Weakened Cosatu warns of strike

Is it again a case of rewind and then press play when it comes to a threatened strike over public sector wage demands? In other words, is there ample bark but no bite from Cosatu when the ANC – the trade union federation’s powerful ally in government – insists that it cannot afford high pay hikes?

As it has several times in the past, Cosatu warned the government this week not to provoke it or take advantage of its internal divisions by refusing its demand for a double-digit wage increase.

Cosatu insists the government can afford a 10% salary increase for public service employees if it sheds hundreds of top bureaucrats, among them directors general and their deputies.

Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini said the federation will have no option but to strike if the government continues to negotiate “in bad faith”. Dlamini was responding to the government dropping its earlier wage offer of 5.8% to 4.8%.

“This thing of changing the offer because the CPI [consumer price index] was adjusted down never happened before,” Dlamini said this week.

“It’s an act of treasury’s mischief. They may think, because of the challenges within Cosatu [we would be unable to take them on], but they are mistaken. Public sector unions are not weakened. They are united in the wage negotiations. We need to separate what’s going on within Cosatu and the issue of wage negotiations.”

The department of public service and administration has denied negotiating in bad faith. Its spokesperson, Brent Simons, said the government can only offer workers what it can afford. 

“The offer of government is projected CPI and negotiated percentage point or points,” he said. “We are open to negotiations but, at the end of the day, we cannot afford another huge cost to the salary bill.” 

The government’s fiscal policies allow it little room to manoeuvre. It is under pressure to ensure a sustainable public sector wage bill, which would allow it to fund other programmes aimed at growing the economy and creating jobs.

During his budget speech last month, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene committed the state to a fiscal consolidation strategy. The plan will see the government freeze the public service head count and curb personnel cost increases to an annual average of 6.6%, and ensure salary increases are linked to inflation. The current government wage bill is more than R350-billion a year.

Cosatu goes into this year’s public sector wage talks wounded by internal factional battles, which saw its biggest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), being expelled from the organisation.

Some other affiliates that sympathise with Numsa have taken sides, exacerbating tensions within the federation.

Cosatu is now dominated by affiliates organising in the public sector. They are considered to be close to Dlamini, who, in turn, is regarded as a close ally of President Jacob Zuma and the ANC government.

The wage talks will present an opportunity for the federation to prove that it still puts workers’ interests ahead of the political benefits enjoyed by a few Cosatu leaders, as alleged by those who criticise its leadership. 

Dlamini said Cosatu’s public sector unions are considering declaring a dispute with the government, a step that may lead to a crippling strike by about 1.4-million public servants.

“I hope government takes that [the threat to go on strike] seriously. No government official should think we can’t lift a finger. They will see our finger if they push us,” he said.

Overpaid officials
The deputy general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), Nkosana Dolopi, said the government should consider firing some of its senior officials who were earning unjustifiably high salaries.

“Government should get rid of some of the directors general and direct the money they earn to where real service delivery is. A DDG’s [deputy director general’s] salary can pay five teachers,” he said.

Dolopi said the inflated government wage bill is not caused by low-earning workers but by senior government officials.

“They [senior officials] get huge bonuses that workers don’t get. Why would government want to put pressure on the lower-earning workers who can’t afford houses, education and healthcare for their children?”

Cosatu remains divided. Its predominantly industrial unions are aligned to a faction led by Cosatu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. They would prefer a more militant federation that would take on the government when necessary.

Cosatu and the South African Communist Party are part of the ANC-led tripartite alliance. With a weakened Cosatu, though, the government might just use that alliance to its advantage in the hope that any strike would not last as long as others had in the past. The longest public service strike in recent years took place in 2007 and lasted for just over a month.

But the government might want to appease Cosatu in order to secure workers’ support in next year’s local government election. 

The ANC’s electoral support declined in last year’s general election after Numsa withheld its support from the ruling party and announced plans to support the formation of a new labour party that would contest next year’s municipal poll.

What also complicates things for the ANC is that at the South African Local Government Bargaining Council, the municipal workers’ union, Samwu, locked horns with the South African Local Government Association (Salga) over wage increases.

Municipal workers are crucial to the ANC’s victory next year as they work directly with communities and understand local politics.

Following the first round of negotiations, Samwu accused Salga of “insulting workers” by starting negotiations at 4.4%.

“They cannot claim poverty when you see some municipal managers are earning more than the president of the republic,” Samwu’s deputy general secretary, Moses Miya, said.

Holistic approach
But Salga said negotiations are still at an early stage and the organisation is hoping for a “holistic approach” to negotiations by all parties involved.

But don’t expect to see Cosatu dumping the ANC any time soon because of disagreements over workers’ salaries and working conditions.

“After this round of negotiations, you will see Sadtu on the ground [campaigning for the ANC],” Dolopi promised. “We will put our shop stewards on the ground to say the ANC has changed the lives of our people. But we will say, even if they did that, they must change the conditions of our members.”

Both Dlamini and Dolopi rejected claims that Cosatu leaders are preoccupied with ANC politics instead of championing the struggles of the working class.

Dolopi said that, although his union took a decision last year to help the ANC secure overwhelming support in next year’s local government election, Sadtu is not prepared to compromise the interests of the workers it represents.

“Even if we are members of an alliance, we won’t compromise our own union members. This would not be beneficial to the ANC. If we don’t keep the ANC on its toes, workers will leave us,” Dolopi said.

Influential position
As an ANC national executive committee member, Dlamini said he is in a favourable position to influence the party to act in the interests of workers.

“I am in the best position to talk sense to ANC leaders if a need arises. I can assist where others are unable to do so because they don’t have access to the ANC leaders.”

Dlamini said the government needs to review its remuneration policy urgently to reduce the gap between high- and low-earning workers in the public service.

“The call for a review of the remuneration policy is a long-standing position of Cosatu, which has not been realised.

“Sometimes directors general do nothing but they get paid a lot of money. It’s a waste of money.”

He called on the presidential remuneration review commission to complete its work quickly to ensure that workers are paid what they deserve.

The commission, which was established by Zuma in 2013 and is headed by retired judge Sandile Ngcobo, this week said it needs more than two years to complete its work.

The commission has been mandated to investigate the remuneration and conditions of service in the public service, with the salaries of teachers receiving priority.

The commission also has to balance this by investigating the “fiscal sustainability of the public service wage bill” and whether the state is receiving value for money.

The treasury has stated in its budget review documents that if current wage negotiations result in a settlement “that departs significantly from inflation, government will have to effect substantial reductions in capital expenditure, introduce more stringent controls on public employment or find ways to curtail spending on other critical priorities”.

Matuma Letsoala
Guest Author

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