/ 10 November 2022

Public sector strike: Government’s ‘power play’ and why we should worry

Samwu Strike Tshwane 8099 Dv
SAMWU Strike in Tshwane. Photo: Supplied


The ructions before this week’s public sector strike exposed what ought to be viewed as a dire predicament: the relationship between organised labour and the government has continued to curdle — and the latter seems more than happy to assert its upper hand.

In the days leading up to Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana’s medium-term budget on 26 October, the government made a calculated decision to unilaterally implement a 3% wage agreement, effectively calling labour’s bluff on its ability to hold out and eventually call a big enough strike.

As  Mbhazima Shilowa, the former general secretary of union federation Cosatu, characterised it at the time, the move was a power play. And it is one of a series of power plays that the employer, in this case the government, has managed to pull off over public sector unions in recent years.

The government has strong-armed civil servants in recent negotiations, executing these manoeuvres as sentiment has turned against a public sector, which is viewed as entitled and unproductive. South Africa’s credit rating, and thus its ability to attract investment, is seen as precariously balanced on whether the government can rein in the public sector wage bill and keep its upper hand on labour.

The government would probably not have taken the risk of imposing the wage offer if it thought it didn’t have a chance of getting away with it. And Godongwana, alongside acting Public Service Minister Thulas Nxesi, might be right considering the blunting of the public sector unions over the years.

Godongwana has rebuffed charges that the government has undermined collective bargaining, saying that the employer did everything to show it was negotiating in good faith. This week, Nxesi reiterated this view, saying that imposing the wage offer should not be seen as impeding the processes of the public service co-ordinating bargaining council

But it would not be the first time the government has gone above labour’s head in the name of fiscal consolidation.

Public sector unions have tried to call attention to continued attempts to render the sector’s bargaining council powerless, including when the government turned to the courts to get the final leg of the 2018 wage agreement thrown out. 

The Cosatu unions that were sidelined in the current negotiation have threatened to report the government to the International Labour Organisation for its “blatant disregard” of collective bargaining.

When it became clear that the government would impose its 3% wage offer — using section 5(5)(b) of the Public Service Act, which provides that the last offer can be implemented in the event of a deadlock — public sector unions were taken aback by the employer’s “arrogance”. 

It is the first time in years, 23 or so, that the government had sought to force an agreement. A 1999 wage standoff resulted in the first legal strike of public service workers.

That strike stood out as the hardest test of the tripartite alliance, which became strained in the wake of the ANC government’s Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (Gear) strategy. 

Key characteristics of Gear involved fiscal discipline, the privatisation of state-owned entities and reducing the size of the public service. Through Gear’s policy of fiscal consolidation, the public service was downsized by some 230 000 workers.

The fights between the government and unions since the 1999 strike have been coloured by that clash, which exposed the existence of a very fine line between the ANC’s social democratic ideals and neoliberalism. 

The last major public sector strike was in 2010. It marked the first face-off between Cosatu unions and former president Jacob Zuma’s administration and was also seen as a turning point when public sentiment was really soured against civil servants.

But in the decade that followed — in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and the subsequent battering of other sectors of the economy — public sector unions increased their power, to the point that they became the backbone of Cosatu.

The ascension of public sector unions among the trade union federation’s affiliates makes the recent acrimony between them and government all the more devastating. Because their power, instead of being a portent of organised labour’s overall strength, is actually a source of vulnerability. 

A look into public sector employment data, comprehensively traced in an October report by Wits University’s Public Economy Project, shows that the total number of jobs fell between 1997 and 2002 and then grew significantly until 2012. 

But, since 2012, total public sector employment has stagnated. Despite an increase in the number of civil servants since 2018, the total remains below the level reached in 2012.

This decade of stagnation in public sector employment is also characterised by flatlining growth and soaring levels of joblessness. Both the public and the private sector unions were on the backfoot.

With it clear that the government’s economic strategies have failed to inspire any meaningful growth, that line between social democracy and outright neoliberalism has become fainter by the day. 

It is time, government rhetoric suggests, to unshackle the economy from labour’s grip. Doing so requires the wholesale undermining of the protections put in place to guard workers from unfair treatment.

President Cyril Ramaphosa signalled as much in his State of the Nation address earlier this year, which suggested that the deregulation of the labour market would be needed to boost the private sector — the ordained source of jobs.

Business has pushed for labour market deregulation in the past, but to no avail. Labour law reform has now prominently featured in this year’s social compact talks. A July draft of the Framework for a Social Compact in South Africa recommends moderating entry-level wages and a review of the labour market.

The justification behind deregulation is that reform would make it easier for businesses to hire. But underlying this promise is that it will also make it easier for employers to fire. 

Labour is becoming more and more precarious. And although this state of affairs may satisfy the corporate sector, it sows discontent and claws at the social fabric, threatening upheaval that will inevitably put the economy in jeopardy.