A sad reflection, 50 years on

Posted on March 18, 2023


Several vital points have been missing in all the debates I have seen and heard about the strike by a section of public sector workers that ended this week.  In the first place, this was a strike by one union out of 16 in the sector and the dispute was about last year’s arbitrarily imposed 3% wage settlement.

That wage imposition by government undermined the whole concept of collective bargaining and resulted in one of the biggest unions in the sector, the PSA (Public Servants Association) protesting and staging a one-day strike calling for a 6.5% pay rise.  But there seemed no appetite for a protracted strike.  In any event, the teacher unions, including Cosatu-affiliated SA Democratic Teachers’ Union, “very reluctantly” accepted the 3% in order not to disrupt students at exam times.

“Water under the bridge,” said PSA national manager Claud Naicker, “so we tabled our demands at the end of February and the talks for the 2023 wage deal began.”  They are ongoing between the government and unions representing more than 53% of the public sector workers.

This signaled a return to the principle of collective bargaining, which is something to celebrate, especially in this month, which is particularly auspicious for the South African labour movement.  Because it was this week, 50 years ago that saw the birth of what became a trade union giant that arguably played the major role in bringing down apartheid.

Toward the end of March, 1973, there were some 100,000 workers on strike in the Durban area.  Six years later, in April, 1979, workers around the country had joined unions in their thousands and these unions came together to establish the Federation of South African Trade Unions which, in 1985, became Cosatu.

So this week, for all the subsequent fragmentation and political manipulation of the weakening unions, there should have been an opportunity for proud reflection on the past.  Also, perhaps, some rededication to the democratic spirit of ’73..  Instead, it has become a time of sadness and deep concern.

For the media, the wage talks are a minor sideshow.  The prime focus over the past week and more has, understandably, been on the health sector and, in particular, the inexcusable targeting of hospitals and health centres by the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union and the thuggish behaviour of some strikers.  

While it is certainly true that the government — as an employer — has treated  generally lower paid public sector workers shoddily, this is no justification for targeting and threatening fellow workers and denying treatment to sick and even dying men, women and children.  While the absence of a minimum service agreement between government and essential service workers is the fault of both parties, it also provides no justification.

According to the Spirit of ’73, and democratic trade unionism worldwide, union concerns extend beyond mere pay.  Working conditions and, in the case of the health sector, the conditions in which health care workers labour and ailing working class people are treated is crucial.

Yet this week we had the report of the Health Ombud on conditions at the “dirty, filthy and unsafe” Rahima Moosa Mother and Child hospital in Gauteng.   This was roughly the same finding that emerged after an inquiry in 2017.

The question that has not yet been widely asked is:  where were the unions as facilities decayed and working conditions and patient care deteriorated to such an appalling extent?  Why was there no protest at provincial — even national — level when the CEO of the hospital never even bothered to turn up for work for 182 days in the year?

Another worry about the direction parts of the union movement are taking also emerged this month when Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the SA Federation of Trade Unions announced that Saftu would support Monday’s “national shutdown”: called by the Economic Freedom Fighters.  Although Vavi maintained that this did not indicate any support for the EFF, this will cause further tensions in the already fragile unity of Saftu.

At the same time, Vavi is embroiled in a bitter tussle with Irvin Jim, general secretary of Saftu’s biggest affiliate the National Union of Metalworkers.  Jim and the Numsa leadership were also served court papers this week from Numsa’s sacked former deputy president.  The aim is to revoke all the elections and decisions made at Numsa’s shambles of an 11th national conference that I reported on in July last year.

We seem to have come to quite a sad pass, 50 years down the line.

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