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May Day: A Time to Strike Back

A Fighting Strategy For Workers Under Pandemic

Statement by WASP

In 1894, socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote an article on the origins of May Day . It stated: “The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands.”

The working class in South Africa will once again be joining workers the world over in commemorating May Day, an international workers day, as they have done every year on the 1st of May, for over a century. This year, May Day will be commemorated in the midst of great difficulties and under restrictions not seen since the collapse of apartheid in 1994. The curfews and prohibitions of public gatherings mean that we are likely to have a May Day without the mass demonstrations and rallies that have become part of the proud tradition of the working class and the trade union movement the world over. 

May Day during the COVID-19 pandemic

The challenges facing the workers movement this May Day, however, are fundamentally different to those imposed by previous regimes. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented both the capitalist system and the working class with grave challenges. Under capitalism, the pandemic has aggravated the economic recession due to  lockdown restrictions, which have shut down the commanding heights of the economy and virtually halted international trade – a driving force of both the world and the South African economies. Ramaphosa’s plan has laid bare the class programme of the ANC government in this crisis. The state is bailing out the bosses with the plundering of the public treasury, and offering only pitiful relief for the working class impoverished by brutal austerity of the whole neoliberal period. It is clear that the state is  offloading the burden of the pandemic and economic crises onto  the working class. 

The cruel intentions of the ruling class are exemplified in its stubborn refusal to redirect the productive capacity of society for production of essentials in the fight to combat the spread of the pandemic ando combat hunger. Internationally, the bosses and their running dogs in government refuse to protect workers from infections and the economic devastation of brutal lockdown conditions.  We face major escalation in lay-offs, worsening of working conditions, widespread non-payment of workers, and imposition of compulsory leave days to make up for the shutdowns of industries.  The opportunistic use of the pandemic to carry out evictions of entrenched land occupations of the landless urban poor, mass retrenchments of EPWP, SAA and many workers, as well as the wrecking of the collective bargaining agreement in the public sector, is a crime against the working class. Even more cruel is the treatment of the heroic healthcare workers who remain on the frontline in spite of this cowardly backstabbing and lack of protective equipment. On publication of this article, 328 healthcare workers have already been infected.

This criminal maneuvering of the ruling class exposes the call for a ‘patriotic national front’ as the calculated deception it is. It also crystallizes the political calculations behind a capitalist strategy for a militarized lockdown. The working class and labour movement need their own strategy. We must respond to the massive lay-offs, business closures, chronic shortage of PPE and the inadequate preventative measures put in place by the capitalist state. 

Jobs bloodbath

International Workers’ Day has its origins in the struggle for an 8-hour work day. Today we are faced with a deep crisis in the economy. The Treasury estimates a 6,4% contraction in the economy and job losses ranging from 3 to 7 million on top of an existing catastrophic level of 10,3 million unemployed. In these circumstances, May Day acquires ever greater relevance and renewed meaning. The possibilities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution bringing more automation of jobs in a context of growing poverty and inequality, imbue the demand for ‘shared work for all’ with greater urgency. This lockdown has vindicated our analysis that individuals do not need to work 45+ hour days for society to run. The trade union movement must put on the agenda a demand for a reduced working week without loss of income so that jobs can be guaranteed for all. A system where technological innovation spells misery for the majority due to impending job losses is a sick system and should be done away with. WASP has always campaigned for a 30-hour work week. We think this May Day the trade union movement should launch this call. A reduced work week also allows the working class much needed leisure time – to spend on further education, skills development, personal growth, family and social needs.

Furthermore, the transition to Post-COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns present the opportunity for a Green New Deal along a socialist programme. This will combat Climate Change and can retrain millions of workers whose industries will not survive this combined pandemic and economic crisis. Capitalism is incapable of making this transition on its own, perhaps more in this country than anywhere else. The crushing political domination of South African capitalism by vested interests in the ‘mineral-energy complex’ means that nothing less than a revolutionary mass movement of the working class and youth, armed with a programme to liquidate capitalism and transform the economy on a socialist basis, can carry out such a green revolution.   

The trade union movement, COSATU, SAFTU, FEDUSA and NACTU should use this May Day to boldly put forward this revolutionary agenda and orient the whole working class for the class war that will prove essential to advancing it. 

A Fighting Strategy

In the light of urgent challenges facing the workers in healthcare and across the economy, WASP believes that the trade union movement should also use this May Day to develop campaigns for:

  • The provision of PPE including repurposing of factories for production of protective gear, masks and sanitizers; provision of safe transport as well as hazard allowance for essential workers. .
  • The enforcement of the Public Sector Collective Bargaining Council Agreement.  All trade union federations to join the COSATU dispute in the bargaining council and build a United Public Service Workers Front to organize a Public Sector Strike if resolution is not reached. 
  • The end to outsourcing and a fight for permanent employment of all precarious workers of decent wages especially community healthcare, agriculture, food industry and retail and other frontline industries.
  • Rolling mass action and organized occupations to fight job losses in SAA, EDCON, EPWP, in mining and across the economy,
  • An end to militarized operations and anti-democratic authoritarian measures violating the rights to organize and protest. Solidarity action, food distribution and essential services as well as enforcement of social distancing in working class communities must be done through independent working class organization.
  • A general strike to unite the whole working class in the struggle for these demands as well as to ensure access to food, water and quality public healthcare for all. 
  • The nationalization of the private health industry.  We must organise and struggle for all  businesses under threat of liquidation to be nationalized under democratic workers’ control.

WASP will be joining virtual rallies being organized by SAFTU and COSATU. We will be using the platforms provided to campaign for these demands and a revolutionary strategy in the fight against COVID-19 and the economic storm that is rapidly forming before our eyes. We stand in solidarity with the workers and communities across the world, such as distribution and retail workers in the USA and Ireland, rent strikers internationally, healthcare workers in South Africa and Zimbabwe, who are planning and taking bold steps in strike and other protest actions to demand safe working conditions and a better world for all. 

WASP fights for these demands, as part of a transitional programme towards a socialist society. We believe this is the only way to reach a world free from exploitation, where May Day will become a celebration of heroic workers. As Rosa Luxemburg concluded optimistically in her article, “when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.” We hope you take the step to get organised and join WASP or one of our international sister organisations of the International Socialist Alternative this May Day.