By Terry Bell
27 August 2010
If the public sector strike is not settled by today then, by this time next week, the country could be on the brink of an even greater shutdown. Cosatu unions have already promised solidarity action and National Council of Trade Unions general secretary Manene Samela yesterday pledged full support from his trade union federation.
Should the strike escalate, accusations will come thick and fast as the blame game is played to the full. Emotion and perceptions of bad faith and bloody mindedness will colour commentary on all sides, promoting confusion and exacerbating existing tensions.
Understandable public anger in the face of unjustifiable violence and displays of apparent heartlessness by hospital workers will also make rational debate all the more difficult; that old axiom of truth being the first casualty of war – or of any serious civil conflict – will again be borne out.
The fact that the unions have consistently called for a return to the bargaining table has already been lost in a welter of claims and counter claims. And confusing and often misleading statistics continue to be bandied about by the government.
In this ongoing war of words, the voice of Public Service Minister Richard Baloyi has been joined by a high-level chorus ranging from Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana to government spokesperson Themba Maseko and ANC spin doctor Jackson Mthembu.
The resulting cacophony, says academic and labour specialist Sakhele Buhlungu, has helped to confuse matters. He adds that it is another indication of the “arrogance, incompetence and inexperience” that government has displayed in handling this year’s public service pay talks.
“After all these years, one would have thought they would have learned some lessons from the past,” he says. But he also points out that the unions have lessons to learn, especially about the need to educate their members and how better to communicate and to organise.
Across the board, the unions tend to agree with this analysis, pointing to “unprofessional behaviour”, and to “blunders, misleading statements and downright lies” they say the government is guilty of. The latest quoted example of unprofessional behaviour is in the interdict taken out this week against the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru).
Popcru announced earlier in the week that its members in the police and prisons service would give full support to the strike. In what is widely seen as a knee-jerk reaction, government went to court to obtain an order that not only prohibited Popcru members from striking, but also forbade the union from promoting support for the strike.
This certainly unenforceable ban on giving any support has further ratcheted up the anger, not only within Popcru, but also within other unions.
The court order was sought on the basis that police and prisons staff are essential services and therefore prohibited from striking. The same applies to doctors, nurses and other health sector workers.
This removes the constitutional right of these workers to use the only weapon of last resort they possess in any battle for better pay and conditions.
It was for this reason that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) supported the concept of minimum service agreements that allow for agreed levels of minimum service to be provided in essential service sectors in times of dispute.
But, for more than a decade, as the wage and welfare gap has grown, the government has rejected demands by the unions that such agreements be put in place.
Instead, there have been mutterings in official circles about extending the concept of essential services to municipal workers and even to teachers.
As a consequence of this latest debacle, the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) is planning to file a complaint against the government with the ILO. “One of the underlying reasons for many of the problems (in the health sector) is the absence of such an agreement,” says Fedusa general secretary Dennis George.
Minimum service agreements would also place the onus on unions to educate their members about them and to enforce and police them.
But the anger among public sector workers is palpable: they feel unappreciated and ill-used. The fact that negotiations have dragged on for months, with the government making a series of contradictory statements, has raised frustration levels to a perhaps all-time high.
The government now says that a 7 percent pay rise was what was agreed in the budget. But why then, the unions ask, was the first offer 5.6 percent? The vexed question of the housing allowance, pegged for years at R500, has also been largely buried following government claims that the pay offer to the unions amounts to 8.5 percent.
This claim – whether deliberately misleading or not – is simply untrue. The 8.5 percent figure includes an annual 1.5 percent “notch” increase that is already in place for some civil servants. In the case of teachers, this agreed annual pay progression is 1 percent.
The disputed housing allowance is also discriminatory: only 60 percent of civil servants qualify for it.
Because of the existing confusion, the media has again become a convenient whipping boy, although not entirely without justification. Many young journalists, thrust into monitoring the dispute, reported uncritically and out of context often contradictory official statements and angry outbursts from trade unionists.
However, the prime fault lies not with the messengers, but with poor and often misleading communication. In the aftermath of this strike, there will be a great deal of bitterness and confusion that will require honest analysis and action if the errors of the past, all too evident in this strike, are not to be repeated.