Government urges calm amid public sector strike fears

Government has appealed to public sector unions to “remain calm”, after the decision by labour to pull out of the most recent wage agreement.

The move by workers has resurrected the spectre of a bitter public service strike after eight months of negotiations. Unions originally demanded a 15% increase, but eventually settled on 7%.

On Friday, public sector unions announced they were pulling out of the 2015 agreement and suspending all collective bargaining processes within the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargain Council (PSCBC).

Their withdrawal comes after the state was unable to stop the implementation of a claw-back mechanism that will reduce the agreed wage increase from 7% to an effective 6.4%.

The state views the claw-back as justified, arguing that it overpaid civil servants, under the previous wage settlement negotiated in 2012, after inflation forecasts came in lower than estimated.

The bargaining council is seeking legal opinion, on whether the state has grounds to get this money back. A decision is expected at the end of June.

Unions, however, demanded that while the legal process was under way, workers received the 7% increase, instead of the adjusted amount.

Last week it emerged that the state could not stop the reduced payment due to technicalities on its salary information system.

Unions have nevertheless seen this as violation of the agreement.

Regardless of what the legal opinion determined, union members are “very, very angry” said Nkosinathi Mabhida, spokesperson for Cosatu affiliated unions in the bargaining council.

“What we’ll be doing for the next two weeks [is] we are going down to our members, [telling] them about this decision and they must direct us whether to go on strike or not,” he said.

If the state insisted on implementing the reduced 6.4%, “we are left with no option but to embark on a programme of action with our members”, Mabhida said.

A protracted public service strike would be another blow to the country’s economy. It is still recovering from a series of punishing strikes in the mining sector last year, and is weighed down by electricity shortages.

Brent Simon, spokesperson for public service and administration minister Nathi Mthethwa, told the Mail & Guardian that “any talk of a strike was premature”. He dismissed the comments by labour as “union politics”.

The state could not stop the implementation of the adjusted 6.4% he said because this would have resulted in no civil servants getting paid on the due date of 15 June.

There was a “legitimate mistake made” but government had done its best to “avert and even bigger crisis of not paying people salaries”, he said.

“We are asking unions to remain calm and await the outcome of the process,” said Simons.

“We are all party to a legal process that is unfolding at the PSCBC.”

Legal questions
The state maintains that a clause under the previous 2012 wage agreement permits it to recover any over payments, as a result of variations to CPI, through adjustments the following year.

Unions, however, have rejected this interpretation, saying that the clauses in the 2012 agreement which has since lapsed have no effect on the current wage agreement.

It is also unclear whether unions are in fact able to pull out, wholesale, of the 2015 wage agreement, which was signed by the parties in May.

Government’s position is that unions cannot pull out of the agreement, as it is a binding collective agreement, to which parties must adhere for the next three years – or period of the settlement.  

Section 23 of the labour relations Act allows any party to withdraw from a collective agreement, if that agreement is for an indefinite period and reasonable written notice of the withdrawal is given to other parties.

The unions see this differently however.

The Act, under section 23, allowed unions to withdraw said Mabhida, provided written notice was supplied.

The unions has written to the parties informing them of their decision to exit the agreement, he said. The written notices would be delivered today (Monday 15 June).

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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