South Africa Exxon strike, 2001

The 2001 strike of workers at Engen - the South African affiliate of the oil multinational Exxon.

Workers here forged better links with the local community and didn’t put its faith in the courts. The Engen plant is the single biggest employer of people living in Wentworth, a Durban township with typical high unemployment. Once a year, Engen employs thousands of temporary workers for six weeks during the annual factory overhaul. Engen has its own training centre but it uses temp agencies to employ people. Any attempt at unionising results in the temp agency contract being dismissed.

In 2001, a strike was planned. But there was a danger of the anger turning in on the community itself, either on the scabs, or on the temp-agency bosses, many of whom also lived in Wentworth, so the workers invited prominent members of the community to be on their organising committee. A joint body called the Industrial Relations Forum was formed, and operated as both the strike committee and the equivalent of the residents’ associations in the other areas.

“The executive of [the union]… devolved their organization into a loose and very broad grouping of activists and community and religious leaders. The unemployed (some would say ‘gangsters’) were represented at the discussions and their inclusion played a crucial role in cutting off Engen’s ability to recruit scabs. All the time the workers tried to ensure Engen was totally isolated from reaching potential allies in the community, by … “getting there first” in the information battle, and creating space for various interest groups to become part of the strike committee. For much of the time the union and community structures appeared as one.”

The strike was solid from the beginning, despite the knowledge that this two months’ work was all that many of the people would get all year. At the first meeting, every single worker attended, along with their wives and teenage sons – “keen for action”. They all put their badges, needed to gain entry to the plant, into a large bag and a constant, roving picket was planned; but as the meeting broke up, some of the key organisers were arrested and the bag of badges was taken by the police. Desai was at the meeting the next day:

“Reggie, one of the workers, takes to the stage. In a speech, replete with Durban slang, he talks of labouring at Engen for over two decades. He talks of exploitation, of being pushed around, and the hurt of still having to find employment again and again every year through a labour broker, being ‘inducted’ anew each time into a plant he built. It is a moving speech that he translates himself into Zulu for the benefit of the African ‘chargehands’ of a particular labour broker who have just joined the strike after walking off the nightshift. They form a bright blue knot in the back of the hall where they stand in their overalls. Spirits are unbelievably high. I feel transported back into the 1980s and the meetings of righteous anger against apartheid that abounded. A member of the Cape Town gang of metalworkers brought down to assist on the shut, pledges his crew’s support for the strike. He speaks in Afrikaans and the message is translated into English and Zulu”.

After the meeting, everyone went to the police station to demand back their badges. Not a single window in the Wentworth police station remains unbroken. The army moved into Wentworth using apartheid-era security legislation. The company was trying every trick to bully, cajole, bribe and propagandise the people back to work. It didn’t work. Then they let the temp agencies know that they would accept the strikers’ demands, and made a written offer to underwrite the important wage parity demand.

But now that the community had found a voice there was a sense of purpose beyond the compromises, and they stayed out on strike. Desai: “When I pointed out to one of the community leaders that they had won the strike and could just as well call it off his answer confounded me: ‘We are not striking for demands, we are striking for dignity’. I told him that Engen could not provide ‘dignity’. ‘Exactly, my friend, exactly!’ was his answer”. The strike went on for another week until Engen itself negotiated with the strikers and capitulated to all their demands, including the reinstatement of a man badly injured by the police.

“The strike at Engen, unlike that at VWSA, did not take seriously the conciliation and other legal measures afforded in post-apartheid South Africa. It relied on timing a wildcat strike to fit in with the company turnaround when the company was most vulnerable. A considerable amount of energy was devoted to building community support whilst [not] becoming a captive of one political tendency or casting itself in dogmatic ideological terms. ‘It was as if the whole of Wentworth was on strike’.”