We Americans are generally so myopic as to ignore events beyond our own shores – unless somehow the U. S. is directly and obviously involved.
But it happens that in the last couple of days history was made in South Africa, when a small group of rebels won for the nation’s workers one of their most remarkable victories ever. By banding together and forming an upstart union, miners secured for themselves what by nearly every measure was a major victory. Lonmin management – Lonmin is a company that mines for platinum – agreed both to a hefty pay increase and to a bonus, which together total more than twice the gains typically secured by mainstream miners’ unions.
The illegal strike came at considerable cost: 45 lives were lost, most when early in the strike the police shot and killed 34 protesters, who allegedly were threatening them with makeshift weapons. Moreover the strike has increasingly been viewed as a direct challenge to its authority by the South African government, which now fears the unrest might spread to other of the nation’s platinum and gold mining regions. So the government has straddled the line between patience and militancy, having finally called out the military to prevent the spread of further worker violence.
Of course Lonmin laborers did not lose this battle – they won it. The question is, will they win the war? Will the thousands of other South African miners eventually similarly benefit? Likely the answer is yes, for this first group of protesters, whatever their methods, drew the nation’s attention to the miserable conditions under which the overwhelming majority of South Africa’s miners continue to mine.
A postscript: As some of my earlier blogs pointed out, the American labor movement is not dead and gone. Most recently, while Chicago’s teachers did not get all of what they wanted, they did get some of what they wanted – certainly more than they would have received had they not gone out on strike. Meantime, unions representing 45,000 Verizon workers reached a contract they generally consider highly satisfactory; American Airline pilots are threatening a work stoppage; and the Canadian Autoworkers Union is poised to start a strike against General Motors. Labor dead and gone? Not hardly.