South Africa: Strike ends, workers' anger remains

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On September 6, the major trade unions representing South Africa's 1.3 million public servants and teachers announced that the 20-day strike for higher wages and allowances had been "suspended". See union statements below. Union leaders said the move would allow members to consider the latest government offer. Public servants went on strike demanding an 8.6% pay rise, while the government has offered 7.5%. According to the BBC, workers who came to hear union officials shouted in protest when they announced that the strike was being suspended. Meanwhile, workers in many other industries are taking or threatening industrial action.

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By Terry Bell, Cape Town

September 3, 2010 -- Business Report via Amandla! -- Whatever the outcome of the public sector dispute, it is perfectly clear that the overwhelming majority of public sector workers are bitter about the government; about the arrogance and incompetence displayed in the negotiations this year. But many are feeling the pinch after being on strike for more than two weeks and may -- very reluctantly -- feel they have to accept this latest offer.

After all, as Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has stressed, workers in jobs are having to support more and more dependants as the unemployment rate continues to rise. But the anger is palpable and the decision to accept or reject is difficult and requires debate.

This was why the combined unions initially scheduled either September 2 or 3 as the time to make a statement on the majority attitude to the latest offer, tabled on August 31 by Public Service and Administration Minister Richard Baloyi.

As it is, the Independent Labour Caucus (ILC) -- representing 46 per cent of the unionised workforce -- maintains that the full results of its ballot on Baloyi's latest offer will only be known today.

Given these facts, it was surprising how quickly the combined COSATU unions rejected the new offer.

Originally, representatives of all the unions were scheduled to meet late September 2 to discuss the feedback from union members. Early indications from the 210,000-strong Public Servants Association were that the union's members were almost equally divided on the way forward. "It is too close to call", said PSA deputy general manager Manie de Clerq.

But the leadership of National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU) jumped the gun and announced on September 1 that its 212,000 members had rejected the offer. The South African Democratic Teachers' Union, with 224,000 members, followed suit, with its Western Cape region proclaiming that the rejection of the offer was unanimous.

Vavi then announced that all public sector unions affiliated to the federation had turned down the deal, which both COSATU and the ILC describe as "lousy".

But what is now on the table is not just an increase in basic pay and in the housing allowance; there are quite a few other undertakings. These were the focus when the unions and the government returned to the bargaining table on September 2 in a last-ditch attempt to stave off a potential nationwide general strike.

As part of the latest settlement offer, Baloyi has agreed that "outstanding matters that emanate from the 2007 and 2009 agreements" will be investigated for possible implementation. The proposed crunch date is April 1 next year.


Given the delays so far, many trade union members are understandably sceptical about such promises. After all, little or nothing has been done about about the agreement three years ago to fill the substantial number of vacant posts, especially in the health sector. As many health sector workers point out, one consequence of staff shortages and the lack of other essential resources is that there were many unnecessary deaths in hospitals and clinics.

These unionists also complain that it took often lurid newspaper headlines about potential and actual deaths, blamed on the strike, to highlight what was, already, an established and tragic problem.

While not condoning violence or the wilful neglect of patients, they also maintain that the government's insistence that no worker in a designated essential service could strike meant that they were forced into a position of "all in or all out".

But, as part of the new deal, the government has agreed to "investigate and implement" a minimum service agreement within the next seven months. This would place the onus on the unions to ensure that essential emergency services would be maintained during times of industrial unrest.

It would also mean that a range of workers within services such as the police, prisons, hospitals and clinics would be free to exercise their constitutional right to withhold their labour. Only emergency -- life or death -- matters would be dealt with.

On this basis, the ground may have been laid for a more stable relationship between the public sector unions and the government as employer.

But there can be no denying that tension between the COSATU unions and the African National Congress has grown.

In the process, old arguments, dating from the effective imposition of the [neoliberal] Growth Employment and Redistribution [economic] policy in 1996 and the roles played by Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, the then-finance minister, and subsequently by President Jacob Zuma, are being re-assessed. This has resulted in questions again being raised about not only whether, but when, COSATU will break ranks and -- possibly in alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) -- establish a "left" political alternative.

Battle for the ANC's `soul'

It is, however, the wrong question, because a crucial point is missed: the COSATU leadership is still committed to the idea of winning the ANC over to become a party supporting "worker's interests". The long "battle for the soul of the ANC" is, in other words, ongoing.

This was made clear earlier in this week at a seminar in Cape Town hosted by the Centre for Conflict Resolution, at which COSATU's Western Cape provincial secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, was a speaker.

Responding to a question from the floor, Ehrenreich agreed that it was essential that a "labour party" be established. But he quickly qualified this by stating that the ANC was that putative organisation; that it was a matter of changing the current political orientation of the ruling party.

Union hopes had been pinned on the new ANC leadership that emerged at the ANC's national conference in Polokwane in 2007. These had been dashed, but the fight was far from over, he said.

In a telling response, former trade union activist and now professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg, Sakhela Buhlungu, noted that COSATU had handed the ANC's "soul" to the new, post-Polokwane ANC leadership. But that leadership had run off in the opposite direction, with COSATU in hot pursuit, trying again to regain the soul.

The only problem was that the union federation did not seem to know to whom it should next be handed.

[Terry Bell is a revolutionary socialist who writes a column on the South African labour movement in the Business Report.]

Strike suspended, anger ensues

By Thando Tshangela

September 6, 2010 -- City Press, Soweto -- National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) leaders in Johannesburg were chased out of a meeting by angry civil servants when they announced a decision to suspend the strike, a union member has claimed.

A Nehawu member, Ndiitwani Ramarumo, said union leaders were chased out of the meeting in Johannesburg this afternoon.

“Members are angry and they want to protest by going to the national office to burn their membership cards”, said Ramarumo.

Public service unions were expected to announce the suspension of the strike this afternoon in Centurion.

The Gauteng Central branch of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) general secretary Ronald Nyathi confirmed that teachers were expected to report back to work tomorrow.

“Teachers are not happy but after we learnt that some unions belonging to COSATU and the Independent Labour Caucus (ILC) accepted the government’s offer, we realised we can’t carry on with the strike alone,” he said.

A Sadtu site steward, Tiego Tawana, said SADTU members were angry and viewed unions who have accepted government's pay offer as having sold out the workers.

Nehawu’s spokesperson, Sizwe Pamla, said leaders of COSATU-affiliated unions and the ILC were locked in a meeting and would thereafter make an announcement on whether they have accepted government’s offer.

Pamla, however, denied that NEHAWU had signed the agreement and said he could only wait for the expected announcement. He said he had not received reports of the alleged incident in Johannesburg as he was at the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC).

SADTU’s national deputy secretary, Nkosana Dolopi, also said the decision would be announced at the press briefing and refused to speculate on it.

[Posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Thando Tshangela's permission.]

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Joint media statement: Strike is suspended

September 6, 2010 -- The COSATU public service unions and the Independent Labour Caucus (ILC) that represent more than 1.3 million workers have been on strike for three weeks fighting for a living wage and improvement of the conditions of employment. Labour has decided to suspend the strike and this does not mean that we have accepted the state offer.

The reasons for suspending the strikes are:

  • The employer has failed to crush the strike and finally succumbed to the demand by labour to withdraw the signed agreement. This is a victory in the history of the public service negotiations where the employer was forced to reopen negotiations.
  • Our action was about the plight of our people to receive quality service by motivated public servants. The strike was about placing the needs of the poor and social issues such as health, education and a social safety net at the top of the national agenda by paying a living wage to the workers by the government.

We acknowledge our people who supported our action and our legitimate demands without wavering. In particular we must salute our heroic workers who sacrificed days’ wages and remained united in order to push the employer to move from their original position as follows:

  • The employer budgeted for 5.2% in the current financial year for salary adjustment. Workers and the people of South Africa pushed the employer to revise the offer by 44% to 7.5%. Workers forced the following concessions: 5.3%, 5.7%, 6%, 6.2%, 6.5% and 7%. The final concession was from 7% to 7.5% and the reopening of negotiations.
  • The employer had initially refused to negotiate housing allowance for the current financial year but workers have forced government to concede and increased the current housing allowance by 60% to R800 and agreeing to conclude all matters related to universal home ownership by 31st March 2011 for implementation 1st April 2011.
  • The employer had refused to open negotiations on medical aid equalisation at the beginning of negotiations but as pressure mounted from the workers and the people of our country they conceded and agreed to put a definite process to resolve the matter by 31st December 2010.
  • The employer has finally succumbed to pressure by reintroducing the 1st April as an implementation date to be phased in from 1st May 2011, and thereby to realign the bargaining processes with Government’s budgetary processes.
  • We finally forced the state to appoint the Essential Service Committee to finalise a minimum service agreement for essential services.

The co-operation between the two caucuses has been exemplary and proves that workers are able to unite forces to serve the interests of all workers, the citizens of South Africa and the country in general. This method of co-operation serves as an excellent basis for future negotiations and the level of mutual trust will enhance the efforts of unions and workers.

The general public, parents, learners, organs of civil society, in particular the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS (NAPWA) who have been inconvenienced by the strike are thanked for their support and patience. The hope is now expressed that workers will be able to return to their work stations, and that service delivery will resume. Labour recommits the respective unions and their members to quality service delivery in the interest of South Africa and its citizens.

Labour has decided to suspend the strike in the public service and all unions have 21 days to finalise consultations on the draft agreement.

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SADTU: Strike is suspended

September 6, 2010 -- The South African Democratic Teachers Union has called on its members to report to work as from September 7 and we hope that by September 8 there will be normality. This call has come after the COSATU-aligned public sector unions and the Independent Labour Caucus (ILC) issued a joint statement announcing the suspension of the strike.

We would like to commend our members for their resolve, commitment and sacrifice which forced the employer to shift from their original offer. The employer’s change of heart didn’t come through its goodwill but as a result of the gallant fight of workers. It should be clear that SADTU still has the power and strength to fight on.

Whereas we suspended the strike, we would like to record the following improvements as a result of the strike: 

  • That the employer was forced to reopen negotiations after having signed and wanted to declare policy. The employer eventually succumbed to pressure and restored the negotiations. This is historic in the public service collective bargaining.
  • The employer budgeted for 5.2% in the current financial year for salary adjustment. Workers and the people of South Africa pushed the employer to revise the offer by 44% to 7.5%. Workers forced the following concessions: 5.3%, 5.7%, 6%, 6.2%, 6.5% and 7%. The final concession was from 7% to 7.5% and the reopening of negotiations.
  • The employer had initially refused to negotiate housing allowance for the current financial year but workers have forced government to concede and increased the current housing allowance by 60% to R800 and agreeing to conclude all matters related to universal home ownership by 31st March 2011 for implementation 1st April 2011.
  • The employer had refused to open negotiations on medical aid equalisation at the beginning of negotiations but as pressure mounted from the workers and the people of our country they conceded and agreed to put a definite process to resolve the matter by 31st December 2010.
  • The employer has finally succumbed to pressure by reintroducing the 1st April as an implementation date to be phased in from 1st May 2011, and thereby to realign the bargaining processes with Government’s budgetary processes.
  • We finally forced the state to appoint the Essential Service Committee to finalise a minimum service agreement for essential services.

We also would like to express our sincere gratitude to the learners in particular Congress of South African Students (COSAS), parents, religious leaders and communities for appreciating the plight of teachers and all public servants and providing support during these trying times.

The immediate task at hand would be to assist all our learners from Grade R to Grade 12 to prepare for the examinations. We further encourage the learners to continue with the study groups they established during the strike while accessing optimal support from the teachers.

The suspension of the strike does not mean we have accepted or signed the offer. We are going to continue pursuing the demands as mandated by our members. 
ISSUED BY: SADTU Secretariat

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 09/13/2010 - 03:19



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Some 1.3 million South African public-sector workers have suspended their strike after nearly three weeks in a battle that saw the some of the largest police attacks on labor since the fall of apartheid.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) backed the strike, while the country's president, Jacob Zuma of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), abandoned his populist posture and took a hard line against the unions. Zuma, who came to power in 2008 in large part because of union support, went on the offensive against organized labor.

But despite the anti-union barrage from politicians and the media--and rubber bullets from police--workers held on until Zuma's government agreed to reopen bargaining over what it claimed was its final offer. Union leaders, who had failed in an earlier attempt to sell a compromise to rank-and-file workers, used Zuma's retreat as justification for sending strikers back to work while talks continue. The unions want a wage increase of 8.6 percent plus a housing allowance of $139; the government insists on a 7.5 percent raise and $111 housing allowance.

Brian Ashley, a member of the editorial collective for Amandla magazine in South Africa, talked to Lee Sustar about the background to the strike and its political implications.

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THERE HAVE been isolated strikes and struggles in the public sector in the past. Why did things boil over now?

WE NEED to go back to the 2007 public-sector strike. There are a number of outstanding issues from that, and also the way in which the government undermined the agreement that had been made and resisted coming to a resolution around the difficult questions of essential services.

The blanket categorization of most public workers as essential meant that the government could intimidate them against taking strike action. The public unions have been arguing for a long time that the government should make an agreement about a minimum level of services that are required, so that in the event of a strike, key workers would remain in place to ensure that life-and-death situations would be addressed. That's one issue.

The second issue was that a number of workers in the public sector demanded greater recognition of the level of status, education and professional qualifications that they hold. Therefore, they required a higher level of remuneration--for example, doctors, teachers and school principals. Eventually, an agreement was made to provide specific remuneration for these personnel.

But this was done in a very tardy way. So although an agreement had been made at the end of the 2007 strike, it was implemented only after further strikes--in particular, by doctors in 2008 and 2009.

The point I'm making is that there was a lot of anger flowing from the previous strike. Of course, a further issue has been the general decline in living standards as a result of the recession and the global crisis, and I think a very important factor in the militancy of the strike has been the way in which the new administration--this is the Zuma administration--has rewarded themselves with luxury motor vehicles, etc.

So you would often see the refrain from strikers: "They want to buy expensive and ministerial Mercedes Benzes and BMWs at taxpayers' expense for over a million rand, live in five-star hotels, and offer us peanuts."

Those were some of the immediate factors that drove the strike. There had been long negotiations in the public-sector bargaining chamber. The public-sector workers initially asked for pay increase of just over 11 percent, and the government came in with just over 5 percent, which is well below the inflation rate.

Another issue was the way in which the negotiations were conducted. The government acted in an extremely high-ended and arrogant manner. It wasn't willing to get into substantial negotiations. As wage talks became bogged down, the government stonewalled.

WHEN ZUMA was running his campaign to oust and succeed former President Thabo Mbeki, he tried to position himself as more responsive to the people, compared to Mbeki's openly neoliberal, technocratic style. There was talk of the revival under Zuma of the Triple Alliance of COSATU, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC. What has been the shift in view of Zuma as the result of the strike?

THIS PUBLIC-sector strike will go down as the moment in which the consensus in the Triple Alliance around Zuma and the new administration was broken. Of course while there's a lot of discussion and debate and speculation as to whether tensions that have been created inside the alliance will break it. And what are we going to see when we look back? This is the time in which the de facto alliance that put Zuma in power and got ride of Mbeki has collapsed.

That situation has unfolding for some time inside what we call the "coalition of the wounded"-- all those forces that came up together to gang up against Mbeki and rally around Zuma. That success started a backlash against the influence of the so-called left in COSATU and inside the ANC itself as well as in policymaking circles.

This backlash steadily increased after the 2009 May elections. As you may know, the ANC Youth League has been at the vanguard of attacking the so-called left in the alliance, backed up by nationalists, populists and members of the new Black economic elite, which is enriching itself through access to state contracts.

So this tension has been growing toward the end of 2009 and really exploded in 2010. Zuma has been unable to address these tensions because he tries to be everything to everybody and makes promises that he can't deliver on.

A range of tensions have arisen between COSATU and the Zuma administration, starting with the state-of-the-nation address that is traditionally given in the beginning of February each year, followed by the budget speech. In these two major policy speeches, it was clear that there was a continuity with the technocratic Mbeki--a continuation of neoliberal policies such as GEAR [Growth, Employment and Redistribution].

So, for example, what angered COSATU was the introduction of a special youth employment scheme, which would facilitate, or call into government, the employment of young people below the bargained minimum standards. COSATU correctly saw this as another means of introducing labor flexibility, or a two-tier labor system. There was also inaction by the government in dealing with the problem of labor brokers, which are very prevalent and influence the casualization of much of the workforce.

This is big departure from the decisions of the 2007 ANC conference in the town of Polokwane. Then, the ANC passed a series of resolutions that prioritized decent work, and called for the introduction of national health insurance, rural development and a whole range of major priorities. But in the budget speech, there was no provision for implementation of national health insurance.

So from February, the policy issues have become more apparent. And as COSATU identified, there has been the advance of the predatory elite taking place through the use of political office to access business interests. The latest such example has been a massive deal in which Zuma's son, along with an Indian family that finances Zuma, acquired a stake in the ArcelorMittal steel company's South African operation.

WHAT WAS the popular reaction to the strike?

THE STRIKE was under massive public attack from the government, the mass media and the middle classes. Workers are accused of causing death and intimidating people from accessing public hospitals, schools, etc.

But if you listen to the grassroots, and the phone-in shows on radio and TV, it's absolutely clear that there was massive support for the strike. And the strike was extremely militant. In spite of the efforts of the trade union leadership to try and settle it, recent government offers were rejected by members until the strike was suspended.

These are very clear indications of the real level of anger on the ground. Some of the anger has to do with the previous loss of legitimacy of the Zuma administration. But the social movements and the left rallied to the strike. It is a strike that involved many unions inside and outside of COSATU. Even the more conservative public-sector unions have been in support of the strike.

WHAT IMPACT has the strike had on the left?

THE STRIKE took place in a period in which there has been a weakening of the social movements that the independent left has been involved in. So what has been very crucial in this strike is that it reminded the social movements and the left of the power of the labor movement, and in particular, of COSATU. Many people joined marches and pickets in defense of the strikers.

The strike raises important issues about the labor movement and the Triple Alliance left. COASTU is increasingly clear that the country faces a predatory elite in the ANC and the state. And it is increasingly worried about the role of the Communist Party, whose general secretary and deputy secretary are government ministers. They are therefore increasingly invisible when they should be taking up these kinds of issues.

There was an important document to emerge from the COSATU Central Executive Committee in August. The implications are that COSTU rejects any bargaining agreement that would lead to wage restraint, and that it plans to unleash next year the mother of all living-wage campaigns.

In other words, COSATU is saying that it will not be constrained by the politics of social consensus. If that takes place, it means we are entering a completely changed situation.

The question is whether this is just militant talk, or the beginning of a break toward a different kind of politics of the left in South Africa. The document speaks to the importance of finding partners outside the Alliance with other progressive forces--that's very, very interesting. Many of us on the left can see how the public-sector strike has radicalized a certain layer of leadership of COSATU.

What we are beginning to say is that something has to give. There were a lot of hopes that Zuma would break with neoliberalism, and not be just a technocrat like Mbeki. Of course, that's not happening. And the SACP has liquidated itself further into the ANC/Zuma project. The SACP is increasingly working to make sure that it doesn't rock the boat.

It seems to me that things are building to a head. There is a recognition that the Alliance is not working, that the ANC is being lost to predatory forces intent on using the state to accumulate--and that if COSATU does not change strategy, the possibility of a split in the union and the formation of a new federation will be a reality within five years.

Now that the strike has been suspended, negotiations will continue with the government. But it is unlikely that workers will be called on to the streets again.

This was a major missed opportunity to shift things. It was possible to bring out private-sector unions and link up with strikes in the metal and mining sectors. It would have changed the situation and made capital visible as the enemy. There is a lot of anger with the calling off of the strike, and we will have to see how we can respond and draw some of these forces into a left political alternative.

Transcription assistance from Matt Beamesderfer