Background history of the VWSA crisis

A call to the members of Numsa, Cosatu, the workers of South Africa and indeed the workers of the world!


The Numsa of today is not the fighting Numsa of the 80’s. Today the union leadership has ever-increasingly become incorporated into a partnership with the bosses. Such partnership can never be one of equals. This partnership is built based on trampling on the rights of workers. Workers are still being super-exploited here in SA. The Numsa leadership want to take us back to the days of apartheid. How can our Union President join with VWSA to discipline workers. This is a call to reclaim the fighting spirit of Numsa, as a leader of the working class. This is a call for solidarity to the workers of the world to render any assistance possible.

In 1996 after the elections of a new shopstewards structure at VWSA things were never the same. Why: This structure never followed the founding principles of our trade union and specifically Workers control Participative democracy ; and breaching of mandates from the general workforce or Numsa membership. Because this structure was just signing agreements and taking decisions on behalf of the members.

There was also the lack of visibility of union officials in our factory. When workers called, the officials diaries were always full. When VWSA management called , the Numsa officials were there within minutes. They only came when they were going to sign agreements with management.

During this period many old-shopstewards were isolated and were not allowed to speak in meetings of the union where the members have a right to participate in the deliberations. This led to the establishment of a shopfloor workers’ committees to monitor the shopstewards. These committees were opposed by this structure and management and it faded.

Then there was another attempt by this concerned group of Numsa loyal members who tried to bring about changes to the way this structure was operating but to no avail. Their pleas fell on deaf ears as the structure was working hand in glove with management and supported by the officials who were remote controlling the masses from their offices.

During 1997 there was another crisis where an agreement was signed without the consent of the members that all workers must get their salary through the bank instead of in cash. Bank charges being deducted caused problems. Another agreement was signed that increased members contribution towards their provident fund which was over and above their 6% contribution.

Before the end of this year another agreement on A4 export was signed without a mandate of the members. This caused a dramatic change in the method of work: production was a continuous run for 6 days a week [in the past the working week was 5 days]; there was the introduction of a ‘holiday corridor’ - ie there would be no shutdown at the end of the year and workers leave would be staggered to take place on the anniversary of the respective dates of employment; tea breaks were reduced from 2 per shift to one; for those working in sensitive areas, there would be no time for taking a shower during shift; etc.

During 1998 the crisis in the plant increased and workers were sick and tired of this structure. They wrote petitions for the removal of the shopstewards, in accordance of the union’s constitution. But they were confronted by a brick wall in the officials who said these petitions were unconstitutional and the shopstewards were not removed, but due to pressure they camouflaged this by suspending these shopstewards. The workers still demanded their removal but the officials stood by their decision and even reinstated these shopstewards.

Workers had to swallow this pain until the next election in 1999.

In 1999 there were many delaying tactics up to the elections in March, but members used their power to oust many of their ex-shopstewards and few of them were re-elected. But they formed a small cabal within the shopstewards council, and continue with dirty tactics of suppressing the shopstewards who challenged management. The new shopstewards who challenged management were supported by the majority of the workers inside the plant. These new shopstewards carried forward the fight against the bad provisions of the A4 Export agreement and in general took forward the fight of the workers. They started to oppose the agreements signed without mandate by the ex-shopstewards. They fought strongly for many of workers demands: eg

For a school uniform loan where workers would pay 75% of the cost and company 25%

When Old Mutual demutualised, VW management and the trustees took a decision that the demutualisation money not be paid out, but would remain in the fund. The workers wanted their money!

The new shopstewards even exposed the corruption of the ex- shopstewards on the use of vehicles. VW has an agreement that 3 vehicles [a Golf, Polo and a Combi] could be used for union work, but some of the ex- shopstewards abused their position by taking these vehicles home for personal use.

Such was the huge pressure that had started to build up on VWSA management, that the Numsa officials intervened and tried to kick out the new shopstewards in June 1999 on the following charges: damaging the image of the union; not complying with the union Constitution; inciting and misleading workers

But members embarked on a 3 day strike until all conditions were uplifted and their leadership reinstated. Out of frustrations 18 of the re-elected shopstewards resigned at once but they worked underground to destabilise the organisation in the plant by being used as spies and informers by the officials and management in plant. The officials deliberately dragged the process of electing new shopstewards in place of the 18 who had resigned, which is in violation of the constitution. From June 1999 up until today, these positions have been left vacant which has placed a huge stress on the remaining 13 to address the problems of and represent over 4000 workers. These ex- shopstewards looked at all areas where they can find fault with the work of the current elected leadership through their informers and management. This fight against militant and accountable shopstewards by the ex-shopstewards together with the Numsa officials and VWSA management, led to the current crisis in VWSA which led to the current strike which is still continuing.

Having failed to dislodge the 13 shopstewards through the usual Constitutional means due to the majority of the workers supporting them, the Numsa leadership resorted to hiring expensive senior counsel to approach the bourgeois Labour court to try and oust them. Here was workers own funds being used in order to silence them! Still, the workers made a collection and hired their own legal counsel. An out of court agreement was reached where the shopstewards remained in office and if there was any factory problem, then the union officials should then intervene and come to the plant.

The current suspension of this 13 shopstewards culminated from a poorly attended quarterly general meeting attended by between 35 -50 members on Monday, 17th January 2000. This was rejected by the general workforce. The 13 shopstewards had a mass meeting on that day of over 2000 and also informed management of their mandate that workers do not support a quarterly meeting on this particular day. There had just been the scheduled quarterly meeting in December 1999, which the MD attended but the union officials not.

The workers had had questions for the MD but he had to leave early. These meetings are called to discuss company performance and workers have the opportunity to scrutinise the company information. In the January, 2000 meeting, the MD indicated that he would not attend. The workers saw no reason for attending such a meeting and 5 minutes before the scheduled start of the meeting the majority of the workers went to their work stations and demanded that the plant be started up. Management refused. And for 3 hours, the Numsa President, Mtutuzeli Tom and Numsa officials spoke to 35 workers and held an unconstitutional ‘meeting’. It was that ‘meeting’ that ‘mandated’ the suspension of the 13 shopstewards. In this ‘meeting’ the same unmotivated charges were put forward. [The normal procedure is for allegations to be put to the shopsteward in a meeting of workers, where the motivation is given and the shopsteward is given the opportunity to state his defence]. The next day, the Sheriff of the Court and VWSA management presented the 13 shopstewards with the notice that they were suspended as shopstewards with immediate effect. On the Thursday, the 20th January 2000, workers gathered outside the factory gates, elected a committee to approach management to call the union officials, as per the Labour Court agreement.

The officials never came and instead held a meeting with VWSA management on that evening and signed an agreement that the shopstewards were suspended and their disciplinary ‘hearings’ would be held on Monday 24.1.2000, work should recommence by Monday and individual workers should sign a form committing themselves not to disobey management instruction. Part of the agreement was that new shopstewards elections would be held within 2 weeks. This exposed that the hearings already had a forgone conclusion, namely removal of the 13 and showed the further collusion of VWSA management with the Numsa officials. On the Friday morning, the workers again waited in vain for the officials to come and in fact heard of the agreement through the bourgeois press over the weekend. It must be emphasised that during these 2 days most workers did not work and indeed production ground to a halt.

Over the weekend, a crisis committee was set up of delegates of various factories in Uitenhage to carry forward this struggle. The chairperson, Mxolisi Ndandani, was also chosen as the spokesperson. On Monday morning, 24 January, he made a call for independent mediation, even if need be from the provincial government. No-one came, even up to now. On that same day, the company illegally locked out the workers. At the same time the Numsa leadership issued a condemnation of their own locked out members. They used workers money to try and kick out democratically elected shopstewards but when it came to opposing the illegal lockout, they sat by with arms folded. This shows the collusion of VWSA management with the Numsa leadership. The press were biased and played up the story of a group of a handful of 350 strikers and on Wed 26.1.2000, during the lockout, the VWSA management suspended the 350 workers. It is clear that among these 350 names, the management had identified militant workers that have been a thorn in their flesh for some time. By Friday 28.1.2000, the Numsa officials again made an agreement with the VW management that work would restart on the Monday 31.1.2000 and that the disciplinary hearing for these 350 would start on that same day. The Numsa officials even volunteered to ‘represent’ these workers. By shifting focus to the defence of the 350, it was easier for the Numsa officials to keep to their position that the 13 remained suspended.

They were helped by the VWSA management, who from the start banned the shopstewards from calling meetings on the plant. When workers realised that the VWSA management were working hand in glove with the Numsa leadership, this hardened their position and determination to stand together.

Although from Monday 31.1.2000 some workers had gone back to work, for the whole week up to 4.2.2000 there was no production at the plant.

On Tuesday 1.2.2000 at 327pm, Cosatu issued a statement on behalf of one of the Numsa officials who was leading the attack on the 13, we quote it in full :

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.

For further information, please contact: Irvin Jim NUMSA Eastern Cape 082 690 6449

This shows that even before the Cosatu General Secretary came to the Eastern Cape, before he even heard the information first hand, his mind was made up.
This point emphasises the call by the Uitenhage workers’ crisis committee that the mediation has to be from an independent source that they have confidence in. We still make this call, as we have done since the very beginning.

The VWSA management position to give the workers an ultimatum to return by Thursday, 3.2.2000 or be dismissed, shows to what extent they were prepared to go to in order to support the Numsa leadership’s plan to get rid of the 13 shopstewards. The ultimatum was attempt to divide workers and intimidate them into abandoning the 13 and whoever else refused to return without them. Indeed on Friday morning, 1300 workers were dismissed and a further 300 are still on suspension, also facing dismissal. The need for solidarity now is critical. To all Numsa members, we say, don’t allow the leadership to victimise the fighters at VWSA - Today it is us, tomorrow it will be you! To all Cosatu members, an injury to one is an injury to all! To the VW workers across the world, we together produce the wealth of the company - let us stand together- today it is us, tomorrow who knows who will be next? To all workers everywhere, we need your support now!

A working class united will never be defeated!

WM Ndandani [Chairperson- Uitenhage Crisis Committee]
tel 0027- 0826265298
fax: 0027- 41 9228691
temporary e-mail:


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