Open letter to all Numsa members, all members of Cosatu and last but not least, all members of the working class and supporters


Many of you may have heard through the TV, radio and the newspapers, the one-sided attack by the bosses, various parties, the Numsa leadership and some individuals, on the struggle of workers at VWSA.

We have limited access to such media, which in itself tells another story. This is our version, which we present to the broader working class.

What started off as a disagreement over who can be elected as office bearers of the shopstewards committee at a Numsa-organised plant, has developed into different paths between the 2 contesting groups.

On the one hand, we have the Numsa officials, who say that it is the union policy that no full-time shopsteward can stand for position of office bearer of the shopstewards committee. This path leads to abandoning workers` democracy!

On the other hand, there is the group of Numsa militants, coming from the old Fosatu tradition, who say that the highest decision-making structure at plant level is the general meeting of all members. This structure has the final say over who from the shopstewards can be office bearers, whether some be from full-time or some from the part-time shopstewards. This path leads to consolidating workers` democracy.

To date, the Numsa officials have yet to present a copy of this policy to the workers at VWSA.

NAAWU and Fosatu started off in the time when their opposition, TUCSA was still strong. There were always attempts by management to co-opt shopstewards and the union officials to become like TUCSA. Fosatu developed a tradition of having informal committees of "veterans" who acted as worker-control committees over the activities of the shopstewards. Despite their existence as informal groupings, they always subjected their recommendations to the final say by the general meetings of workers. When Numsa was formed in 1987, these informal structures were formalised into what our union Constitution calls shopfloor committees. These are the new worker-control committees over the activities of the shopstewards, but always accountable to the final word of the general meeting of members.

In 1996 the veterans decided to give new blood a chance to be shopstewards. But as time went by it became clear that these new shopstewards would not hold themselves accountable to the general and were more and more becoming co-opted by management. These new shopstewards agreed on a scheme of advance payment from, what they told workers, was from the provident fund. When some workers went on early retirement in 1998, they received very little money from their provident fund as it was then discovered that it was not an advance payment, but a loan from a private institution that was charging workers 17% annual interest for this. The workers were rightly furious at this and other such practices, and tried to remove these shopstewards by submitting petitions as per the union Constitution. The local shopstewards council of Uitenhage, together with the officials refused to remove them and workers had to swallow the bitterness of enduring them until March 1999, when the next election was due in the cycle of 3 years. These elections were held under the eyes of IMSSA[Independent Mediation Services of SA].

Most of these shopstewards were replaced but some of them had survived. From the 6 full-time shopstewards, only one came from the 1996 period. Before this election, management expressed their opinion that they hoped that the 1996 period shopstewards would be re-elected as they had worked very well with them. Union officials also tried to convince workers not to elect new shopstewards but to keep their current ones. This was the first time in the history of the plant that union officials tried to limit workers, as if they did not have the experience to decide who best to lead them. When the union officials lost their friends from among the full-time shopstewards, they tried to win support from among the 26 part-time shopstewards. It was this attempt to remain in control that led to the officials declaring that union policy was that no office bearers of the shopstewards committee could be elected from the full-timers.

The general did not succumb to this and demanded to see a copy of this policy - it was never forthcoming. The next step was to try and create a crisis in the committee and the officials mobilised 18 part-time shopstewards and 1 full-timer to resign as a bloc in the general meeting in July 1999. The general meeting rejected the resignation of the part-timers as they were not directly accountable to the general but to their workplace constituency. The officials were so desperate to get rid of the 5 remaining full-time shopstewards, that they mobilised in the local for their expulsion from the union. The regional Congress of Numsa over-turned this into a suspension but the general rejected even this. They stuck firm to the principle, that only they as workers at the plant could elect or remove their own shopstewards. If the officials wanted to motivate their point, why did they not come to the general meeting? The workers went on a strike to defend their demand for the right to elect/remove the shopstewards was a power that only the workers` constituency had.

The 5 full-timers conducted elections for the vacant positions among the part-timers but the Union office refused to recognise them and informed management accordingly. Suddenly, the Numsa officials came up with a special VWSA code of conduct for elections. The acceptance of this code was a pre-condition put by the Numsa officials. The workers discovered that no other workplace had special code of conduct just for them. The general rejected this code as it fundamentally undermined workers` democracy at the plant.

According to this new code, there would be no more joint general meetings. In other words, the very foundation stone of Numsa was being done away with, purely because this general meetings could not be controlled by the Numsa officials. The allegation by the Numsa officials that workers were being "controlled" by a group of 350 was a further "motivation" for this abandonment of the basic principles that the progressive unions have grown up on in SA. This attack is really fundamentally an attack on the worker-control shopfloor committees. The shopfloor core was supposed to form a branch of the SACP, but clearly this group was not under their political control.

It is this challenge to their control which is at the root of the alliance between VWSA management and the Numsa officials against the 13 shopstewards and their "supporters", based in the shopfloor committees. On the 17th January 2000, there was an unscheduled "quarterly meeting" [ the scheduled one had already been held in December 1999]. The Managing Director [MD] was absent and the workers resolved not to attend. [the MD normally attends]. The Numsa President, Mtutuzeli Tom was there with officials of the union and addressed only 35-50 workers for about 3 hours. From there they obtained a "mandate" to suspend us as shopstewards. The rest of the workers had gone to the machines to start work, but management refused to re-start these. At first we did not realise it but later it was clear that the VWSA management worked hand in hand with Numsa officials to suspend the 13 shopstewards. The union official did not even inform them of the "suspension", the VWSA management and the Sheriff of the Court came to give them notices of suspension.

This is unheard of in our union movement that has a proud tradition of workers` democracy!

It is in management`s interest to get rid of worker leaders that are accountable and really fight on workers` mandate It is why, the Numsa officials have from the beginning rejected a mediation committee appointed on a 50-50 basis chaired by a neutral party.

This was the first proposal of the Uitenhage Crisis committee, since it came into existence on 23/1/2000.

This explains why the Numsa leadership never opposed the illegal lockout by VWSA bosses when it occurred on 24th January 2000. It is why the Numsa leadership, including the President Tom, condemned the strikers from the beginning, without lifting a finger to urgently send someone to face the general of the workers.

It is precisely why the Numsa leadership are helping to work out ways and means of helping management get up their production figures, even at the expense of those currently dismissed. The Numsa officials are so far in the pocket of the bosses that they have not opposed the slavery contract that individual workers had to sign before the 3.2.2000 ultimatum. Workers have now to obey any instruction of the bosses and even have to ask permission to go to the toilet. The officials have killed Numsa inside the plant. They are not even trying to rebuild and strengthening the fight for reinstatement, by challenging the illegal overtime and 12 hour shifts currently being done on the A4 export order. Although part of the workers are back, many are being victimised and several have been dismissed for disobeying management`s provocative instructions. Management wants to use this exercise to retrench, without having to pay packages. The Numsa office is not challenging a single one of these attacks on the workers! The ultimatum was also on condition that the management still discipline the 350 workers that they suspended on 24.1.2000. In such hearings the current Numsa officials would in essence be also carrying management`s interest, as they also want to get rid of the veterans of Numsa, who are the standard bearers of workers control in the union. Through putting a hard line on disciplining the 350, management gave workers no choice but to continue the strike until we could be sure of a safer retreat.

We can now see why the Numsa officials cannot be depended upon to fight for the full reinstatement of all the workers. They are not prepared to allow the workers to choose their own workers representatives in the negotiations over the return to work. In fact from all the above, if the Numsa officials and VWSA management negotiate on their own, they will continue their alliance against the stalwarts of Numsa and exclude them from reinstatement!

Cde Vavi, the General Secretary of Cosatu did not play a role in favour of the workers- he came under police escort to meet us as Cosatu affiliate members. Without any attempt to send a team to help resolve the dispute, he just issued instructions to us over the media.

A call:

We call on all workers in Numsa to force the union to send officials who will really fight for reinstatement of all workers! Worker delegates elected from the general meeting of VWSA workers must be a full part of the negotiations over our future!
to all Numsa and Cosatu members, defend the tradition of workers` democracy in our union!
to all members of the working class, form Workers` Crisis committees in your areas to defend us, through raising funds and engaging in other acts of solidarity.

Forward to working class independence from the bosses! Let us reclaim Numsa under the control of the workers!

For further information:



LabourNet Germany Archiv: Aktuelle Meldungen im neuen LabourNet:
LabourNet Germany: Treffpunkt für Ungehorsame, mit und ohne Job, basisnah, gesellschaftskritisch
The virtual meeting place of the left in the unions and in the workplace