Public sector indefinite strike – Mobilise for a National General Strike

PSA members marching in November 2022 against attack on pay


Name date for Working Class Summit – launch socialist mass workers party

The announcement of indefinite strike will be warmly welcomed by the whole working class. The unions should be applauded for standing firm in the face of the government’s insolence. It is determined to continuing to withholding the 2020 increase. In a new provocation it has commenced negotiations with only the Federation of SA Trade Unions affiliates – Hospersa and PSA. It is determined to smash the solidarity of the public sector unions.

The government’s arrogance comes as the cost of living crisis has become increasingly intolerable. Food inflation alone has reached a 14-year high. This comes on top of the relentless increase in the fuel price as well the outrageous 18.5% hike in electricity tariffs granted to Eskom as rolling blackouts worsen.  A Minister for Electricity will solve nothing.

The working class a whole and increasingly the middle class will feel the impact of the cost of living crisis. The inflationary consequences of fuel, food and electricity price increases will further more provide the pretext for the Reserve Bank to continue raising interest rates. More and more workers will be threatened with even higher loan repayments.

The attacks on public sector workers is part of a wider offensive against the working class shown by the below inflation increases forced on Transnet workers and the planned retrenchment of 6 000 post office workers.

Public sector workers gave the majority of unions a clear mandate towards the end of 2022 to embark on action in support of the demand for the payment of the 2020 increase. The unions made it abundantly clear that negotiations for 2023 would not commence until their demands for the payment of the 2020 increase are met.     

It is even clearer that the government regards its repudiation of the 2018 agreement as a “new normal.” It wants to reduce collective bargaining to a mere ritual in which the unions are expected to rubber stamp decisions taken by government. The government takes its mandate from the capitalist minority that has created the crisis. It is pursuing a strategy to continue the brutal public sector cuts it has been implementing following the 2008 global financial crisis. The public sector wage bill is at the centre of this neo-liberal capitalist strategy.

Inspiring as the National Day of Action was for workers, the government’s negotiators are keenly aware that the enthusiasm of the rank-and-file was not shared by the leadership of some unions. The leadership of the teachers union, Cosatu affiliate, Sadtu for example accepted the insulting 2021 3% increase. The PSA had organised its own action on 10th November, and actively participated in the coordinated November Day of Action this had set an example for.

However the PSA leadership had hoped the government would take advantage of its willingness to accept the extension of the R1000 gratuity. The government rewarded the PSA leadership with a kick in the teeth. Unfortunately the PSA leadership has refused to support the indefinite strike. Having learned nothing from the experience of 2020, 2021 and 2022, it is willing now to go from its knees onto its belly.

The actions of the Fedusa unions play straight into the hands of the government. In refusing to support the indefinite strike, it is willing to break the solidarity of the public sector unions as a whole. This is called strike breaking. We call upon the Fedusa membership to reject their leadership’s attempt to repudiate the mandate they gave them to stand firm in support of its demands in relation to 2020, 2021 and 2022 and to withdraw from the 2023 negotiations. The Fedusa leadership is willing to engage in class collaboration with a government that has launched the most serious attack on the working class since 1994. The Fedusa membership must refuse to cross picket lines and actively participate in the indefinite strike. They should demand emergency national negotiating conferences in both unions, demand the leadership complies with the 2021 mandate, withdraw from the 2023 negotiations, or face immediate recall.

What is at stake in this dispute is the hard won right to collective bargaining the working class fought the apartheid regime to concede. Now the democratically-elected ANC government wishes to reverse these gains.

Hardening the government’s attitude is the crisis of SA and world capitalism. Unwilling to break with the profit system it has no solutions except to attack the working class. Almost the entire media is united behind the propaganda that lazy and overpaid public sector workers must be held responsible for the government’s debt and budget deficit. But workers did not create these problems! These attacks will only make workers more determined to fight. But it is a taste of the vicious propaganda war that lies ahead. The unions will need their own ‘hearts and minds’ campaign to win the support of the wider-working class.

Build For All-Out Strike

Public sector workers have stood firm and maintained the pressure on their leaders not to cave-in. Likewise, it is the pressure of the membership that has demanded bureaucratic rivalries be set aside in favour of united struggle.

It is widely understood in the labour movement that the Sadtu leadership colluded with the government in the expectation that some its leaders would be elected on to the ANC NEC at its December 2022 conference. Not a single Sadtu or Cosatu leader was elected. That is the Sadtu leadership’s reward for its cowardice.

The government has tabled a bill in parliament that, if passed, would effectively ban teachers from striking altogether or face imprisonment for 12 months. This must be added to the issue of pay.

The National Day of Action played a vital role in preparing for the indefinite strike. But as the MWP pointed out at the time, it was not going to be sufficient to move the government and that an all-out indefinite strike would be necessary. There should be no retreat from the action demonstrated in November. Only the consolidation of that unity can force the government to meet the unions’ demands. To these, following Godongwana’s jobs threat, must be added the demands – No retrenchments! Fill all public sector vacancies! Expand the public service headcount!

Workers must build unity on the ground by creating joint-strike preparation committees uniting all public sector workers in an area regardless of union or federation. These could be created from scratch or by joint-meetings of branches, locals, JMCs, or even provincial structures. 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. This must include the crucial issue of essential workers and minimum service levels. Workers themselves must determine what work must continue, e.g. at accident & emergency departments in hospitals.

Lessons of 2010

The lessons of the 2010 public sector strike must also be studied. The participation of teachers is key. When they strike the entire economy is disrupted as workers in every industry are forced to take time-off for childcare.

A crucial lesson of 2010 is the need to expand the strike beyond public sector workers. The active support of the communities who rely on public services will be crucial. Public sector workers need to reach out to community organisations appealing for solidarity. The strike must be transformed into one that is simultaneously a strike to defend and improve the services that communities rely upon. Shop stewards and worker-activists should attend community meetings to explain the issues and invite community and youth organisations to participate in strike preparation committees.

On 24 August Cosatu and Saftu organised a National Shutdown. They promised it would be the start of a campaign of rolling mass action. The indefinite public sector strike can lay the foundation for that promise to be kept. The federation’s leaders should be lobbied to initiate this. In support of demands against any and all retrenchments and for inflation-proof pay increases across the economy, private sector workers could be mobilised laying foundations for a general strike. This is not just a public sector battle. Where the government leads the private sector will follow.

Political Front

The struggle over public sector pay, and the attack on collective bargaining that is going hand-in-hand with it, poses fundamental political questions about how society is run and in whose interests. The working class can only answer these with its own independent programme and organisations. Workers are increasingly drawing this conclusion. Under the pressure of its members Cosatu resolved to debate their alliance with the ANC at a special congress in 2023. There is a growing mood amongst Cosatu members to break ties. This is an urgent task. But following the Cosatu congress, the leaders in effect reversed the congress decision by putting their support behind Ramaphosa and the ANC for the 2024 elections.  The leadership of Fedusa, Cosatu and Sadtu have in reality mimicked the contempt for democracy the ANC is demonstrating into their union.

However, simply breaking ties with the ANC is not enough. The “independence” of Saftu and Fedusa has not placed them in a meaningfully stronger position to fight the attacks on pay and collective bargaining. For this it is necessary to open a political front in the class struggle. This can only mean the unions leading the creation of a socialist mass workers party that challenges the ANC, and all the other capitalist parties, at the ballot box.

In 2018 Saftu convened a Working Class Summit (WCS). The decision to create a mass workers party was supported by 147 community, youth and trade union organisations. Since then the ANC’s factional civil war has spilled over into not just Eskom but many other State Owned Enterprises, the economy, government department at all levels and even the Presidential Protection Unit. SA is exhibiting the symptom of a failing state. Following the Phala Phala scandal, despite the papering over the cracks in the ANC at its conference, it is widely expected the ANC will be unable to form a government on its own in 2024. Lying ahead is the prospect of a repetition of the anarchy of pro-capitalist coalitions playing themselves out at local government level on the national plane.  

Unfortunately, the decision to launch a mass worker party has been put in the deep freeze. Public sector workers must lead calls for the WCS process to be renewed. A new Summit must urgently be convened and the doors must be thrown open to Cosatu and Fedusa members. The date should be announced NOW alongside the promise that the Summit will set a date for the launch of a socialist mass workers party that will contest the 2024 elections, supported by the entire organised working class.