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The South African Municipal Workers (SAMWU) congress got off to lively start on Tuesday, November 3 in the town of Bela Bela, Limpopo province. Delegates were full of energy, having recently won a country wide municipal strike in July. SAMWU was able to raise the wages of very low paid workers by 20% , with the remaining workers gaining 13% - and all workers receiving cost of living increases in the last two years of the three year agreement. SAMWU’s militant action resulted in the top settlement for all unionized workers in contract talks this year.

President Petrus Mashishi opened the congress, welcoming the international guests including CUPE President Paul Moist, General Vice-President Tom Graham, Executive Assistant, Gisele Dupuis and International Officer, Rhonda Spence.

Comrade Petrus remarked on key issues facing municipal workers, speaking frankly about the problems and challenges. He reported on their success in fighting against corruption at the local government level. South Africa’s new president Jacob Zuma recently called together all 283 mayors in the country and pronounced that those engaged in corrupt practices could resign now – but if they stayed on and were caught they would be prosecuted. Several stepped down immediately – a huge victory for SAMWU and the communities they serve.

Communities all over the country have been engaged in major protest about the lack of public services. SAMWU members have been on the front lines, supporting the demand that all South Africans should have access to basic public services like clean water, sanitation and electricity. SAMWU is hopeful that with the new government progress will be made on this and on the use of contracted casual workers. Contracting out and privatizing work using labour brokers has created a huge population of marginalized and exploited workers. On both these fronts SAMWU has taken the lead to press for government action.

On Wednesday the congress opened with a panel on the ‘the Global Economic Crisis: Developing a Workers’ Response’. CUPE President Paul Moist along with Annelie Hellender from the Swedish Municipal Workers Union (Kommunal) and Comrade Lucky Mongale from the Free State section of SAMWU got the debate going with their remarks. Recent reports from Stats South Africa’s Labour Force Survey revealed that 484,000 jobs have been lost in the last few months. The manufacturing sector has been hard hit losing 150,000 jobs, with wholesale and retail trade losing 110,000. 4.7 million South Africans are out of work and with family members a staggering 4.8 million people have been pushed into poverty. South Africa has the unfortunate distinction of having the largest gap between rich and poor in the entire world.

Brother Moist brought greetings from CUPE and got right to the point in his remarks on the global economic meltdown. Years of deregulation, privatization and free trade have been devastating on Canadian industry, putting huge pressures on the public sector. Public sector unions must educate our members on the roots of the crisis, defend our collective bargaining rights, push for pensions for all workers and redouble our efforts to stop contracting out and privatization.

Brother Moist was met with loud applause when he said ‘the wealth of workers is in their hospitals, schools, libraries and water systems.’ He concluded by praising the work of SAWMU and remarking on how the CUPE delegation has been inspired by their achievements.