The Struggle for Workers’ Rights Continues at the University of Johannesburg

 In Labor and Unions

Workers, cleaners and security, remained undeterred by the blistering hot sun on Friday afternoon 18 October during a strike outside the University of Johannesburg. Walking towards the picket-line of perhaps 150 workers, one got a sense of their collective power and determination as they chanted “Amandla!”, “Awethu!”. One of their own placards informed passers-by that the status quo needed to change: “…

Corruption, looting and exploitation of employees are the fundamental building blocks of this [University of] Johannesburg.” They report being alienated and dehumanized all while their own labour enriches the university. And yet without these cleaners and security, the campus would be dirty, dangerous, and its trees would wither away, and the grasses become overgrown: an eyesore and a threat to students and faculty, the university would inevitably shut down.

Amongst a range of other demands in their memorandum was to scrap what is called “Harvesting”. This appears to be management’s paternalistic terminology which is used to justify further exploitation: in other words, management believes that they “planted” workers (and “allowed” them to have the benefit of being insourced). Within this perspective, workers should be grateful for having jobs at all and must now “pay the university back”.

One cleaner explained that, “They [our bosses] tell us that we owe the university hours, so we must come work for free. It’s like they’ve been forced to employ us.” “Equal pay for work of equal value” is another demand. As it stands now, formerly outsourced staff in Protection Services are receiving R5,000 per month, while the old staff is getting R12,200. Another key concern is that Sundays and Public Holidays are underpaid, with workers reporting that they can receive as little as half a day’s pay for over-time.

This 2019 strike at the University of Johannesburg is best understood within the context of the unfulfilled dreams and promises of the 2015-2016 strikes that led to insourcing. This was a mass-campaign called #OutsourcingMustFall which was led by both students and workers at universities across the country: its power lied in its ability to extend beyond the relatively narrow boundaries of those that were almost exclusively for cleaners and security. Before #OutsourcingMustFall, workers mostly stood alone at pickets in their demand for better working conditions at each university. An isolated force, with or without unions, management could easily repress or ignore them. In 2015 and 2016, with students and workers from other universities at their side, this changed, and their power multiplied.

Workers understandably believed that once outsourcing ended, they would no longer be treated as second-class citizens, but would be paid a “living wage” – enough money for them and their children to flourish – but this did not happen. They believed that on campus, they would be treated as dignified workers, but this did not happen. Universities do not exist in a bubble but reflect broader systemic patterns of exclusion in the rest of society. Racism, sexual harassment and exploitation continue within and beyond the University of Johannesburg.

Low wages in particular have prevented workers from reaping the full benefits that they should receive as employees of academic institutions. Workers won the right to have their children study at the University of Johannesburg and elsewhere, but their sons and daughters will never qualify because the worker can’t help the child with homework. Moreover, they work too many hours and travel too far to work and unlike academic staff they rely on much slower, public transport and they don’t get paid enough to send their children to good schools.

Workers carrying a placard.

Another placard at Friday’s demonstration reflected these frustrations. “Insourcing Is a Scam”, it read. The historical oppression that the working class have been inflicted with means that changing one policy, or winning one reform, such as “insourcing” is of course a step in the right direction, but it is also insufficient. A much wider, fundamental, structural change is needed in order to address historical inequalities and exclusion of poor and black people from reaping the fruits of democracy.

As far as the university goes, it can only truly begin the process of decolonization when its central task becomes serving those who have historically been placed at the bottom rungs of the hierarchies that sustain inequality and poverty in our society. What is needed now is unity amongst workers from different sectors – from the University of Cape Town (UCT), to Wits University, to University of Venda and beyond. Recent international solidarity statements from the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York in support of the University of Johannesburg cleaners is also a step in the right direction.

Workers should of course become members of whichever union they like, but always remember that victories are won when workers join in struggle regardless of their political and other affiliations. Union leadership cannot win struggles without the rank and file’s own determination and agency.

The platinum mineworkers in Marikana, for example, won a “living wage” because of this. Marxism teaches us that historical processes may begin to be transformed as the working class seeks their own self-emancipation from oppressive structures in society. The workers at the University of Johannesburg continue to teach us that by striking, by putting pressure on authorities, and by organizing, each of us can indeed change the world in which we all live.

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