National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa general secretary Irvin Jim talks to the Cape Town press club on Tuesday.  Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa general secretary Irvin Jim talks to the Cape Town press club earlier this month. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

THE National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) on Sunday vowed to push ahead with a strike by about 220,000 members in spite of warnings that the industrial action would hurt the economy.

The number of Numsa members likely to down tools from Tuesday is about three times that of the participants in the five-month stoppage at platinum mines. That strike caused a 0.6% contraction of the economy in the first quarter.

"This is not economic sabotage … it is a living wage campaign," Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim said on Sunday. "When the economy is bad, bosses make money; when it is good, bosses make money."

The government and the African National Congress (ANC) are concerned about the effect of the strike, which will hit the manufacturing sector hard. Employers have accused Numsa of "jumping the gun" by walking away from negotiations and for failing to recognise that the strike could lead to job losses and the further erosion of South Africa’s reputation as an investment destination.

Five other small trade unions involved in the wage talks are also going on strike, but Solidarity is not.

Mr Jim said Numsa was aware that there were attempts by the government to prevent the strike taking place, but that the union was merely doing what the ANC should be doing — introducing a national minimum wage, which would place unions on a better footing during the bargaining process.

Numsa is demanding a 12% wage increase and companies are offering 7% for skilled workers and 8% for lower-level workers. It is also demanding that labour brokers be banned.

Numsa deputy general secretary Karl Cloete said workers had to "make do" as inflation and living costs rose after the union settled on a three-year wage deal during the last round of negotiations.

But the strike can be seen as an attempt by Numsa to flex its political muscle. Mr Jim said talks with employers were going on, yet the union was pressing ahead.

Numsa did not fund the ANC ahead of the May elections and is exploring forming a rival party. It has set up a United Front and will hold a symposium of local and international leftist parties in August.

Numsa is likely to anger sister affiliates in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) with its plans to hold a United Front summit to "interrogate" problems in mining and develop a "clear programme of action to demand the redistribution of (South Africa’s) wealth".

Numsa’s rival in Cosatu, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), has described the platinum strike settlement as a "hollow victory". Numsa replaced the NUM as Cosatu’s largest affiliate after the latter lost members to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union and to Numsa itself.

There is a deep distrust toward Numsa in the governing alliance. It has been accused by another Cosatu affiliate, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), of attempting to overthrow the government by bringing arms into the country. Mr Jim said on Sunday that Numsa was exploring its legal options to "sue" Satawu over its allegations. It has also accused Cosatu of selectively adhering to a "ceasefire" brokered by the ANC.

Cosatu is in the midst of a paralysing internal battle that has pitted its 19 affiliates against each other.