On 10 November the first national strike against the ANC-government’s assault on public sector pay took place. The Public Service Association (PSA), representing 230,000 of South Africa’s 1.2 million public sector workers, downed tools for one day following a week of lunchtime pickets. Marches in several towns and cities ensured the voice of public sector workers was heard.
The action was potentially an important beginning for a public sector-wide general strike that is long overdue. The ANC-government announced its intention to cut public sector pay by R160 billion ($9.23 billion) in its 2020 budget. Towards this end it first ripped-up a three-year pay deal that was signed in 2018, unilaterally cancelling the increases that had been agreed for 2020/21, the final year of the deal. This was an attack, not only on pay, but on collective bargaining itself. It was upheld by the courts, the precedent adding to a growing arsenal of anti-strike legislation. Inevitably, this led to the collapse of multi-year wage agreements in the public sector.
After failing to organise strike action in response to this huge attack, a majority of public sector trade union leaders then settled for a below-inflation pay award for 2021/22. Emboldened, and following the collapse of this year’s wage negotiations and the failure of conciliation, the ANC-government unilaterally imposed its “final” 3% offer on workers – a wage cut in real terms after taking into account nearly 8% inflation. The leaderships of the teachers unions – led by Cosatu affiliate Sadtu – have already rolled over and accepted this further emboldening the government.
Ever since the victorious 2007 and 2010 public sector strikes the government and the capitalist class have been determined to roll back the gains made by public sector workers. These have benefitted not just public sector workers themselves but their immediate and extended families. It has enabled the working class to partially absorb some of the unceasing attacks on living standards that escalated after the 2008 world economic crisis. The capitalist class sees the battle against the public sector workers as part of a wider war against the working class in which a key objective is to cripple collective bargaining and strip unions of their power. The public sector workers’ struggle is therefore also one in defence of trade union rights.
Hardening the government’s position today is the rapidly deteriorating world economic situation. The cost of servicing debt, already the fastest rising budget item, and consuming more than the entire health budget, is poised to race upward. In addition, the government is taking on new debt to finance the budget deficit.
“Unity” Call Welcome
Notwithstanding the fact that the PSA has taken action, so far, the bark of the wider trade union leadership has been far worse than their bite. The 10 November strike, welcome as it is, will not have left the government quaking in its boots. That is why Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana – a former metalworkers’ leader – in a display of contempt, did not even bother to turn-up to receive the memorandum of demands that workers had marched to the Treasury to deliver to him. In fact on the day of strike News24 reported that Godongwana had in an interview threatened retrenching public sector workers in order to cut wage costs, something he justified as “a matter of duty”, duty of course to capitalism not the working class. To shake the government’s resolve is going to take much more – the unity in action of all the federations mobilising the entire public sector workforce.
However, South Africa’s trade union movement is split across four federations, three of which have trade unions represented in the public sector bargaining council. Two federations dominate the council – the ANC-aligned Cosatu and the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa). Fedusa’s roots lie in the predominantly white-collar white unions of the apartheid-era of racial segregation. However, with the de-racialisation of the civil service, the membership composition of Fedusa affiliates such as the PSA has changed significantly. The new Saftu federation, formed out of a 2015 split in Cosatu, has only two smaller unions represented in the bargaining council.
More than a week after the government imposed 3% there are few signals from the public sector trade union leaders that the seriousness of the situation facing, not just public sector workers, but the entire working class, is understood, or that a fightback on the scale necessary is being prepared, despite all unions now having strike certificates for legal action.
On 10 November the PSA’s spokesperson appealed to the other federations to join forces in further action. This is encouraging and represents a welcome break from the position Fedusa has taken thus far. The Fedusa leadership’s positions up until now made it seem more likely that, having been forced by the anger of the members to take action, it would then seek to dissipate it as quickly as possible. In the past the PSA leadership has shown a readiness to take cover at the first whiff of grapeshot; to capitulate at the first opportunity and to avoid action. During last year’s wage negotiations assistant PSA general manager, Reuben Maleka for example, accepted the government’s claim that it does not have money as part of the excuses for backing away from action. But the government’s false argument of a lack of money will apply at least until the end of this decade. Maleka’s position is thus a recipe for complete surrender.
Despite this, PSA members have acted, whatever the motives of the leadership. But if there is still no unity in action, the Cosatu and Saftu leadership would be equally, if not more to blame. The silence of these federations is therefore completely inexcusable. Sufficient time has elapsed since “strike certificates” were issued for balloting to have been completed and strike notices served.
Lack of Leadership
Cosatu is likely engaged in a frantic scramble behind the scenes to try and persuade the ANC-government to make any concession that can give them a cover for avoiding action in the face of an extremely angry membership. Cosatu members refused to allow the ANC to address their National Congress in September after having previously chased President Ramaphosa away from their May Day rally, precisely over the attacks on public sector pay. With the sights of leaders like Cosatu president Losi and others set firmly on the positions they have been nominated for in the ANC NEC, they might not be inclined to disturb the peace ahead of the ANC’s critical December congress. They do not want to undermine their eligibility for the rewards of office that come with betraying their members.
At the time of writing none of Cosatu’s public sector union leaders have made a clear statement on the way forward. There is a deafening silence. Most say that a consultation, or balloting process, was underway, the results of which would be known by 11 November. But currently, days after this self-announced deadline, there is still silence. Nor is there any indication of what the Cosatu leadership is recommending to their members as the way forward in these consultations, in other words, it is not clear if they are providing any leadership.
The Saftu leadership on the other hand is to the left of Fedusa, at least by tradition, and free from the political prison of the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance in which Cosatu remains incarcerated. Yet it has not placed itself at the forefront of an active campaign for a public sector general strike. Unlike the other federations, Saftu has at least taken concrete steps to forge unity in action in the National Shut Down of 24 August (see here for our review of the Shutdown). It has direct experience of the impact that the call for workers unity had on the Cosatu rank-and-file under whose pressure their leaders were compelled to join the action. Its failure to follow through on the promise that 24/8 would be the “start” of a rolling campaign is incomprehensible. The anger of the public sector workers across all federations, especially at the Cosatu congress, and the general mood for action, handed the Saftu leadership the opportunity to translate words calling for rolling mass action into deeds.
Organise from Below
None of this will be filling public sector workers with confidence that all-out strike action, notwithstanding the burning anger that exists, can be successful. For workers to be prepared to sacrifice pay in strike action they need some minimal assurances that their leaders are serious about waging a determined struggle. The absence of any indication of meaningful unity across the federations will be weighing on workers’ minds.
Workers will need to organise to move their leaders. In every area, joint-strike preparation committees should be created to bring together workers across federations. These could be created by joint-meetings of local and provincial structures. The Sadtu leadership should be defied with an appeal to teachers to participate. All decisions about the conduct of the strike and what concessions would be sufficient to end it must rest with the rank-and-file. Whilst preparing on the ground workers should demand that a national coordinating structure is created, supplemented by representatives of rank-and-file workers from local-level strike committees.
A strategy to mobilise beyond the ranks of the trade unions is needed. Public sector workers need to reach out to community organisations asking for solidarity on the basis that a public sector pay strike is simultaneously a strike in defence of the public services that communities rely upon. This should involve a campaign of sending shop stewards and worker-activists to community meetings to explain the issues. Newly created joint-strike committees would be able to reach out to workers in the private sector, communities and the youth and draw them into a campaign of rolling mass action embracing the entire class.
Open a Political Front
The issue of public sector pay, perhaps like no other at this point in the class struggle, underlines the urgent necessity of opening a political front in the class struggle. The wider-issues of fiscal policy, of the national debt and the government budget, of the role of the banks and the financial sector, of the global bond markets etc. are inseparable from the struggle over public sector pay. So too are the accumulating attacks on collective bargaining. But these are political issues that can only be solved with a political response from the entire working class.
This conclusion is being increasingly drawn by workers. Cosatu, under the pressure of its members, will debate their federation’s continued allegiance to the ANC at a special congress next year. This places them on a path pointing in the direction to where Saftu is today – outside the Tripartite Alliance. However, it would appear that the Saftu leadership is recoiling from the political path it has been on, not only since its foundation, but especially since the 2018 Working Class Summit (WCS). The declaration to form a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme adopted by 147 community youth and trade union formations there is being kept in cold storage. The Saftu leadership has ignored calls for the convening of the WCS Steering Committee. Similarly the undertaking to convene a “Political” WCS seems to have been buried alongside the Steering Committee itself. Yet the conditions for the creation of a workers’ party could not be more favourable.
The Saftu leadership must urgently set a date for the re-convening of the WCS and invite Cosatu workers to send delegates, with the promise that the summit itself will set a date for the launch of a mass workers party on a socialist programme. The mobilisation for a public sector strike by both the trade unions and working class communities, united under the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all”, would be the perfect vehicle for the mobilisation of the forces to convene at the Political Summit. Therefore, we demand again: RE-CONVENE THE WORKING CLASS SUMMIT! SET A LAUNCH DATE FOR THE WORKERS’ PARTY!