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S. Africa's blacks seek $2.60-an-hour wage

The workers in blue overalls go noisily about the business of turning silver metal skeletons into automobiles, while photographs of their managers -- tacked up in neat corporate-heirarchy formation -- look on from a nearby bulletin board.

The workers are overwhelmingly black and Colored (mixed race). The managers are overwhelmingly white. And that graphically depicts the interface between labor disputes and political protests in South Africa.

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The racial divisions in this white-ruled country are most clearly reflected in its government, but they also are apparent in its work places. For that reason alone, labor disputes here tend to take on political overtones quickly.

And the labor unrest currently under way around this coastal city -- at one time involving 16 employers -- is no exception.

Currently, some 3,500 automobile workers are on strike at the Volkswagen assembly plant in nearby Uitenhage. Union officials say the strike could spread quickly to Ford and General Motors plants in the area unless employers agree to a pay a "livable" wage to black workers.

The way in which the dispute is settled could have far- reaching implications for South Africa.

"I think this thing have very, very serious implications," says A. O. Rademeyer, director of industrial relations for Volkswagen.

"I think it will be a watershed for industry in virtually the entire country."

The reason is that workers here are demanding a minimum of two rand an hour, the equivalent of $2.60. If they are successful, they would be among the highest paid black industrial workers in South Africa. That undoubtedly would give a boost to efforts to unionize South Africa's black workers, over 90 percent of whom do not belong to unions.

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Those who view labor unions as instruments for social change are watching the situation here closely. So, it seems, is the South African government.

Police in riot uniform are perched atop buildings near the Volkswagen factory. Union officials have been questioned by security police, and at least one has been detained. Police sometimes break up congregating strikers, since the government has banned "any gathering" of more than 10 people "at which any strike is encouraged or discussed."

Last week, a youth was killed when police fired a shotgun into a crowd of some 300 people gathered in one of Uitenhage's black townships. Police claim the crowd was throwing stones.

Opinions differ as to what degree the strike is politically motivated.

"There are times when they don't appear to be following their own leadership, " says Mr. Rademeyer. "One might conclude there are other forces at work."

"They're looking for a scapegoat," snaps one union official. "The workers are only asking for the demand of two rand an hour to be met. Nothing else."

That may be, but a number of sources suggest that two black activist groups -- the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organization (PEBCO) and the Uitenhage Black Civic Organization (UBCO) -- are taking a behind-the-scenes role in the dispute. PEBCO was active in an earlier strike at the Ford Motor Company, with the result that PEBCO chairman Thozamile Botha was banned by the government, and eventually fled the country. This time PEBCO and UBCO are said to be taking a lower profile, but are nonetheless active in the dispute.

Officials of the International Metalworkers' Federation in Geneva, Switzerland, have flown here to try to resolve the dispute. A break could come at a meeting between the union and employers scheduled for July 8 -- or the strike could spread to the Ford and General Motors workers.

The demand for $2.60 an hour represents a doubling of the minimum agreed to in the current contract, which expires July 31. In practice, however, the three major auto manufacturers have been paying $1.50 an hour since February.

In an apparent effort to break the strike, Volkswagen jumped the minimum to $ 1.82 this week, and the other employers followed suit. But so far, all but about 200 of the 3,500 Volkswagen workers are holding out.

"The guys are saying, 'We are prepared not to get paid. We are prepared to suffer.' The feelings are very high that our demands should be met," says Brian Fredericks, national organizer of the National Union of Motor Assembly and Rubber Workers.

The South African government has prevented the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) -- of which the auto workers' union is a member -- from accepting funds from overseas. Consequently, the union had to turn down some $ 32,500 in overseas contributions that would have allowed workers to hold out longer. The union has no strike fund.

Under South African law, the strike is illegal for a number of reasons. One is that an unregistered black union -- the United Auto Workers -- is participating in the strike action. Another is that the current contract has another month to run before expiration.

But many worker organizations have long been critical of South Africa's cumbersome labor legislation, centered around the Industrial Conciliation Act, which they charge is unsuitable for the speedy resolution of disputes at individual plants.

"I think the guys have just gotten completely fed up with waiting," says Fred Sauls, national secretary of the union.

Volkswagen claims that its latest wage offer of $1.82, coupled with other wage benefits, means that most workers would earn $377 monthly -- some $40 above the $330 basic living wage that the University of Port Elizabeth calculates is needed by black and Colored families.

But Mr. Sauls says the university statistics are "not a realistic base line to start at."

Leslie Simon, vice-chairman of the Volkswagen branch of the union, states flatly, "We want to live above the bread line."

"The demand of $2.60 is actually a base from which we can start," says Mr. Fredericks, "and we are only starting."

B. F. Matthew, director of the local Chamber of Industries, says that recent changes in South African labor law have led to "higher expectations" among workers. That, coupled with South Africa's booming economy and its rising cost of living, has led to worker frustration. And the Port Elizabeth area, is the logical place for the frustration to surface.

"It's going to spread," he predicts.

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