On 19 June, two hundred and ninety members of National Union of MetalWorkers of South Africa (NUMSA) at Lanxess Chrome Mine (LCM) commenced an underground sit-in strike. The strike action from below which lasted nine days was fightback against sexual harassment and in solidarity with dismissed co-workers.
Prior to the decisive action taken by the workers, top managers of LCM which is a multinational corporation sexually harassed and verbally abused a worker with impunity. Rubbing salt on an open wound, the human resource manager, security manager and his wife further victimised the woman.
Meanwhile other managers didn’t take any serious approach to bring the perpetrators to book, rather they were supportive of the perpetrator and criminalised the abused female worker. This clearly established that they are complicit in the condemnable acts of sexual and verbal abuse.
The company had dismissed twenty workers that earlier participated in a community protest against the failure of Lanxess Mine to deliver on its promise to the host community in accordance with the Social Labour Plan. Similarly, thirty-two workers were dismissed for participating in a strike action.
These and other attacks on workers in the company informed their collective action and formed the basis of their demands. A primary demand was for the manager who was alleged to have sexually harassed workers to be suspended immediately. Also, in their demands was a call for the immediate reinstatement of the fifty-six workers who were illegally dismissed.
The workers whom bravery stood their ground for almost two weeks. With determination despite the terrors they faced both from within the mine and outside, they made it clear that they would not call off the strike without resolution of their grievances.
The workers sacrificed their health, their families’ comforts, and lived in the cold stone mine throughout the period of the strike. Management sent armed guards into the mine to disband the strikers but were unsuccessful. Despite this failure to break the strikers resolve, the management continued with its tyrannical approach to break the strike.
On many occasions that NUMSA sent food to the strikers, management prevented these to be delivered. Particularly on 25 June, a truckload of food sent by NUMSA was delayed in the sun by the security personnel. The food items were later disposed because they had gotten rotten.
When confronted, the security guards confessed that management ordered them not to allow any food to get to the strikers. Lanxes also cut off the electricity underground, depriving the strikers of water and ventilation. This callous approach of the management led to twelve strikers been hospitalised.
The despotic reactions of the management of Lanxess was a gross violation of the strikers’ fundamental human rights. These however exposed how desperate the bosses were in their fear of the unity, determination and power of working-class people. It further reveals that the bosses are nonchalant about the lives of workers and are prepared to put the lives of the workers on the line to sustain the expansion and authority of capital. As is characteristic of capitalists, they were ever ready to put the profit of a few over the needs of poor working-class people.
On 25 June, relatives of the strikers which included nursing mothers, sisters and brothers protested at the front gate of LCM and demanded that management comply with the demands of the strikers for quick resolution of the standoff.
Seeing the determination of the workers, management caved in, complying with many of the demands advanced by the strikers, as reflected in the agreement reached with NUMSA. These include; placing the alleged perpetrator under special leave pending conclusion of the sexual harassment case, investigation of the alleged failure of three LCM managers to properly deal with the allegations of sexual harassment to determine whether the concerned LCM managers should be disciplined or not, by the company.
Also, some of the dismissed workers were recalled and NUMSA is pursuing the reinstatement of others through legal procedure. In the evening of 27 June, the workers called off the strike and emerged triumphant from the underground. This shows that, when we as workers unite, we can break our chains, that is.
SWL commends the actions taken by the workers, NUMSA and SAFTU. The whole matter confirms the popular statement that freedom cometh only by struggle. It is only when we fightback that we can stop oppression and exploitation. It is only with struggle that we can win social changes.
Also, as a popular chant goes “Aluta continua….”, it is not yet Uhuru. We must continue to organise and fight against exploitation and oppression in all its forms. The capitalist system is rooted in our exploitation and the way it functions reinforces all forms of oppression including patriarchy. We must overthrow capitalism to make permanent our victories against exploitation, racism and sexism.
The Lanxess Mine management don’t just exploit employees of the company. They also despoil the environment and attack working-class people in the community. LCM shut down an access road which had been used for the benefit of the community of Mokhukhwini. The bosses are on all-out war against working-class people both in the factories and in the communities.
The implication of this is that it is important the working-class people unite the war in the factory with the war in the community. That is; workers, students, peasants and poor farmers must unite and fight to tear down the system of capitalism and build socialism from below on its ruin.
by Lai Brown
(Lai Brown is the Organising Secretary of AUTOBATE, the automobile and boatyard workers’ union affiliated to Trade Union Congress (TUC), and the National Secretary of SWL)