/ 15 July 2011

SA hit by strike fever

As the country reels from twin strikes by the metal and chemical worker unions, a further strike is looming by nearly a million members of the Congress of South African Trade Union-affiliated public service unions.

M&G photographer Oupa Nkosi arrived in the industrial area of Alrode in Alberton to a sea of disgruntled workers. He approached the volatile situation with patience and, several hours later, emerged with the shot.

The public service unions affiliated to the labour federation are contemplating striking following the government’s failure to meet their wage demands.

The Mail & Guardian has established that Public Service and Administration Minister Richard Baloyi recently met union leaders to explain why the government would not go beyond its final offer of a 6.8% wage increase. Unions have since reduced their initial demand for a 10% wage increase to 8%.

The looming public sector strike comes as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan says the current strikes by the metal and engineering union [Numsa] and the chemical and energy union [Ceppawu] threatens investor confidence in the country.

The metal workers’ strike has been marred by violence, while Ceppawu’s strike in the petroleum sector has resulted in a fuel shortage at petrol stations in Gauteng and Durban. Hospitals fear a possible shortage of medicines.

Numsa members, who went on strike last Monday, are demanding a 13% increase, while employer body, the Steel and Engineering Industries’ Federation of South Africa is offering 7%.

Ceppawu’s strike started this Monday and workers are demanding an increase of between 11% and 15% and a minimum wage of R6 000. Employers in the chemical industry are offering between 6% and 7%.

Last year more than 1.3-million public servants, mostly from Cosatu-affiliated unions, embarked on a massive strike in a move that was interpreted by political observers as a tactic by Cosatu leaders to influence the outcome of the ANC national general council last October.

‘Nothing less’
The strike, in particular by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, severely disrupted teaching in the lead-up to the matric exams. Sadtu president Thobile Ntola said his union was unhappy with government’s final offer in current negotiations.

“Our position is that we want nothing less than 7.5%. Can you believe we started wage negotiations in October last year? There hasn’t been any movement on the issue of housing, medical aid and OSD [occupation specific dispensation].

“We are not happy with how government deals with public service workers. It [government] is a disgrace. It is not exemplary,” Ntola said.

Sadtu is polling its members and will know by next week whether it will go on strike.

National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said his union was waiting for consolidated reports from members regarding the government’s last offer.

Pamla said the union was not prepared to compromise on its demands, which include filling all vacant posts in government, the equalisation of medical aid, review of the government’s remuneration policy and the provision of a finance scheme for housing.

If the public sector strike goes ahead it is likely to put Cosatu and the ANC on a collision course as leaders in the alliance continue to fight to influence the party’s policy direction.

Cosatu’s Patrick Craven said this week that wage negotiations should not be viewed in isolation, but treated as one of the tools to be used to address the triple crises of poverty, unemployment and inequality in the country. “South Africa is the most unequal country in the world in terms of income and the most concrete way to address this inequality is to close the wage gap.

“Wage negotiations are the most powerful tool we have in acting decisively on this question,” he said.