Suspension of action cannot hide magnificent display of public sector workers’ power

Trade union leaders call off country’s biggest-ever strike

On Thursday, 28 June, public sector unions called off South Africa’s biggest-ever strike, involving nearly one million workers. The suspension of the longest public sector strike in South Africa’s history followed the collapse of the unprecedented inter-union solidarity that had sustained the strike for nearly one month, after it started on 1 June. Seventeen unions took action, demanding 12% pay increase.

Most significantly, the surrender produced a split amongst the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) affiliates. While the National Education Health and Allied Workers, Cosatu’s second biggest public sector affiliate (and four other smaller Cosatu affiliates including the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union) led the capitulators, its biggest affiliate, the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) is leading the resistance. Standing firm with Sadtu, on the reduced demand for 10% pay increase, are the National Professional Teachers Association (Naptosa) and the Public Servants Association, both independent unions.

The union’s decision to suspend the strike was preceded by the government effectively ending the negotiations, by tabling a signed final offer at the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council in the week before. The government made the decision after it had issued an ultimatum only two days before, threatening the withdrawal of the revised offer of 7.5% as suggested by the mediators, and reverting to the previous offer of 7.25%. Such was the fury of workers’ reaction at, as one union leader put it, "Having a gun held to our heads", that workers organised busses to travel to Centurion near the capital Tshwane (formerly Pretoria) to picket. The Bargaining Council meeting ended in chaos when workers entered the building one evening and discharged fire extinguishers.

By the following day, the government denied vigorously that it had issued an ultimatum, only to follow this by, in effect, issuing a new ultimatum in the form of its final offer. According to the Bargaining Council constitution, if either party puts forwards a signed proposal, it remains on the table for 21 working days, after which it falls off if a majority has not signed. As this article is published, there is still no majority in terms of vote weight on the side of the unions. For the proposal to become a council resolution, 50%+1 of the unions must sign acceptance. Although the majority of unions signed the proposal, those that rejected the offer carry a slight majority. It seems more likely the government will repeat its actions of 1999 and 2004, of unilaterally imposing its offer if the unions that have rejected it do not waver.

Politically significant strike

The importance of this strike lies not only in its size and length. It is politically the most significant strike since the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994. Its repercussions will reverberate throughout the Tripartite Alliance (ANC, Cosatu and South African Communist Party) further weakening its foundations. There will be consequences for the leadership of those unions that capitulated and, in effect, forced on the membership an offer that, to say the least, they are not enthusiastic about.

It has been said of the British labour movement that the working class are lions led by donkeys in the TUC (union congress). After the recent union leaders’ cowardly capitulation in South Africa, it would be no exaggeration to say the same of the Nehawu and Cosatu leadership. Having consistently rejected the government’s arguments that the package as a whole must be considered and not just the salary component, the union leaders suddenly found merit in the government’s offer, repeating the very government arguments they had previously dismissed. Days before the suspension of the strike, the Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, in an address to a Young Communist League rally, in Mpumalanga, claimed the 7.5% pay increase offer from the government represented a gain for public sector workers, given that the package included the promotion of some of the lowest paid workers on salary-level one and two, and an increase in the housing allowance. Yet, only the day before, the Cosatu president assured demonstrators at a picket of the Bargaining Council, in Centurion, that the unions would not accept the government’s 7.5% offer.

The confusion was compounded by the announcement (prior to the formal decision of the unions directly involved in the strike), by the Western Cape Cosatu Provincial Secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, that the Western Cape Cosatu was pulling out of the strike. Ehrenreich was generally considered to be to on the left within Cosatu and was a driving force, two years ago, behind the launch -- subsequently squashed by the right -- of a political left opposition to the ANC (described in the media as a "new United Democratic Front" - the organisation that led the struggle against the apartheid regime in the 1980s).

Although both Vavi’s and Ehrenreich’s statements were subsequently denied and or corrected, the damage was done.

Strike tactics

It has been the Democratic Socialist Movement’s (DSM - CWI in South Africa) position, from the onset of the industrial action, that the tactic of calling an "indefinite strike" was incorrect. The Nehawu union leadership, in particular, with their eyes on the coming ANC congress, gave the impression they were determined not to repeat the "mistakes" of past strikes. In reality, they were compensating for the union leadership’s opportunist capitulation, in 2004, with an ultra-left gesture, three years later.

It would have been much more effective to have called a ‘rolling campaign’ of mass action, under the protection of an indefinite strike notice. As we explained in our third and final DSM special strike leaflet, an ‘indefinite strike notice’ would have provided indefinite legal protection for carefully planned (once or twice weekly) mass actions by the public sector unions. This action would have built up workers’ confidence and organization and been used as a build-up towards a general strike, drawing in the unions in the private sector, whose wage negotiations are now also starting. The mineworkers are demanding 20%; the electricity workers are demanding 12%, the South African Local Government Association, a notoriously hard-line employer, is only offering only 6% to its workers’ pay package - clearly, the conditions were there for a successful general strike. In the end, however, the union leaders chose defuse mass working class militancy.

The public sector strike enjoyed overwhelming public support in spite of the exaggerated media coverage given to isolated incidents of violence and intimidation. The government and the media went so far as to suggest that a number of hospital patient deaths were a direct result of the strike. Yet, it was the government that for years been stalled negotiations on a minimum-service agreement for essential service workers, which ordered all hospital managers, on pain of disciplinary action, to reject the minimum service level proposals offered by unions at hospital and clinic level.

It can legitimately be asked whether the calling of an indefinite strike was deliberately calculated to exhaust the membership and to prepare for the union leaders’ capitulation. In the view of some Nehawu shop stewards, their leadership adopted this militant posture to assure their re-election at the Nehawu congress, which took place within days of the suspension of the strike. Several factors led to the Nehawu congress reluctantly endorsed the leadership’s recommendation to accept the suspension of the strike. These included the fact that a considerable proportion of the membership were on strike for nearly four weeks; the hardship caused by the salary deductions due to the management’s ‘no-work, no-pay’ policy; the obvious divisions amongst the unions including, crucially, the two biggest Cosatu affiliates; and the disinformation concerning the strike, including from the media, which reported that a majority of unions accepted the government’s pay offer but omitting to mention that there was no voting majority.

The final unanimous announcement of the strike’s suspension was little more than an unsuccessful exercise in damage control. Individual unions, separately, already made announcements about the end of the strike. The general secretary of the Hospital and Other Personnel Union of SA (Hospersa) went so far as to denounce the Cosatu unions for holding the other unions hostage for political reasons to do with the factional struggle between the Mbeki and Zuma leadership camps in the ANC. He described the government’s offer as "fantastic" for lower paid workers!

Although the government can hardly claim victory, the strike outcome will feel like a defeat for most workers. The unprecedented class solidarity, across all races and political traditions and the militancy and determination of the workers, caught the government completely by surprise. This made government claims about the strike having "a minimal impact" look like the ridiculous propaganda it was. The government had become accustomed to reducing public sector wage negotiations to a farce, by routinely implementing what the Minister of Finance had budgeted for in advance. For the first time, the ANC government was forced by mass action to improve its offer, from its original 5.3% to the final 7.5%.

Favourable circumstances for workers’ victory

There has never been a more favourable set of economic and political circumstances for a resounding triumph for workers, since the end of the apartheid regime. The booming economy which the ANC government constantly crows about is undermining their pleas of ‘poverty’ when it comes to funding essential services and paying decent wages. The argument about ‘affordability’ was undermined by the first budget surplus and another government budget windfall, after the South African Revenue Service had, yet again, exceeded its revenue collection target, leaving the government with an unexpected R11 billion extra they did not budget for.

The government had also made a number of blunders during the strike. The Minister of Finance announced there was enough money to fund a 9% increase, drawing a stinging rebuke from the Minister of Public Service and Administration, whose husband is the Finance Minister’s deputy. Stern government department warnings to managers to comply with orders to dismiss essential service workers who went on strike were roundly ignored by provincial governments, with no more than 2,700 out of more than 20,000 dismissal letters issued. The dismissals were also deeply unpopular and callous, and as aggravating the crisis in a health service already gasping for breath.

The Department of Health, however, backtracked and agreed to reinstate the dismissed workers, on the basis that they will receive a ‘final written warning’. This pre-empts the government’s offer. This makes provision for a ‘return to work’ agreement, which spreads wage deductions, arising from the strike action, called the ‘no-work no-pay policy’, over 3 months, instead of taking a lump sum from the workers who went on strike, as is currently the case. The government also proposes that job re-instatement takes place with a final written warning, provided their offer gets majority union support. Until this happens, the government’s official position is that no workers should be reinstated and the lump sum deductions should continue. The Health Department’s reinstating shows the disarray in the employers’ ranks and that the threat of mass dismissals of health workers was politically unenforceable.

The ANC government suffered setbacks over its attitude towards other essential services. The Labour Court ruled that non-uniformed staff in the police and prisons could not be prohibited from striking. The Labour Court also declared the dismissal of health workers in a clinic specializing in the provision of treatment for HIV/Aids, run by Medicins Sans Frontiers, in the black township of Khayelitsha in the Western Cape, to be ‘unconstitutional’ in a case brought by the Treatment Action Campaign.

The government’s embarrassment over the proposals of its remuneration committee’s recommendation to increase the salaries of government ministers’ and the president by between 30% and 57%, was compounded by the howls of outrage by judges at proposals to increase their salaries by lesser amounts (but considerably higher than what public servants were offered).

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) leaders, in particular, could also have taken advantage of the ANC’s deepening divisions and the turning of the tide against the Mbeki leadership faction by picketing the ANC policy conference that took place, last week. But a leadership that claimed it was involved in a battle to reclaim the ANC for the working class opposed demands by members to picket the conference.

The strike objective of a 12% pay increase was not attained. The 7.5% increase has already been undermined by the increase in inflation to 6.5%, interest rates to 13%, a further increase in the fuel price, and with food inflation set to go even higher than the current 20%. Despite this, the public sector strike brought about a turning point in the relations between the classes and in the political situation in the country.

Mass action forced government concessions

The working class saw a magnificent display of their power in the public sector. For the first time, the government was forced by mass action to improve its offer. The ANC government’s class character brought out in sharp relief in this dispute. The ANC showed contempt towards the unions, including by offering to "workshop" them on the contents of its paltry pay package and on the "economic implications" of a double digit salary increase. These actions only reinforced the hollowness of President Mbeki’s keynote address to recent ANC policy conference. Mbeki claimed the ANC was a "people’s movement", determined to resist pressure to convert from being a liberation movement into a modern political party. He stated the ANC recognised the working class as the "motive force of the national democratic revolution."

The facts of the recent strike speak volumes about the character of the ANC. The government’s determination to dismiss essential service workers, the intimidation of striking workers, the use of tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to attack striking workers - all this will leave an indelible imprint on mass consciousness. The argument of ANC supporters that the strike was against "the government as employer and not the ANC" (as if the ANC suffers from some form of multiple political personality disorder!), was heard only once publicly this time, so discredited has this tired old argument become.

That the ANC is a party committed to capitalism and which represents the interests of the aspirant black capitalist class and big business was confirmed by the outcome on the debates at its policy conference. Although the majority of ANC members supported the public sector workers’ demands it was not even debated at the conference. The much more important business at hand was to keep the ANC on the course it had been over the first 13 years of post-apartheid democracy - creating, in Mandela’s words from 1956, when he commented on the radical Freedom Charter, the conditions for the rise of a rich black capitalist class to use. The ANC’s pro-capitalist policies were endorsed. At best, they will be softened by some limited state intervention. Not even the proposal for free education, or on a basic income grant, were firmly adopted as a recommendation to the end of the year’s ANC ‘elective conference’.

Political character of ANC

A resolution by the ANC Youth League describing monopoly capital as the enemy of the "national democratic revolution" was defeated in commission and never made it to plenary (full conference meetings). Instead, the role of the private sector in the development of the economy was reaffirmed. Mbeki used his key note address to increase the misery of the South African Communist Party’s bankrupt policies. He advised the party that just as the ANC would never presume to impose its national democratic agenda on the SACP, so too the SACP had no right to impose its "socialist agenda" on the ANC.

Mbeki dismissed beforehand as mere propaganda predictions that the ANC policy conference would be dominated by the presidential succession battle. However, that is exactly what dominated proceedings. The Zuma (former deputy president, Jacob Zuma) and Mbeki ANC leadership factions are involved in mortal combat. But this is a struggle for power, influence and control of the public trough. Only in the most indirect way is it a distorted reflection of the class polarisation so clearly on display in the public sector dispute.

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM - CWI in South Africa) was the only left organisation that consistently communicated with workers during the strike by way of three editions of the DSM special strike leaflets, which were warmly accepted by strikers. In Johannesburg, workers could be seen closely studying the leaflet and then neatly folding it and putting it away. People from areas like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Shepstone near the Kwa Zulu Natal/Eastern Cape border contacted the DSM.

Our call for Cosatu workers to take the trade union federation out of the Tripartite Alliance is finding an increasing echo. Many workers remarked that the independent unions, by and large, showed greater consistency, determination and clarity concerning the strike demands and on the prosecution of the strike.

The Democratic Socialist Movement calls for the lessons of the strike to be urgently digested by the workers’ movement in preparation for the coming class battles. This includes struggling for unions democratically controlled by the rank and file, which will successfully resist the neo-liberal attacks of the ANC government.

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