President Jacob Zuma, out of his anger and frustration at the public-sector wage dispute, is calling for trade unions not to make political statements.
The president wants to erect a Chinese wall between the political arena and organised workers’ actions on the economic terrain. Zuma, a former trade unionist in the South African Congress of Trade Unions days, should know better: no matter the frustrations of a head of state, workers’ struggles are political struggles.
Yet, unfortunately, the perverse logic that separates workers’ issues from politics is pervasive in government and among leaders of the economy in many sectors.
To argue that unions should concentrate only on bread-and-butter issues, concerning themselves with wage demands, and to disallow them from engaging the political framework that gives rise to their immediate quagmires is to reduce workers’ struggles to a ‘workerist” level. It is a call for a minimalist approach and revolutionary trade unions that are ideologically committed beyond the shop floor have always refused to be subjected to this approach.
The public-sector dispute is not only about wages and benefits. It is also about the terms under which public service must be transformed, the kind of state cadre needed, a decent wage and the kind of public-sector culture that will reinforce the state agenda.
The easy temptation for anyone caught up in ideological indecision would be irritation and thus condemnation.
Trade unions can be reformist in character, which justifies the need for a revolutionary vanguard communist party as an advanced detachment to provide leadership. Shop-floor struggles and all related employer/employee skirmishes are important elements of, and contribute to, contradictions that push the class struggle. It is therefore beyond anyone to dictate the unions’ terms of engagement.
The important question that should be asked amid the present public-sector unrest is: What constitutes a decent wage in the public service?
An ordinary policeman who fights crime directly in the dangerous streets of KwaMashu or Hillbrow earns less than R8 000 a month, yet a police general earns well over a million a year. An ordinary teacher earns R7 000 a month, but the education director general earns more than a million a year.
The issue is not about the strategic nature of these categories of jobs, or the particular expertise involved. It is more about national priorities and imperatives.
This should inform public-sector wage patterns. On the basis of national priorities, what is needed are better-motivated state cadres, willing to reinforce and execute national priorities with pride and to be keepers of the national interest.
This critically addresses the current wage gap that is so appalling in the state. Upper-echelon employees in departments and the state utilities are paid market-related salaries, but the middle and lowest rungs of the workforce are paid on the basis of inflation targeting — which, in itself, is part of a serious war in the public-service coordinating bargaining chamber. This represents an important acknowledgement that the state is an organ of class rule.
The other vexing issue is that trade unions and public servants acting against the employer (our government) are presented as counter-revolutionary and thus undermining the democratic state.
When revolutionary trade union leaders make certain statements in the course of a dispute, they are accused of acting either in concert with the political opposition or posing themselves in opposition. This accusation is an act of political blackmail and has the potential to blunt the cause of workers at key moments during industrial action.
We need to understand the conflictual relationship between worker and employer. Such contradictions will not go away as long as we are aiming for a bourgeois society, reinforced by a bourgeois state, which is defined on the basis of oppression of one person by another.
Khaye Nkwanyana is the deputy national secretary of the Young Communist League of South Africa.