A strike that could be a tactical blunder

Posted on September 2, 2011


If Cosatu goes ahead with its planned one-day national strike on October 5 it could prove to be a major tactical blunder that will weaken, rather than strengthen, the labour movement. So say several senior trade unionists in the wake of the federation’s North West region announcing this week that it is starting a “mobilisation programme” to build support for the planned national stoppage.

The programme is based on 11 points adopted by the Cosatu executive as part of an anti-poverty drive. It deals with everything from concerns about electricity tariff increases to corruption, privatisation and job creation. However, the overall thrust seems likely to be the demand for a universal “living wage” and for the complete ban on labour brokers by year end.

Most of the labour movement supports these calls, with the exception of the ban on labour brokers. Cosatu is committed to this, while the Federation of Unions maintains that such a ban is unworkable and would merely drive underground a serious problem that should be regulated.

But the main concern among many Cosatu trade unionists is what one senior official referred to as “strike fatigue”. This applies particularly to members of the Cosatu-affiliated SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) whose three-week long strike among “non-essential” workers was called off this week.

Members of other Cosatu-affiliated unions that have recently been on strike or who have concluded double-digit wage deals, are also reportedly reluctant to “march to the top of the hill and then march back down again”.

“Of course we support the demands, but I don’t think our members will be prepared to come out again,” is a fairly common refrain. In any event, this year’s battle by municipal workers for better pay is far from over; the strikes have been suspended amid the promise of “a real storm” come wage and conditions negotiations in June next year.

But now another round of talks looms. Only they will take place in the context of an arbitration hearing and will deal with the wages and conditions for the 70 per cent of municipal workers who were not involved of the recent dispute. These are the men and women who are, for the most part, regarded as “essential service workers”, labouring at everything from fire fighting and water reticulation to sewage treatment.

In the process of these talks, the unions may again attempt to establish an agreed definition of what should be regarded as essential services and at what levels they should be maintained in times of industrial disputes. This demand for a minimum service agreement has been on the table for more than a decade but, as matters stand, a degree of organisational anarchy applies.

For example, “solid waste” workers — those who collect household rubbish — are, by law, only permitted stop work for up to 14 days. After that period, because of potential health hazards posed by uncollected garbage, they become essential service workers.

Anomalies such as these can be manipulated and abused and are, in any event, little understood, all of which creates problems in any negotiation process.

“There have also been a number of ad hoc arrangements (about essential services) with individual municipalities, but none of these agreements has been ratified,” says Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (Imatu) general secretary, Johan Koen. The result is that some workers in one municipal jurisdiction may be regarded as part of essential services while their counterparts doing the same job in another region may be “non-essential”.

“It’s very complicated,” says Samwu general secretary, Mthedeki Nhlapo. “And what we don’t want is everything and every worker declared an essential service,” he says. Such a declaration would place even greater limits on the right of members to exercise the last resort of strike action.

The unions are only too aware that SA Local Government Association (Salga), together with the wider public service, is loath to negotiate a minimum service agreement. Some local government officials and politicians have also indicated that they would like to see all public service workers, including teachers, declared “essential” and forbidden to strike.

But while the essential services issue rankles, it is unlikely to be dealt with, let alone resolved this year. Instead, it will almost certainly feature prominently when the next round of wage talks start in June next year; talks which Koen says may take place “in the eye of a storm”.

It is likely then that the deep feelings of bitterness, especial among members who lost three weeks’ pay because of the recent strike, will come to the fore. And it is bitterness directed at government in general and Salga in particular.

“But we are tired now and need time.” notes a shop steward. So pay is to be the prime — perhaps only — focus in the essential services arbitration hearing , notice of which was posted this week by Imatu. Samwu will make its formal decision at an executive meeting next week.

The Samwu meeting will discuss the way forward and hear the advice of senior legal counsel who has been retained to look into the overall situation within the municipal sector. However officials have already stated that — “for tactical reasons” — the union will join the application. “We cannot stand outside, because any agreement will apply to all,” says Nhlapo.

Because of the anomalies that exist, any “essential services” arbitration award in excess of the 6.08 per cent imposed by Salga this week, will have to be applied across the board. And the unions are confident that they can make a good case for a wage rise of close to 10 per cent.

The municipal unions will therefore wait for the result of the arbitration hearing and this may only be available later in the year, certainly after the national one-day strike call by Cosatu. As a Cosatu affiliate, Samwu will pledge solidarity, but shop stewards and officials of the union agree that there is unlikely to be “much, if any, support on the ground”.