Cosatu signs public sector wage deal but some unions hold out

After ten months of negotiations, about 40% of the public sector unions have signed a three year wage offer from the department of public service and administration (DPSA), and the remaining unions have just over two weeks to formally accept or reject the deal.

The talks continued past the implementation date at the beginning of the financial year in April, and mark the first time that the government has failed to secure a deal — since South Africa shifted the end of its financial year from July to April in 2007.

“The changes in government didn’t help because it caused delays, that’s what hardened attitudes for so long,” Cosatu lead negotiator Mike Shingange said.

If the majority of unions do not sign the deal before the end of June, the state can unilaterally implement the agreement as it did in 2010 under the leadership of then minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi.

The offer is an increase of between 6% and 7% in the first year, and 6% for the remaining two years. It also includes a new clause to allow married couples working for the state to both receive a housing allowance.

Shingange said there was widespread dissatisfaction among workers.

“There’s no union that is happy. It’s not a good offer. We think we could have been served a better offer. Of course the impatience of our members and what they are now losing out in terms of this delay has persuaded them,” he said.

The DPSA minister Ayanda Dlodlo signed the deal at the Public Sector Collective Bargaining Council (PSCBC) last week, along with the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (PopCru).

Shingange said all of the Cosatu’s unions except the National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), of which he is the deputy president, had signed the deal.

Nehawu represents about 16% of civil servants, many of whom receive the lowest level salaries. Shingange said Cosatu was “encouraged” by the public service department’s latest commitment to revise the salary scales which range between level one (R4000) and level 13 (R70 000) a month.

“At least they’ve [the DPSA] committed to deal with the salary scales because that is exactly what is creating this most unequal society in the world. You can’t get [a pay gap] like that, working for the very same state,” he said.

Cosatu’s decision to sign has been criticised by the Public Servants Association (PSA), which formally rejected the wage offer and three year agreement.

PSA general manager Ivan Fredericks said his union was opposed to the three-year agreement due to the unpredictable economy.

“It was only the PSA that stood firm and said we will reject a three year term because we do not know what next year’s economy will look like. Because what if things change and we’re sitting in agreement we signed and we can’t go back to the table,” he said.

“Our demands were also made before we knew the government was going to increase the [value-added tax] VAT,” Fredericks added.

The PSA represents about 17% of civil servants and said it had already conducted a strike ballot among its members, and received more than 50% vote to embark on industrial action over the wage offer and three year proposal.

But Fredericks said such a move would only “register our concern”, as the workers are powerless to stop the government from implementing the deal.

Unhappiness over the offer also exists within the Independent Labour Caucus (ILC), which represents twelve unions and 42% of the worker delegation in the PSBC.

ILC chairperson Basil Manuel said the caucus’s members had not yet signed, and were busy receiving feedback from workers about the offer, but existing concerns remained.

These included the year two and three increases for higher earning workers but “clearly there are gains for workers on the lower salary rungs”.

“Under the circumstances the possibility of a better offer is slim to nothing. Even those that rejected from the start have failed to call more members to action like strikes,” Manuel said.

Despite this different public sector union leaders have been quietly traveling to the PSCBC offices in Centurion since last Friday to sign the agreement, and the general secretary Frikkie de Bruin has been asked not to reveal their identities.

“I have been requested not to disclose the names of those unions until the agreement reaches a majority,” he said.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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