/ 15 September 2004

New union threat before huge strike

Public-sector unions threatened on Wednesday to increase their pay demand to 12% if the government withdraws its R28-billion package.

“The minister wants to open Pandora’s box. Labour can also play this game,” the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) said.

“If we are starting at ground zero, our offer to settle at 7% is also off the table and we go back to 12%. We trust that a more mature approach will prevail.”

The unions were responding to the government’s claims on Wednesday morning that they had “apparently agreed to establish a technical team in a last-ditch effort to avert a strike”.

Cosatu said the unions are going to strike.

“The strike is on tomorrow [Thursday]. Nothing has occurred to change that. Let us repeat: the strike is on.”

The proposal allegedly came during late-night talks on Tuesday when it was decided to form a technical committee to try to break the deadlock.

But the unions said they would be fools to accept any offer less than the original R28-billion package the state had put on the table.

The unions said they are willing to talk to the state on certain conditions. These are:

  • Salary increases for 2005 and 2006 should not be restricted to inflation only;
  • Restrictions on housing allowances should be lifted; and
  • The state should commit itself to correcting backlogs in teachers’ pay.

“The actions of the minister now threaten to plunge the public service into a major crisis with no end in sight. The employer must carefully reconsider its position,” the unions warned. They said the threat to take macro-benefits off the table is a challenge to collective bargaining and “a vicious attack” on public-service workers.

Government chief negotiator Kenny Govender said with less than 18 hours to go before the strike, the state was still waiting for an official response from the unions to Tuesday night’s proposal.

“We never said the unions had accepted the proposal to form a technical team and avert the strike. They said they would think about it and get back to us. That they still have not done,” he said.

Success Mataitsane, secretary general of the National Union of Public Servants and Allied Workers’ Union, said they told the state they would respond in a manner of the union’s own choosing.

“And we choose to respond via the South African Press Association [Sapa],” he said.

He said what the state proposed is ridiculous and an “insult to their [unions’] intelligence”.

Govender said the state will respond shortly.

Opposition parties have come out in support of the strike with Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille describing the situation as “fully understandable”.

“As much as I find the disruption of public services regrettable, the ID fully understands the plight of public-service workers who are over-burdened, under-resourced and poorly paid,” she said.

She said the strike could have been avoided had Minister of Public Service and Administration Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi adopted a positive and solution-seeking approach and negotiated in good faith.

“The ID rejects the portrayal of public-service employees as a hot-headed bunch unwilling to compromise. Workers have the right to strike and this must be respected.”

The Democratic Alliance said Fraser-Moleketi should take personal responsibility if the police were to strike.

DA MP Roy Jankielsohn said: “The DA has requested on a number of occasions that salaries and conditions of employment of police officers be reviewed as a matter of urgency. Now the minister faces industrial action within the police force.” — Sapa

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