1300 Volkswagen workers dismissed for unprocedural strike against NUMSA leadership

Thursday, 3 February 2000

1 300 auto workers were dismissed by Volkswagen on 3 February 2000 in Uitenhage, Eastern Cape, for not returning to work after going out on an unprocedural wildcat strike. What makes this strike noteworthy is that it was possibly the first major example of workers, after 1994, striking not just outside of the auspices of their trade union but ultimately against their trade union. [1]

The immediate source of conflict was a productivity agreement reached between NUMSA (the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) leadership and VW management in 1998 to ensure that the production of vehicles would be doubled the following year. A similar agreement in 1994 saw the union commit to promoting productivity and peaceful industrial relations, and allowed for the outsourcing of production.

In 1999 the Concerned VW Workers collective campaigned against the latest agreement during the shop steward elections, citing a lack of democratic accountability in the union. This group was made up of older, long-serving workers who had been politicised during the heyday of the workers’ movement - a time when it was common practice for union leaders and shop stewards to only reach agreements with management under a mandate from rank-and-file workers. They managed to elect 13 new shop stewards who opposed the productivity agreement and who were suspicious of the younger layer of shop stewards that had initially agreed to it. After complicated internal politics the union leadership expelled all 13 newly elected stewards. A month later the union obtained a court interdict to forcibly remove the stewards from their offices. Thousands of rank-and-file members responded with immediate strike action. VW warned that striking workers would be retrenched if they did not return to work, a call which was echoed by the the union and even certain sections of the Tripartite Alliance.  The official COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) press release read:

COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi will address a NUMSA General Meeting at Barks Madlakane Hall, Kwanobuhle Uitenhage this afternoon at 5PM. The meeting has been called by NUMSA to address the illegal strike at the Volkswagen plant in Uitenhage. Vavi will urge all NUMSA members to go back to work and distance themselves from agent provocateurs bent on disturbing production at the plant. [2]

At the time, this response was considered by a number of labour analysts to be a clear indication of the COSATU leadership’s ever-increasing willingness to collaborate with capital. As a result, it stands out as an important moment in the Federation’s history.

Endnotes

[1] Ashwin Desai. “Productivity Pacts, the 2000 Volkswagen Strike, and the Trajectory of COSATU in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Mediations: Journal of the Marxist Literary Group, Volume 24, No. 1: Dossier: South Africa (2008)

[2] COSATU press release quoted in: Ndandani, WM. “Sacked South African Volkswagen workers appeal for international support”, World Socialist Website, (17 February 2000). Accessed on 20 September 2016 https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/02/vwsa-f17.html

References:
• COSATU press release quoted in: Ndandani, WM. “Sacked South African Volkswagen workers appeal for international support”, World Socialist Website, (17 February 2000). Accessed on 20 September 2016 https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/02/vwsa-f17.html
• Ashwin Desai. “Productivity Pacts, the 2000 Volkswagen Strike, and the Trajectory of COSATU in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Mediations: Journal of the Marxist Literary Group, Volume 24, No. 1: Dossier: South Africa (2008)

Last updated : 14-Mar-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 14-Mar-2017

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