By Terry Bell
3 September 2010
Whatever the outcome of the current 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 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 last night or this morning as the time to make a statement on the majority attitude to the latest offer, tabled on Tuesday by Public Service and Administration Minister Richard Baloyi.
As it is, the Independent Labour Caucus (ILC) – representing 46 percent 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 yesterday 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 jumped the gun and announced on Wednesday that its 212 000 members had rejected the offer. The SA 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 yesterday 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 ANC has grown.
In the process, old arguments, dating from the effective imposition of the Growth Employment and Redistribution 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 SACP – establish a “Left” political alternative.
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 interests”. The long “battle for the soul of the ANC” is, in other words, ongoing.
This was made clear earlier in the 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 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.