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‘Workers, unions in SA have reached their Tambo moment’

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Picture: Armand Hough. African News Agency (ANA) Archives – The 235 000-strong Public Service Association (PSA) received its strike certificate on November 3 but has not yet set a date for its strike, says the writer.

By Trevor Ngwane

Public sector union leaders are frustrated, and their backs are against the wall since Minister of Finance Enoch Godongwana announced a unilateral wage deal consisting of a 3% wage increase and a non-pensionable R1 000 monthly cash allowance during his medium-term budget speech a couple of weeks ago.

Union leaders are angry about what they regard as a ‘dictatorial’ approach to labour relations by the government, which undermines the collective bargaining process and sets a bad precedent. Ordinary people might face the consequences of a strike by workers who are central to service delivery. This brings to mind a famous Oliver Tambo quote which is from the founding manifesto of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC guerrilla army: “The time comes in the life of any nation when there remains only two choices, submit or fight. We shall not submit. We shall fight with all means in our power in defence of our people, our freedom, and to achieve our freedom.”

Public sector workers and their trade unions have apparently reached their Tambo moment, their fork in the road: to submit or to fight. What road are they going to choose? In 2020, the ANC government refused point blank to implement a wage increase during the last year of a three-year wage deal that had been negotiated, agreed to, signed and shook hands upon with union representatives in the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council (Resolution 1, Clause 3.3 of the agreement).

Disbelieving what was happening, the unions took the government to court, lost the case, appealed to the Constitutional Court, and lost again. What had at first seemed like a slap in the face was now felt by the unions as a kick in the teeth. They had been publicly humiliated and robbed of what was due to their members.

It did not help that this was happening during a Covid-19 lockdown, where public servants, especially front-line workers in the health sector, including the police, were bravely carrying out their duties and serving the public in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Most of these workers had no choice, and many took ill and died. This attack on the workers was merely amplified by Covid conditions, the ANC government, as the employer has a long history of attacking the living standards of workers, including their right to strike.

In 2018, the government enacted amendments to the Labour Relations Act (LRA) that put restrictions on the right to strike, such as making it compulsory for unions to conduct secret balloting of their members before embarking on a strike; unions were required to amend their constitutions to this effect.

The new restrictions added to existing ones, including LRA prohibitions against striking on certain matters, disallowing so-called essential workers from striking, enforcing labyrinthine procedures before a strike certificate can be issued. The law courts added to the lawmakers’ attacks on workers by making judgments, such as making unions liable for losses incurred by bosses during ‘unprotected’ strikes, and their doors were always open to bosses seeking to interdict strikes and declare them illegal, thus exposing strikers to state repression.

It is in this hostile anti-union and anti-worker environment that the public sector workers are contemplating and threatening to go on strike. Their case is not helped by the government’s constant reminder of the dire state of the global economy, including high inflation and energy shortages caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and post-Covid challenges.

The ANC government has embarked on an austerity programme whereby, pleading poverty, it is cutting down on social expenditure (housing, health, education), including complaining loudly about the state’s wage bill. There is talk of how people will suffer from a public sector strike. The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) has curiously declared that it cannot go on strike because this would negatively affect students writing their Matric exams.

The union leaders find themselves in a difficult position. Thus, the 235 000-strong Public Service Association (PSA) received its strike certificate on November 3 but has not yet set a date for its strike. It has held lunchtime demonstrations and a one-day ‘stay away’. Unions in the Cosatu fold seem to be dilly-dallying, threatening but unsure whether and when they will go on strike. Sadtu’s public opposition to the strike is unhelpful. It suggests division inside Cosatu. In general, union bureaucrats prefer short, victorious strikes, but this might not seem possible especially given an intolerant, uncomradely and disunited ANC leadership.

The government is unlikely to back down in the face of union threats after it emerged victorious in Resolution 1, Clause 3.3 battle. Already announcements have been made that the Post Office will retrench 6 000 workers. The ANC government thinks it can brazenly attack workers and get away with it.

We should note that the leading union in the call for a public sector strike is not part of the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance. The recent Transnet strike was also called and led by a union outside the alliance. But it is clear from how ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe was booed at the Cosatu National Congress that workers inside the alliance are also angry at the ANC.

Too many things are going wrong in the country: the energy crisis, crime, gender-based violence, unemployment, poverty, inequality and corruption. The recent shenanigans in municipal metros involving endless votes of no confidence are funded by taxpayers, are happening during taxpayers’ time, and are carried out by councillors getting good salaries at taxpayers’ expense.

The public sector unions must dare to struggle. They must unite and take action in defence of their interests and those of the broader working class. Passive resignation to ANC bullying and mismanagement can only make things worse for everyone. Ordinary people need a well-resourced and well-functioning public sector. A strong, united public sector strike is necessary to challenge the state and to restore hope in the power of collective struggle behind a vision of social justice for all.

Trevor Ngwane is the director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg.