Unite Across Federations! Unite with Communities!
The events of the past week have brought the public sector to the threshold of long-overdue strike action. The working class must seize the opportunity to shift the balance of forces in society decisively in its favour.
The ANC-government continued and deepened its attacks on the working class in this week’s mini-budget. The attack on public sector pay will continue. In a fresh display of arrogance and contempt for the workers’ movement the government’s 3% pay ‘offer’ to public sector workers was “pencilled in” to the mini-budget even before negotiations have concluded and despite a majority of public sector unions having already rejected it. Even the most obstinate right-wing trade union leaders can no longer deny that a conscious and systematic attack on collective bargaining is underway.
As well as cutting the pay of struggling public sector workers the mini-budget for basic education was slashed by R11.4 billion, health by R6.9 billion and employment programmes by R10 billion. The R350 SRD social grant has only been extended for one more year. Communities, already suffering from under-funded schools, collapsing health services and mass unemployment, will face an even worse situation in the months and years ahead. The money stolen from workers and communities will be transferred to the rich, the hedge funds and the banks through interest payments on the government’s eye-watering debts. These payments will average R192 billion a year for the next decade.
However, over the coming days the working class has the opportunity to shift the balance of forces in society decisively in its favour. On Monday and Tuesday (31 October and 1 November) a final ‘conciliation’ process will take place between government and the public sector unions at the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC). Based on the current stances of both government and the unions a deadlock seems very likely, paving the way for a long overdue legal public sector strike. At stake is not just the issue of pay but the defence of collective bargaining itself.
The ANC-government is engaged in a four-act assault on public sector pay. It announced its intention to cut public sector pay by R160 billion in the 2020 budget. Towards this end the first-act saw the unilateral cancellation of the final-leg of the 2018 wage agreement. This attack, not only on pay, but collective bargaining itself, was upheld by the courts, adding to new legal weapons put in place through the anti-strike amendments to the Labour Relations Act adopted 2015. Inevitably, this led to the collapse of multi-year wage agreements in the public sector. The second-act saw a below-inflation pay award for 2021/22.
Up to this point the government has been aided and abetted by a majority of the public sector trade union leaders, especially those in the Fedusa and Cosatu federations. They have consciously prevented the anger of workers from translating into strike action.
However, as the third-act of the 2022/23 wage negotiations reaches its final showdown, the anger of workers has reached boiling point. Nothing has revealed this more clearly than the chasing away of President Ramaphosa from Cosatu’s May Day event earlier in the year, and the refusal of delegates to allow ANC chairperson Mantashe to address them at Cosatu’s congress in September, with calls for the federation to withdraw political support from the ANC finding its way onto the agenda for the first time since 1994.
The 60% capitulator’s majority at the PSCBC that allowed last year’s pay cut to be pushed through has likely evaporated under the pressure of workers. Cosatu’s nursing union, Denosa, having supported capitulation last year, in alignment with Nehawu and Popcru, has already rejected this year’s 3% ‘offer’. In response to the threat by government to unilaterally impose 3%, now realised in the mini-budget, all Cosatu unions have reverted to their original 10% demand, placing the two sides even further apart. Likewise, Fedusa’s PSA, whose leadership has been one of the worst, has already issued a seven-day strike notice. Even the leaders of the teachers’ unions, who had, with Cosatu’s Sadtu leading the charge, indicated their intention to accept 3%, may be forced to back-track in the face of the ANC-government’s escalation in the mini-budget.
Preparing for a strike that now appears all but a certainty, Saftu’s Nupsaw has issued a statement saying: “Nupsaw and other unions agreed to establish a technical team after the 1st November The team will be tasked with developing a joint programme of action – which will lead to a full-blown strike, once all unions rejecting 3% have finalized their dispute resolution process.” This indicates a clear way forward, and, crucially, puts the question of unity across federations and the joint planning and coordination of action centre stage.
However, many workers are members of unions whose leaders are only contemplating strike action reluctantly, and, if one does go ahead, will seek to call it off as soon as possible at the smallest concession from government. The idea of a national “technical team” to coordinate strike action must be replicated at local level in the creation of joint-strike preparation committees, or, if more appropriate, joint-meetings of the locals of the federations, or even its provincial structures. This is the way to unite public sector workers across federations on the ground. All decisions about the conduct of the strike and on what terms to end it must rest with the rank-and-file of the unions.
A strategy to mobilise beyond the ranks of the trade unions is needed. Public sector workers need to reach out to community organisations asking for solidarity on the basis that a public sector pay strike is simultaneously a strike in defence of the public services that communities rely upon. This should involve a campaign of sending shop stewards and worker-activists to community meetings to explain the issues. Newly created joint-strike committees and revived united locals would be able to reach out to workers in the private sector, communities and the youth and draw them into a campaign of rolling mass action embracing the entire class.