In August last year a factory fired 76 workers. The workers stood together. They took their boss to court – and won.
The court said the boss must give the workers their jobs back. And the boss must pay the workers for the time they didn’t work. The courts have never told a boss to do these things before.
The workers work for a steel factory on the East Rand. The factory is called Stocks and Stocks. The workers are members of a trade union. The trade union is called MAWU.
The boss told the court why he fired the workers. He said they did not work fast enough. He said the workers work on a ‘go slow’ strike.
But the workers told the court a different story. They said they worked slowly because the factory did not have enough work
Learn and Teach spoke to the shopstewards at Stocks and Stocks. (In a union the workers choose members to speak for them. These workers are called shopstewards). We also spoke to the other workers. They told us about their struggle.
“Many workers have worked at Stocks for a long time,” says one shopsteward. “In 1981 we decided to join a trade union. We went to a MAWU meeting. We learnt about trade unions. Nearly all the workers joined the union. So we were strong before we were fired. Our guys were well organized. We were ready for long struggle.”
When the workers were fired, they quickly called a meeting. They made plans with the union. The workers decided to take the boss of the factory to court. They told the court that the boss was not fair. They said the boss must give them back their jobs.
But the courts are slow. The months passed. And the workers waited. They waited without money for rent. They waited without money for food and school fees.
But the workers didn’t give up. Some workers spent their savings. Some workers got help from friends. Some workers got help from their ‘homeboys’ in the hostels. And some workers sold their sheep and cattle in the homelands.
Each worker had his own problems. The wife of one worker was very sick. And they had no money for a doctor. Another worker had a new-born baby in Potgietersrus. And he didn’t send money home for three months. One worker worried about his wife. He thought she would leave him because she was hungry.
Life was hard at this time. A few workers found other jobs. A few workers went back to the Stocks factory. But most of the workers stood together – and waited.
The workers had meetings twice a week. They met every Tuesday and Friday in Tembisa – a township near Johannesburg.
“Everybody spoke at our meetings,” says a shopsteward. “We spoke about many things. We spoke about the problems of workers in other factories. We made plans to make our union strong. And we spoke about our problems at home. We tried to help each other.”
The workers came to the meetings from different places. Some workers live in Soweto. Some workers live in Pretoria. One worker lives in Winterveldt. “Who paid for transport to the meetings?” Learn and Teach asked.
A shopsteward answered our question. “The MAWU shopstewards from other factories had meetings every Tuesday night. We sent some of our shopstewards to these meetings.”
“The other shopstewards helped us. They gave us advice. They told us to have hope. They went back to their factories. They told the workers at other factories about our struggle at Stocks. They collected money from the workers in the other factories. The workers gave us money from their wages. We used the money for transport to our meetings.”
And then Christmas came. All the workers went home to their families with empty hands. The contract workers borrowed money to pay for the long way home. Some contract workers also had another problem. Their contracts were finished. They could not get a new stamp in their pass books.
In January the workers met in Tembisa again. They met again and again. And then the good news came. The waiting was over.
The court said the boss did not treat the workers fairly. The court said the boss must give the workers their jobs back. And they must get paid for the time they did not work.
The boss gave up the fight. He listened to the court. The workers got their jobs back. And they got their money. The boss also said he will talk to the workers about their problems. And he promised not to fire workers before he talks to their union.
The workers stood together until the end. When the boss paid them, the workers shared the money equally. They all got the same. At work they all get different wages. But they didn’t care.
Now the workers are back at work. “We have learnt a lot,” says a worker. “We learnt how to suffer together. We learnt how to talk together. And we learnt how to stand together. We hope other workers will learn from our struggle.”