On 10 November the first national strike action against the ANC-government’s assault on public sector pay took place. The Public Service Association’s (PSA) one-day downing of tools followed a week of lunchtime pickets. Marches in several towns and cities may not have had a mass turnout but they ensured the voice of public sector workers was heard. For this the PSA must be commended.
The action was potentially an important beginning for a public sector general strike that is long overdue. Much more is at stake in this battle than the wages of public sector workers. The working class is facing a total onslaught from the government, the bosses and the courts, as it struggles to keep pace with the rising cost of living. Ever since the victorious 2007 and 2010 public sector strikes, the government and the capitalist class have been determined to roll back the gains workers made. These gains have benefitted not just the 1.2 million public sector workers themselves but their immediate and extended families. It has enabled the working class to partially absorb some of the unceasing attacks on working class living standards that escalated after the 2008 world economic crisis.
What is at stake?
After wage negotiations collapsed and conciliation failed on 1 November the ANC-government was freed to unilaterally implement its “final” 3% offer – a wage cut in real terms. In defending the wage cut the government cites the budget deficit as “proof” that there is no money and that this situation is outside its control. We will come back to analyse the government’s economic claims in future material. But the current crisis is the accumulated result of the capitalist economic policies the ANC government has supported from even before it came to power. Hardening the government’s position today is the rapidly deteriorating world economic situation. Now the cost of servicing existing debt, already the fastest rising budget item, and consuming more than the combined budget of three other departments, is poised to race upward. In addition, the government is taking on new debt to finance the budget deficit.
So determined is the government to get SA back to investment grade that it has brought forward the target to reach a primary budget surplus (debt before interest payments) to 2023/24. With the government loyal to the capitalist class’s opposition to tax increases for big business, it can achieve this only by even more savage public spending cuts – especially to public sector pay – and hiking the regressive general sales tax that bites into the pockets of the working class far more than the rich.
The current attack on public sector pay, now in its third year, may still be just the tip of the iceberg. The Nupsaw trade union, in a statement on 7 November, drew attention to President Ramaphosa’s response in parliament to a question on public sector pay. In replying he promised to create an “independent” body to look into the issue. It is clear that this would entail a review of the entire framework of public sector pay, including the so-called “notch” increases, the Performance Management and Development System, pensions etc. These fruits of past struggles are clearly in the ANC-government’s sights.
Further attacks on collective bargaining are also on the horizon. The capitalist class sees the battle against the public sector workers as part of a wider war against the working class in which a key strategic objective is to cripple collective bargaining and to strip unions of their power. The public sector workers must therefore understand their struggle as one in defence of trade union rights and even democracy itself.
The unilateral imposition of 3% was done by invoking Section 5 of the Public Service Act, which, incredibly, gives the government the legal right to do so in the event of a deadlock. This is the second time this “right” has been exercised. It was first used in 1999. This attack on collective bargaining adds to the 2020 Constitutional Court ruling that signed-off on the government’s cancellation of the final-leg of the 2018 public sector wage agreement. This in turn built on the 2015 amendments to the Labour Relations Act, in which the ANC-government undermined the right to strike and picket.
The real attitude of the capitalist class is laid out in a revealing article by Claire Bisseker, an anti-trade union ideologue, which appeared recently in the Financial Mail. She described SA’s collective bargaining system as an “insanity” for a country mired in mass unemployment and poverty. The same article drew attention to yet another attack on collective bargaining that is taking place. There is now a proposal before Nedlac to exempt so-called SMEs (small and medium enterprises) from bargaining council agreements, especially those on wages.
In addition, the smaller of the two employer associations in the steel and engineering sector is planning to challenge the recent agreement signed between Numsa and the larger employer body, Seifsa, in the ConCourt, seeking to overturn its extension across the whole industry. The grounds on which it is challenging the extension is “affordability” – the very grounds on which the ConCourt condoned the government’s 2020 wage theft. Should this exemption be granted, the principle of equal pay for work of equal value will be severely undermined. It would create a two-tier wage structure, with workers in the same industry performing the same job yet receiving different pay.
PSA “Unity” Call Welcome
Considering all the above, and notwithstanding the fact that the PSA has at least taken action, the bark of the trade union leadership across all federations has been far worse than their bite. The 10 November strike, welcome as it is, will not have left the government quaking in its boots. That is why Godongwana, in a display of open contempt, did not even bother to turn-up to receive the memorandum that workers had marched to the Treasury to deliver. To shake the government’s resolve is going to take much more – the unity in action of all the federations to bring to bear on the government the full might of the entire public sector workforce. But more than a week after the failure of conciliation and the imposition of 3% there are few signals from the public sector trade union leaders that the seriousness of the situation facing, not just public sector workers, but the entire working class, is understood, or that a fightback on the scale necessary is being prepared, despite all unions now having strike certificates for protected legal action.
On 10 November the PSA spokesperson appealed to the other federations to join forces in further action. This is encouraging and represents a welcome break from the position Fedusa has taken thus far. The Fedusa leadership’s positions up until then made it seem more likely that, having been forced by the anger of the members to take action, it would then seek to dissipate it as quickly as possible. They seemed to have been hoping that if they indicated a willingness to accept 3%, the government might concede to their proposal to extend the monthly R1,000 “cash gratuity” – a sop offered in the last round of negotiations to cover the union leaders’ capitulation on pay (see here) – beyond its 31 March 2023 expiration deadline, allowing them to avoid action having achieved at least something.
In the past the PSA leadership has shown a readiness to take cover at the first whiff of grapeshot; to capitulate at the first opportunity and to avoid action. During last year’s wage negotiations assistant PSA general manager, Reuben Maleka for example, shockingly expressed fear that strike action would expose workers to harm by the July rioters. He further accepted the government’s claim that it does not have money. But the government’s false argument of a lack of money will apply at least until the end of this decade. Maleka’s position is thus a recipe for complete surrender – raising the white flag even before battle is engaged.
Earlier this year, a joint strike at SARS by PSA and Nehawu collapsed when the PSA unilaterally ended the strike in return for the tiniest of concessions, leaving Nehawu members out on strike alone. The same happened in the recent Transnet strike which was a magnificent demonstration of working class power. Fedusa affiliate Untu was only too happy to call it off at the first concession from management. Although it represented an improvement on management’s first offer it still amounted to a wage cut. For Satawu, a Cosatu affiliate, this left a bitter taste.
Whereas Untu’s majority status in Transnet is very narrow, the PSA’s position is far weaker in the public sector. It cannot be excluded that, should the other federations respond to the PSA’s calls for unity in action, the government could concede to the PSA’s demand for the extension of the R1,000 “cash gratuity”. With the Sadtu leadership having already capitulated, the government may attempt to exploit the fact that the combined membership of both would make a substantial minority whose absence from any mass action could potentially weaken the impact of a strike. It is therefore vital that if there is to be unity in action, there should be no retreat from a collectively agreed position.
Should the other federations’ leaders fail to answer Fedusa’s call, its members might feel they have no choice, however reluctantly, to accept the 3%, with or without the R1,000 “gratuity”. Their leaders would be able to point out that they could not move the government on their own and had been deserted by the other federations. The Fedusa leadership has thus laid the ground work to vindicate its sectarianism once again.
Despite this, PSA members have acted, whatever the motives of the leadership. But if there is still no unity in action, the Cosatu and Saftu leadership would be equally, if not more to blame. At least their affiliates have a tradition of struggle and their members have a far better understanding about the relationship between the class struggle and politics. As demonstrated both by the birth of Saftu and the rank-and file rebellion at the Cosatu congress, workers are beginning to act on it. The silence of these federations is therefore completely inexcusable. Sufficient time has elapsed since “strike certificates” were issued for balloting to have been completed and strike notices served.
Cosatu Leadership Compromised
It is entirely legitimate to ask the question in relation to Cosatu, whether this is not mere dithering, or a frantic scramble behind the scenes to try and persuade the ANC-government to make any concession that can give them a cover for avoiding action. The Cosatu leadership has after all only recently reaffirmed the gulf that separates them from their own members by inviting the ANC leadership to address their congress even after Ramaphosa had been put to flight at its May Day event precisely over public sector workers’ anger with the wage theft. With the sights of leaders like Cosatu president Losi and Sadtu general secretary Maluleke set firmly on the positions they have been nominated for in the ANC NEC, they might not be inclined to disturb the peace ahead of the ANC’s critical December congress. They do not want to undermine their eligibility for the rewards of office that come with betraying their members.
But other union federations have themselves given no indication as to what lies beyond the 10 November strike. At the time of writing none of Cosatu’s other public sector union leaders have made a clear statement on the way forward. There is a deafening silence. Most say that a consultation, or balloting process, is underway, the results of which will be known by the end of the week. But there is no indication what the Cosatu leadership is recommending to their members as the way forward in these consultations, in other words, it is not clear if they are providing any leadership.
Saftu Must Provide Leadership
The Saftu leadership on the other hand, is to the left of Fedusa at least by tradition, and free from the political prison of the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance in which Cosatu remains incarcerated. Yet it has not placed itself at the forefront of an active campaign for a public sector general strike. The attacks on pay and collective bargaining, correctly described as a declaration of class war, has so far seen no response beyond the customary statements of condemnation.
Unlike the other federations, Saftu has at least taken concrete steps to forge unity in action in the National Shut Down of 24 August. (See here for our review of the 24 August National Shutdown). It has direct experience of the impact that the call for workers unity had on the Cosatu rank-and-file under whose pressure their leaders were compelled to join the action. Its failure to follow through on the promise that 24/8 would be the “start” of a rolling campaign is incomprehensible. The anger of the public sector workers across all federations, especially at the Cosatu congress, and the general mood for action, handed the Saftu leadership the opportunity to translate words calling for rolling mass action into deeds. Instead, the Saftu Campaigns Committee devised a campaign consisting of a candle-lit vigil outside the Eskom headquarters, plans for a three-day hunger strike on mini-budget day and protests outside the CCMA against budget cuts!
In its statement on 7 November, Nupsaw, Saftu’s largest public sector affiliate, promises that “A meeting of the Joint Co-ordinating Committee (JMC), made up of the majority unions in the PSCBC is set to be held in the coming days, to set the date for the start of the National strike”. But Nupsaw is the only union talking about this structure, clearly crucial for a united and coordinated strike. It was a cause for optimism that the two-day lobby outside the PSCBC conciliation on 31 October and 1 November was organised jointly by all the unions rejecting the government’s offer, extending to a joint statement. With the commendable exception of Nupsaw, some of whose members joined PSA-initiated 10 November action, it is not clear yet if this unity is being maintained. Fedusa’s one-day 10 November strike, and the silence of both Cosatu and Saftu about it, suggests not so far.
Organise from Below
None of this will be filling public sector workers with confidence that all-out strike action, notwithstanding the burning anger that exists, can be successful. For workers to be prepared to sacrifice pay in strike action they need some minimal assurances that their leaders are serious about waging a determined struggle. The absence of any indication of meaningful unity across the federations will also be weighing on workers minds.
Workers will need to organise to move their leaders. Cosatu members must insist on the creation of provincial and local JMCs to prepare strike action. The Sadtu leadership should be defied with an appeal to teachers to participate. In every area, joint-strike preparation committees, should be created to bring together workers across federations. These could be created by joint-meetings of locals, JMCs and provincial structures. All decisions about the conduct of the strike and on what concessions would be sufficient to end it must rest with the rank-and-file of the unions. Whilst preparing on the ground workers should demand that the JMC in the PSCBC is revived, its membership supplemented by representatives of rank-and-file workers from grass-roots level strike committees.
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.
Open a Political Front
The issue of public sector pay, perhaps like no other at this point in the class struggle, underlines the urgent necessity of opening a political front in the class struggle. The wider-issues of fiscal policy, of the national debt and the government budget, of the role of the banks and the financial sector, of the global bond markets are inseparable from the struggle over public sector pay. So too are the accumulating attacks on collective bargaining. But these are political issues that can only be solved with a political response from the entire working class.
However, it would appear that the Saftu leadership is recoiling from the political path it has been on, not only since its foundation, but especially since the 2018 Working Class Summit (WCS). The declaration to form a mass workers party on a socialist programme adopted by 147 community youth and trade union formations is being kept in cold storage. The Saftu leadership has ignored calls for the convening of the WCS Steering Committee. Similarly the undertaking given to the Extended Working class Summit Steering Committee on 19 July, to convene, what Saftu president comrade Ruth Ntlokose herself described as a “Political Summit” seems to have been buried alongside the Steering Committee itself.
Yet the conditions for the creation of a workers party could not be more favourable. The inherently political character of a public sector strike has never been more pronounced. The rebellion against the ANC at the Cosatu congress has underlined this. The argument, first put forward by then-Cosatu president Willie Madisha in 2007 that the public sector strike was against government as employer, and not against the ANC as government, has been blown out of the water.
More than a decade and a half later, the message of the Cosatu workers could not be clearer. The government’s attack on the public sector workers is not simply a question of wages and collective bargaining. It is political. The Cosatu workers’ commitment to debate their federation’s continued allegiance to the ANC at a special congress next year, places them on a path pointing in the direction to where Saftu is today – outside the Tripartite Alliance. But Saftu’s journey is itself not complete. That will require the implementation of the 2018 WCS declaration to form a workers party.
The Saftu leadership should reach out to Cosatu workers and invite them to walk the journey together. It must be pointed out that the conditions that have brought the working class into collision with the ANC government will not change. They will only get worse as the crisis of capitalism deepens. They should acknowledge that the collapse of the ANC’s vote to only 18% of the eligible voting population suggests that tens, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Cosatu workers and their families have already voted with their feet regardless of the formal ties their federation still maintains with the ANC.
The Saftu leadership must urgently set a date for the Political Summit and invite Cosatu workers to send delegates with the promise that the summit itself will set a date for the launch of a mass workers party on a socialist programme. The mobilisation for a public sector strike by both the trade unions and working class communities, united under the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all”, would be the perfect vehicle for the mobilisation of the forces to convene at the Political Summit. Therefore, we demand again: RE-CONVENE THE WORKING CLASS SUMMIT! SET A LAUNCH DATE FOR THE WORKERS PARTY!