A critical — largely ignored — wage battle looms

Posted on April 22, 2011


News that the annual wage round is once again upon us has all but been obscured by reports of political infighting along with accusations and allegations focussed largely on points scoring for the May 18 local government elections. The troubling news from Swaziland, Libya and Côte d’Ivoire has also tended to push this yearly battle between bosses and unions into the background.

Yet the 2011 wage round is arguably more critical than any in recent years — and some of it will almost certainly have a direct bearing on the outcome of the May 18 poll. Organised labour is a powerful force in any election, even if only in terms of voter numbers.

As matters now stand, levels of disgruntlement — the “gatvol factor” — are everywhere in evidence throughout the labour movement, both in terms of politics and economics. Awareness of widespread corruption, of increasing joblessness and a widening wage and welfare gap all add up to a volatile mix that can rebound on political activity generally and be particularly damaging to parties in power.

And the fact that it is the government as employer that will face some of the toughest early battles, makes this especially pertinent. Looming pay and conditions disputes at local, provincial and national level are certain to affect the attitude of many unionists to the May 18 poll.

This raises the questions: how many unionised workers will vote and, if so, for whom? And how many will abstain or deliberately spoil their ballot papers in a show of protest? Never, in the new dispensation, have such questions been seriously asked about the intentions of the labour movement as a whole.

They are now being asked at a time when several of the major unions have tabled wage demands, all of them in double digits. And the two trade unions in the local government sector have set May 6 as a deadline for the settlement of their pay and conditions demands.

The SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) and the Independent Municipal and Allied Workers’ Union want a final decision by then on their 18 per cent across-the-board pay demand. “I don’t think unions anywhere in the public sector will accepts less than double digit increases,” says Samwu spokesperson, Tahir Sema.

He and other unionists point out that 10 per cent-plus wage demands at this time take account of the hefty rise in bulk electricity tariffs and the recent increases in fuel prices, along with the possible economic effects of toll roads. All of these increases are still to feed through to consumers large and small and will be particularly onerous for low-wage earners.

However, government and private sector employers continue to stress the existing — historic — level of inflation, now little more than 4 per cent, as the basis for pay rises. This was the reason for the government’s offer to public sector workers last month of a 4.8 per cent pay increase. Government negotiators then added what the unions see as insult to injury by also demanding a range of conditions, including a five-year pay deal that would restrict increases to projected rates of inflation.

The vexed issue of a housing allowance of R1 650 a month, one of the matters still outstanding from the bitter 2007 strike, has also again been turned down. “It’s a huge mess,” says Manie de Clerq, deputy general manager of the 219 000-strong Public Servants Association (PSA).

He adds that the proposed five-year deal would result in “the deterioration of public servants’ standard of living over that period”. The independent PSA and the 213 000-strong, Cosatu-affiliated, National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union, along with smaller unions in the sector, have tabled what they term “a very reasonable wage demand” of 10 per cent. But they also want “all outstanding matters”, ranging from housing allowances and medical aid to be dealt with.

In the private sector, the traditionally militant, 216 000 member, National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) wants centralised bargaining to apply in future to all metal and engineering companies. The 20 per cent across-the-board wage demand put forward by Numsa negotiators is the largest so far tabled.

Another of labour’s big battalions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is about to announce what seems likely to be an across-the-board pay demand amounting to 14 per cent. NUM, which organises some 270 000 unionists mainly in the mining sector but also in quarrying, construction and at electricity utility, Eskom, has traditionally been one of the strongest supporters of the ANC-led alliance.

“But that support is starting to wear thin,” admits a senior official. However, he concedes that most traditional ANC supporters would find “great difficulty” in voting for the Democratic Alliance which many trade unionists categorise as “the party of big capital”.

The NUM has also this week thrown down the gauntlet to the ANC over a reported R1 million donation to the party from Aurora mining boss, Khulubuse Zuma. According to NUM spokesperson, Lesiba Seshoka, the ANC should refuse to accept this donation from a “fat cat” who has “allowed miners at Aurora’s Grootvlei and Orkney mines to starve”.

The Solidarity union, that also organises at these mines, reported last week that one of their members, Marius Ferreira, had committed suicide after “losing everything while being owed R170 000 in unpaid wages”.

Reports such as these have seen emotions running high throughout the labour movement. And this is likely to have an effect on May 18, either through increased abstentions, spoilt ballots or a change in traditional voting patterns.

But whatever the turnout or the result of the elections, it may only be the prelude to what promises to be a series of major disputes, especially since the government’s New Growth Path calls for wage moderation.

Seshoka sums up the view of many unionists when he demands: “What are we going to moderate? Workers are already suffering and in this environment it makes no sense to make compromises.”