An SA winter of industrial discontent looms

Posted on May 13, 2011


Promises and appeals to political loyalty secured industrial peace in the run-up to next Wednesday’s local government elections. But, certainly in the case of the majority of municipal workers, it was a close run thing.

However, next Thursday could well herald the start of a South African winter of discontent. And only part of this disgruntlement with the state as employer, concerns wages.

The contents of two leaked documents, along with finance minister Pravin Gordhan’s announcement on Monday that the government does not have the money to meet the wage demands of the 1.3 million public service workers, will further fuel anger, both within the labour movement and beyond.

The documents leaked this week are the government’s ministerial handbook detailing the lavish perks enjoyed by cabinet members and a report to cabinet about the state of financial management in local government. The handbook, which government maintains is “classified” and could not be released, highlights the fact that the country’s extraordinary wage and welfare gap, so often complained about by the labour movement, extends into government.

Much is now being made of the fact that Gordhan and his cabinet colleagues enjoy remuneration packages worth more than R2 million a year while rejecting what the 14 public sector unions say is a “very reasonable” pay demand of 9 per cent. Knowledge of ministerial pay and perks is also likely to affect attitudes throughout the labour movement.

Municipal workers in particular are also annoyed that a report on local government, delivered to cabinet two months ago, is still, officially, being kept under wraps. It details widespread corruption, inefficiency and waste in a number of local government administrations.

This is something that the SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) has complained about vociferously for more than a year. The union also maintains that a number of its shop stewards who have raised these issues have, as a result, been victimised and some have been dismissed.

This was one of the driving forces behind the rank and file demand for action that resulted in Samwu last week announcing a one-day strike for today (subs: Friday). It was to be the first of a series of “rolling mass actions” over coming months, calling on government to address a range of “outstanding issues”.

Despite some reports to the contrary, the proposed action had nothing to do with the 18 per cent across the board wage demand by the combined unions in the sector. That matter is scheduled to go to conciliation on May 19, the day after the heavily contested municipal poll.

Of particular concern to both Samwu and the Independent Municipal and Allied Workers’ Union are clauses in the amendment to the Municipal Services Act that would undermine collective bargaining in the sector, giving the minister ultimate power over wages and conditions. The demand is that President Jacob Zuma not sign these amendments into law.

Since collective bargaining is a key issue for all trade unions, this demand by the municipal unions should have support throughout the labour movement, especially since the amendments run counter to the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Another “political demand” by Samwu that may have resonance with a wider audience is that government discuss seriously the possibility of abolishing the “wasteful duplication and expense” of nine provincial governments.

All of these matters have been raised in the past, but government refused to budge — until the strike threat. That this came on the back of warnings by Samwu shop stewards that they were having increasing difficulty persuading union members to continue supporting the ANC may also have helped focus minds in the ruling party.

The result was that, on Monday, with Cosatu to the forefront, an urgent “alliance meeting” was convened. High level delegations from the ANC and Cosatu, led by their respective presidents, met behind closed doors with the entire national executive of Samwu.

By Tuesday morning, the strike was off. An official union statement “welcomed the outcome” of the discussions that “provided the basis to deal with the challenges and problems” faced by the union.

However, the statement warned that the “outstanding issues” raised by Samwu “must be tackled urgently and the remaining ones concluded within 30 days”.

“Outstanding issues” also lie behind the threats of strike action by the public sector unions. Earlier this month, pay and conditions negotiations between government and the 14 unions stalled, with the unions having reduced their pay demand from 10 per cent to 9 per cent. Government responded with a final offer of 5.2 per cent, which was the main reason given for the talks breaking down.

However, there had also apparently been no movement on a range of matters, dating back to 1999 and 2007. The unions maintain that promises made by government to “satisfactorily deal” with issues such as a minimum service agreement for essential services, with the provision of housing allowances, equalisation of medical aid and the filling of vacant posts have still not been honoured.

The stalled talks created a situation in which unions usually declare a dispute and give notice of strike action. Only this time it did not happen.

The Independent Labour Caucus (ILC), headed by the Public Servants Association, and which represents 47 per cent of unionised public service workers, thought a dispute should be declared. However, this would have meant a major confrontation with government in the days leading up to the elections on May 18.

The majority Cosatu-affiliated unions, headed by the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union, declared that a “deadlock” had been reached, but that this did not mean that the unions were in dispute with the government. “Playing with words,” remarked a senior ILC member.

What this means is that 16 unions representing municipal and public service workers will again confront employer representatives, starting on May 19 and the unions will expect movement from government. As the ILC notes: “levels of frustration are on the increase and cool heads will be required to prevent a repetition of 2010.”