Municipal workers' unions have secured a three-year wage deal and a commitment from local government to fill 30 000 vacant posts.
Three months of negotiations and a fourth round of bargaining has borne fruit for municipal workers unions, which were on Friday due to sign a deal with the South African Local Government Association (Salga) in Pretoria, securing a 6.5% wage increase and a handful of allied benefits.
Key among these is the assurance from Salga that it will address the issue of unfilled municipal posts.
The parties, including the South African Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu) and the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (Imatu) have agreed to a three-year wage agreement.
When negotiations began, the parties were miles apart with workers demanding 15% and the state offering only 4%.
Imatu communications officer Anja Muller-Deibicht said this was the first time the union had agreed on a multiyear deal.
"We went to a fourth round of negotiations as opposed to registering a dispute or registering an industrial action," she said.
The gambit appears to have paid off for both workers and government.
Workers will get a 6.5% increase this year and a further 0.5% in January. In 2013, they will get the average CPI +1.25% and in 2014 average CPI +1%.
Tahir Sema, national spokesperson for Samwu, said that while the union was not entirely happy with the negotiated settlement, it was pleased with the three "allied benefits" it had secured.
Sema said the unions had secured a 100% medical aid subsidy for the lowest income workers.
"This is likely to set a very big precedent for other public sector unions, who should demand the same," he said.
In addition, he said, Salga had agreed to fill all vacant municipal workers positions – an estimated 30 000 posts.
"Government has committed to this and we will put a timeline down … by which we'd like them to implement these demands," he said.
Taking on the issues
"The union can take the matter to the courts. There's no way the government can wriggle out of this one."
But it seems the parties may be speaking past each other on these issues. Salga's take on the agreements concerning medical aid and vacant posts was very different.
"A process has been agreed upon to investigate possible options for creating a fully funded medical aid product for low income earners, and nothing more at this stage has been agreed upon," said Salga spokesperson Vicki Makanyane.
The agreement on vacant posts, she said, only "creates a structured mechanism" for municipalities to consult the unions and explain the reasons why certain posts remain unfilled.
Labour consultant Ivan Israelstam said the level of the concession secured by unions was astonishing.
"I was expecting a final agreement of a wage increase of between 4% and 5% and very little else," he said.
Labour analyst Andrew Levy said the agreement was a triumph for collective bargaining.
"Wage increases that are staggered and favour the lowest paid are to be commended because that's the only way we [change] the discrepancies between top and bottom salaries," he said.
Levy said a multiyear agreement would provide certainty for both workers and government, taking the possibility of a wage dispute off the table and allowing the state to get back to the work of service delivery.
The agreement may also provide a benchmark for the ongoing labour dispute in the public service.
"It's an indicator for the public sector at large and I would expect we're going to get a settlement of about 6.5% to 7%," he said.
Public sector wage negotiations suffered a setback earlier this month after government reneged on an offer of 6.9%, angering the trade federation Cosatu. On July 11 the union, which accused government of using delaying tactics, said its patience had been "tested to the limit" and declared a dispute. They have 30 days, from the date of the dispute was called, to resolve the situation.
Cosatu's chief negotiator Mugwena Maluleke said the parties were not at liberty to report on progress as the process was in mediation.
In 2010, a crippling public sector strike cost the economy an estimated R30-billion. Newly deployed public services minister Lindiwe Sisulu, who was bent on banning unions during her time in the defence department, has a poor reputation for negotiating with workers.
Asked for comment on the state of the negotiations, public services and administration spokesperson Ndhivuwo Mabaya was terse. "When we have got something to say, we will issue a statement," he said.