When will the South African government learn?

Ebrahim Harvey 

South Africa is once again on the verge of a public sector strike. Has the government not learnt the many-sided adverse consequences of earlier strikes, which took a heavy toll on service delivery in all the relevant sectors, employee morale and severely damaged union and public confidence in government?

Already this country is going through a social crisis of unprecedented proportions. A public sector strike at this point is bound to worsen this crisis, including more generally relations between the unions and government and more specifically between the ruling party and its allies. But it is also precisely because of this crisis that workers require a real and meaningful “living wage” to counter spiralling cost of living increases – especially that which is going to follow the recent highest-ever fuel increase – and the fact that the inflation rate does not capture all the real costs of living and often underestimate costs even for those indices it does consider. All progressive economists know this and in fact so does the government, but it persists in strictly tying unions down to inflation rates and resisting real increases above the inflation rate.

However, unlike strikes in the private sector, such as in mining and manufacturing, public sector strikes are much more politically loaded and sensitive because it pits the unions and government – as their employer – against each other and more directly and forcefully raise critical issues about the meaning of democracy, the nature of this government and the kind of society we live in. But more than that it publicly highlights the macroeconomic limitations of neo-liberal budgetary constraints, which fail to adequately appreciate the enormously important role public sector workers play in the economy and society and the great sacrifices they make.

Government has had a narrow financial and monetarist approach to annual wage negotiations, which does not adequately consider key questions of staff morale, working environment, job performance, productivity and more importantly the quality of services the public receives. The fact that these workers serve members of the public, in their capacity as nurses, teachers and so on, does not seem to matter much to the government. It is widely known in the labour movement that staff morale affects their interactions with members of the public. Workers dissatisfied with wages and working conditions tend to take it out on members of the public – the people they are most immediately in touch with daily. And though this cannot be condoned and neither can it be simply and only attributed to pay and working conditions, there can be no doubt that these factors play a big part in relations between employees and the public.

And what about many other possible consequences of conflict-ridden public sector strikes, such as violence and injury – especially when union feelings and convictions run high because of an unyielding final government offer – and the huge inconvenience and dangers to health and safety public sector strikes can lead to? Then there is the fact that experiences here and internationally show that depending on which sectors of the public sector come out on strike, how critical it is to the daily functioning of society and how long it lasts tends collectively to further strain relations with members of the public who are denied services or only that which skeletal staff make possible. The public and communities also get badly divided between those who support the strike and those who oppose it for whatever reasons.

Furthermore, when a democratically elected government refuses reasonable wage demands and other conditions of service improvements what message does it send to the private sector when they have such negotiations? The international trends here too tend to lead to a tougher stance adopted by these employers. Overall labour relations tend to suffer and the acrimony does not end when finally a settlement not on favourable terms to workers is reached. No, the unresolved tensions get transferred to the workplace, with strained relations affecting morale, productivity and absenteeism. In fact the whole of society, beyond the workplace, suffers hugely from public sector strikes, and often the damage lasts long and gets carried into the next year’s negotiations.

On the whole it would appear that while the government might think they gain financially by adopting a tough and unyielding stance during negotiations the fact is that they lose -and potentially more – in the areas mentioned, losses which go beyond financial calculations. The earlier lengthy, damaging and costly public sector strikes in both the UK and this country should elicit a more open, progressive and preventative stance by the government, but it has not, unfortunately because of the severe fiscal constraints neo-liberalism has placed it under. The same fiscal constraints determine poor municipal standards of services, based on the barest minimalism, retrenchments in the public sector, lack of basic equipment in schools and hospitals and poor maintenance.

And it is patently unfair for the government to annually in advance budget a fixed percentage increase, because negotiation is hamstrung from the outset by such pre-determined and often unyielding limits or minor and token shifts, which contradicts the purpose and spirit of negotiations. Flexibility, especially in the main wage component, is necessary, especially when lack of progress on this key point not only delays reaching agreement on other conditions of service demands but negatively affects settlement on these, especially when negotiations are approached as a total package.

It is furthermore deeply ironical that while President Thabo Mbeki, ministers and other senior politicians – employed by the state – have been awarded huge increases recently by a special commission, the unions have been told that the government can only offer less than half – 5.7 percent – of their wage demand of 12 percent. Other demands were rejected outright. On top of this, the government wants to secure a 4-year agreement at such a low base.

Instead of working with unions to build a strong public sector – amidst ongoing pressures to commercialise and privatise more of its activities – we have yet another strike looming on the horizon. Let us hope that a more sensible approach by the government in the weeks ahead can prevent the strike that appears imminent. After all, public sector workers and their families have already suffered much from massive retrenchments over the past few years, from which they have yet to recover, and the daily pressures of staff shortages and resultant overwork. They fully deserve a much better wage offer that that currently on the table. If there is a strike the government must take responsibility for it and whatever consequences that leads to.

Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and former COSATU unionist.

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