A strike that should never have happened

Posted on August 19, 2011


It’s deja vu twice over with the current municipal strike, one that should never, in the first place, have happened. That it did is primarily the responsibility of the employers, organised in the SA Local Government Association (Salga).

The unions wanted talks, were prepared to negotiate — and tabled an admittedly high initial pay demand of 18 per cent. Salga responded with a non-negotiable 6 per cent pay rise and refused to discuss any other issues.

This hardline stance was probably encouraged by the fact that Salga members were aware that there were some internal problems within the Cosatu-affiliated SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu). They are also aware that many workers are fearful of losing jobs in the face of ongoing outsourcing of municipal services and may be fearful of taking action.

But the employer argument not to negotiate boils down to a technicality: an interpretation of a clause in the three-year agreement struck after the municipal strike in 2009. This stated that pay and conditions could be renegotiated within the three-year period only if the inflation rate (CPI) rose above 10 per cent or fell below 5 per cent.

The assumption was that the unions would want to renegotiate if inflation breached 10 per cent; that the employers would make the demand if it went below 5 per cent. But the agreement did not stipulate this.

Both parties agree that inflation over the past year is 4.08 per cent. But with the 25 to 30 per cent increase in electricity tariffs, the rise in fuel prices and the higher cost of transport and food, it was the unions that demanded renegotiation.

This argument about inflation was the first case of deja vu, a repeat of the same argument that has led to numerous deadlocks over the years: inflation past and future. Employers invariably insist on using historic inflation as a measure for wage increases while unions demand that cost of living projections for the coming year be taken into account.

In this case, the unions, Samwu and the Federation of Unions of SA affiliated Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (Imatu), requested conciliation on the issue. A conciliator was appointed, listened to the arguments — and gave a ruling.

The ruling was that talks should start. The conciliator also proposed that Salga should put a 7.5 per cent pay rise offer on the table. Salga again refused.

This led to deadlock — and the inevitable strike notices. Samwu announced its walkout for Monday, Imatu for today (subs: Friday).

Fuel was added to smouldering union anger when Salga took out a full page newspaper advertisement on Friday last week. In it, the association admitted that the conciliator had “proposed a 7.5 per cent increase for the sector”. But added: “Both the unions and Salga rejected the proposal.”

“It’s simply not true,” says Samwu general secretary Mthandeki Nhlapo. “How could we reject something that Salga had not put on the table?”

In fact, if Salga had put another offer on the table, it seems certain that negotiations would have reopened. The unions were also clearly ready to move well below 18 per cent on pay in exchange for guarantees, especially on job security.

However Salga would not budge and the unions had no choice but to opt for strike action. Imatu general secretary Johan Koen pointed out at the time that the Salga pay offer was “an insult” when measured against the pay and pay rises given to municipal managers and councillors.

Pay rises at managerial level are in double digits and the average pay package of a municipal manager is now some R800 00 a year. Tshwane metro’s new manager, Jason Ngobeni, will receive an estimated R2.7 million a year — a more than 100 per cent increase on the previous rate for the job.

Municipal councillors, many of them part-time officials who retain jobs and businesses, also now tend to be paid R10 000 a month or, in the case of major metros, up to R20 000. “We even have teachers in KZN wanting to be given sabbaticals with full pay while they serve as councillors,” says Nhlapo.

All of this made a good a good case for the unions to win support throughout the labour movement and beyond. But, in the second case of deja vu, this opportunity was thrown away as protest marches by Samwu members in Cape Town and George were accompanied by widespread trashing and looting.

This was no festival of the oppressed although solid waste workers have argued in this column in the past that trashing, overturning rubbish bins to spread society’s detritus, its muck and filth, on the streets, is the most dramatic way to show what they have to deal with every day. Their working lives, performing a vital service, are lived amid such garbage.

But, as this column has also pointed out in the past, it is not the generators of much of this filth who are left to clean it up. This unenviable task is left to even lower-paid cleaners and security guards, so losing the support and respect of most of them.

Then there is the looting of the stalls of street hawkers who are often among the poorest of the poor trying to eke out a living. They too should be the natural allies of unions claiming to be trying to build a better life for all. Instead, many are now implacably hostile, not only to Samwu, but to unions in general.

Yet, as happened in 2002 and 2009, Samwu officials again denied it was their members who had looted and trashed. If it was not, where were the union members and union marshalls to stop “criminal elements” from tarnishing the union’s image?

That such incidents occur is an indictment of union organisation and education. I have said this before — and have, as a result, been severely criticised by some Cosatu officials who appear not to have heard of that old union dictum: never lie to the workers.