Wage agreement buys ANC time
A multiyear settlement at that. It will be a feather in the cap of new Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu before she even has had the time to properly warm her seat.
But even as it will be implemented, the ANC will continue to struggle with the nature of the relationship between the state and public sector unions, with no end in sight to the debate.
Negotiators representing the government and workers are expected to meet again soon to thrash out the exact salary increases. Other matters, including an increase in housing allowances, seem largely settled and with the gap between offer and demand down to about 0.3 percentage points for most unions, an agreement seems highly likely.
“We think we’re beginning to find each other,” said a cautiously optimistic Ndivhuwo Mabaya, spokesperson for Sisulu. “We think all the parties now agree on a multiterm deal and that the unions know we are negotiating in good faith to keep their needs in mind while making the budgeting process easier.”
The unions have spent the past week seeking a mandate from their members. Indications are that some will consider settling to a 7% salary increase with small inflation-linked increases for the following two financial years. The last formal offer tabled by the government was for a 6.7% increase.
A multiyear settlement
The unions, whose members are employed by the ANC-controlled state, are largely represented by Cosatu, one of the ANC’s tripartite alliance partners, which is a source of continuing political conflict. So a multiyear settlement will be widely welcomed and reduce the pressure on the ANC to rethink its relationship with public sector unions when it meets again in December.
“The approach to public sector bargaining is based on a model that assumes that the employer and employees are locked up in mortal combat in which only the fittest survives,” the party said in a discussion document on its organisational structure prepared for its policy conference in Midrand last week.
The relationship between labour and the government, and therefore between Cosatu and the ANC, has rarely been a comfortable one, but wage negotiations with civil servants and strikes have been particularly divisive.
But the ANC’s policy conference could not reach consensus on critical issues relating to its interaction with the unions. Delegates agreed that there could not be “permanent contradiction” and a “permanently conflictual relationship” between the state and state labour, ANC Gauteng provincial secretary David Makhura said, and further discussions were required. They would have to be based on the need for the state to understand its obligations to the unions and the need for unions to recognise their importance in delivering important services at a price the country could afford.
That leaves the problem for the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December, at which only the most hopelessly optimistic expect any sort of resolution.
A problem and everyone
“Everyone on the floor knew this is a problem and everyone on the floor knew it is not a problem that is ever going to go away,” said a participant in one of the commission meetings in which the issue was discussed.
“We understand that civil servants will want more money but that government will want to pay less money. As long as the method for fighting out a middle ground doesn’t break down entirely, nobody is going to try to do more than talk about changing it, ” the participant said.
But the relationship between some unions and the ANC may become more difficult. The policy conference could not reach any agreement about declaring teaching an essential service, which would deny teachers legal protection should they go on strike.
Insiders said the debate became heated at times and some delegates questioned the commitment of teachers and the apparent power the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) wielded with the education department.
Asked about the union’s responsibility for the poor performance of schools, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said the ANC felt teachers could not shoulder all the blame, even if they were soaking up more than 80% of the education budget in most provinces.
“Some things have not crumbled because of Sadtu, they have crumbled because of the state system itself,” she said, outlining a policy that would focus on building infrastructure and easing procurement for schools.