promised us a 6% growth rate by year 2000 and the creation of tens of thousands of jobs. But it has not met its promises. It has only met its targets for cuts in government spending and inflation. Still, government keeps threatening to raise interest rates in order to reduce inflation, even though that will mean a further economic slowdown and more job losses.

Right now, our affiliates have begun to prepare demands for the sector job summits, which will take place in the coming year. This is not an easy task - we need to go beyond the normal bargaining issues to lock at how we can build strong industries, that meet the needs of our people, protect and create quality jobs, and begin to democratise our economy.

It is important that all our members interact with their unions to make sure that we can take strong positions in the sector job summits. You can read more about the process in The Shopsteward, which will report on the sector job summits every month.


COSATU is becoming increasingly concerned about the government's push to privatisation. This campaign of selling of or renting out our national assets is going to cause massive job losses and undermine efforts to improve services for the majority of our people.

Let us not be fooled. No one in Government admits to privatising anything any more. Instead, they say they are selling shares to a strategic partner, contracting out management, or opening the door to private competition with parastatals. Often, they try to make these plans more acceptable by saying they will include black enterprise among the beneficiaries.

But while they don't say privatisation any more, these strategies still come to the same thing: weaker government control over state-owned enterprises and basic services, less capacity to provide infrastructure - and all too often, ultimately higher charges for consumers and lay offs.

The programme for restructuring the big four state-owned enterprises - Eskom, Telkom, Transnet and Denel - all fit this pattern. Government wants to sell important shares to private partners or permit private companies to take over part of the business - even though it knows that private companies will not provide services to the poor, and will probably retrench thousands of workers. Another tactic is to contract out services to the private sector.

Sometimes, as in Igoli 2002, they justify this by saying they are only letting the private sector 'manage' state assets. Again, this strategy opens the door to private control of government services and assets, without calling it privatisation.

COSATU wants a strong developmental state, which can meet the needs of working people. Whatever it is called, we will oppose any tactics that give control of state assets to private business. The CEC last week called for a strong campaign, culminating in a national strike, to oppose privatisation. We will announce the details of this campaign in the near future.

The campaign against HIV

The decision by pharmaceutical companies to withdraw their court challenge against the Medicines Control Act is a major victory for the democratic forces both at home and abroad. This piece of legislation is essential to ensuring accessibility of drugs to the poorest of the poor. COSATU supported the Act when it was piloted in 1997 and stood by government in putting pressure on the companies. It is the pressure that we exerted together with our international allies that led to the withdrawal of the case.

The battle is not over yet. The main challenge is to ensure that government urgently implements legislation to ensure parallel importation and issuing of compulsory licensing for generic medicines. It must also develop treatment plans for HIV itself, for opportunistic infections and for HIV. We call upon government to effectively utilise the space created by the withdrawal of the court challenge to implement the law. To waste more time and / or dilute the Act will render the victory hollow.

Building Stronger Organisation

To achieve our aim we must strengthen our organisation, as a federation as well as individual unions. We must use May Day to redouble our efforts to build stronger organisational structures at all levels. COSATU is proud that, despite the massive loss of jobs, we have grown over the past ten years. We have managed this by ensuring strong structures, supporting our members when they engage employers, and through our recruitment campaigns. We must ensure every worker is a union member.

We are launching a recruitment campaign to help achieve this goal. The campaign will reach out to workers who have been forced through retrenchment and poverty into the 'informal sector' of casual, part-time, temporary and self-employed workers. These workers are the most exploited and defenceless. They have no secure employment or regular income. And yet often they are the only breadwinners in the family. COSATU is a shield which can protect them from the hardships they face and its affiliates are spears to fight for workers' rights and win higher wages and better conditions.

In addition, we need to build stronger locals, regions, affiliates and COSATU as a whole. The Central Committee in September will focus on Organisation Renewal. We need to hear your views on how COSATU can serve you better.



The year since last May has seen a number of challenges and difficulties, as well as some major victories. We have once again proven the importance of workers' organisations to protect our interests and ensure the transformation of our economy and society to benefit the majority of South Africans.

In this work, we need to maintain our democratic traditions - traditions we have fought for under the most difficult conditions. In some quarters, a tendency has arisen to rely on the use of slander and hierarchical force to end debates. We must ensure that we resolve disagreements, as we always have, through open debate and discussion. Only in that way can we maintain real unity and come up with the right decisions.

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