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Determined strike rattles South African government

August 3, 2007 | Page 4

TERRY BELL is a South African labor journalist and member of the International Socialist Movement. He is the author of Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth. Here, he reports on the recent public-sector strike in South Africa and what it says about the future of the struggle.

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THE RECENT public-sector strike in South Africa badly rattled the government--not only because some 700,000 workers, from janitors to teachers and nurses, held out for 28 days, but because of the unity shown among workers and the 17 unions organizing in the sector.

The result was various pronouncements about a "move to the left" and the creation of a "developmental state" made at the policy conference of the governing African National Congress (ANC), which took place in the wake of the strike. This rhetoric was endorsed by the ANC's alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Both COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi--newly elected to the central committee of the SACP--and Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the SACP, hailed these vague pronouncements and pledged continuing loyalty to the alliance.

However, there was nothing new in the statements of intent. Nor was there any sign of a move away from the government's neoliberal stress on investor-friendly growth and "trickle-down" economics.

This seems likely to cause further tension within unions affiliated to COSATU, which is the largest of the four trade union federations in the country. There is already some indication that unions outside of COSATU are attracting disillusioned COSATU members.

The unity displayed during the public-sector dispute may aid this process or cause more COSATU affiliates to question the wisdom of remaining in a governing alliance that pursues economic policies directly contrary to those of the union federation.

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MOST LOCAL media--from which much of the foreign media apparently took a lead--erroneously described the public-sector action as "a COSATU strike." But unions affiliated to three of the four federations, as well as unaffiliated unions took part. And as one of the COSATU negotiators noted: "It's the unions outside COSATU that seem the most militant."

The majority of the unionized public-sector workers are in unions affiliated to COSATU, but one of the "Big Three," the Public Service Association (PSA), is an independent. The other two, the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU) and the National Education Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU) are COSATU affiliates.

But the fact that unions such as the PSA, which tends to organize skilled staff and has a reputation for conservatism, came out and held out was one of the finest indicators of the strength of grassroots feeling.

This is the most important lesson from the strike: When there is sufficient anger and unity among the rank and file, the union leaders have little choice but to ride the wave of militancy. And this was certainly a militant strike in the face of often grossly intimidatory tactics by the government.

Unions here have little or nothing in the way of strike funds, and a social welfare net is virtually nonexistent. So striking means real hardship within days, let alone weeks. Employers are therefore always quick to trumpet the "no work, no pay rule."

Yet even among the estimated 30,000 workers on the lowest wage scale, earning just R35,000 ($5,000) a year, some after 20 years of service, there was a determination to keep fighting. For them, at least, there was something of a decent victory: they had their pay scale moved up a notch while also qualifying for the eventual 7.5 percent pay rise deal. This meant a near 24 percent raise for the minority who are the most exploited.

The initial demand by the combined unions was for a 12 percent pay increase across the board, and for the lowest pay scale to be moved up by two notches to make for a 29 percent pay rise at the lowest level--to R45,000 a year, which is regarded as the minimum living wage for a family.

Against the union demand, the government, in the form of former SACP Deputy Chair and Public Service Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi offered 5.4 percent. This was increased to a "final" offer of 6 percent.

The government also wanted a four-year, rather than the previous three-year contract. This was obviously to ensure that there would be no wage and conditions battles in 2010 at the time South Africa is scheduled to stage the soccer World Cup.

Such a long-term contract was rejected out of hand by the unions and was a point they clearly won: the present deal is for one year only. In other words, as SADTU President Willie Madisha admitted, this could be seen as "a tactical retreat." Teachers in particular are not happy with the deal, but most felt they could not hold out for much longer.

They certainly held out for much longer than the government anticipated. Fraser-Moleketi--who apparently let her SACP membership lapse last year--seemed to think the unions would crack after a week. After all, they had done so six years earlier when she had simply--and illegally--announced the imposition of a 6 percent settlement. The unions retreated with hardly a whimper.

But in those days, the tensions within the governing alliance were not as acute, and Fraser-Moleketi, then still a leading member of the SACP, was able to sway a large number of the union rank and file, especially in the 194,000-strong NEHAWU. The then-NEHAWU general secretary went on to a top job in government.

Such opportunistic moves by union officials, coupled with the fact that real wages across the public sector were falling, caused rumbles of discontent. Even junior managerial staff discovered that their buying power had eroded by more than 11 percent over the past decade.

For those workers in lower wage brackets, the erosion was much higher. Because of the geographic legacy of apartheid, most workers in low-paid jobs are Black and continue to live further from their workplaces than any other workers anywhere in the world. This means high transport costs. And transport costs, largely because of the surge in oil prices, have soared, in some cases by more than 30 percent over the past two years,

At the same time, food prices have increased massively, especially for such basic items as cooking oil, bread, maize meal (a staple among most working-class families) and the cheapest meats. Between March 2006 and March this year, the average price rise for these basic commodities was 24 percent.

Poorer families here are estimated to spend more than 50 percent of their disposable income on food. Yet the official inflation rate in this grossly unequal society is calculated on the basis that the average family spends little more than 20 percent of income on food.

So the official rate of inflation (the Consumer Price Index, minus mortgage rates or CPIX) is an average of what proportion of income is spent on what by the richest and the poorest.

The prices of electronic gadgets, luxury cars, jewelry and perfumes have come down. So for top bosses--most of whom have given themselves hefty increases of 50 percent and more--inflation is probably about 7 percent. For workers, especially the low paid, often living in the sprawls of shacks on the outskirts of the cities, the increase in the cost of living is probably 20 percent and more.

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WHEN THE strike was still solid after three weeks--despite government threats, the issuing of hundreds of dismissal notices to nurses, and the use of the army medical corps as strikebreakers--the government agreed to some concessions, a major one being that dismissal notices would be withdrawn and strikers would be paid their new wages with deductions over coming months for the days on strike.

But the government would not budge beyond a "final, final" offer of 7.5 percent, which was 1.5 percent more than the initial "final" offer. So this was no clear victory for the employer. Nor was it a victory for the unions, as most worker meetings, when it became obvious that a compromise was necessary, sent mandates for a "bottom line" of 9 percent.

What the strike has left behind is a greater legacy of bitterness about the government as an employer. It has also revealed the degree of unity possible among unions from different traditions. And with only a one-year agreement in place, the scene seems set for further conflict.

It also seems certain that the labor movement as a whole has emerged stronger from the experience. As former activist and now university sociology professor Eddie Webster told the City Press newspaper: "It was a vital strike because for the first time in the history of the labor movement in this country, it brought both Black and white workers together on such a large scale.

"This was not a COSATU strike, not [of any other federation], but a strike for all South African workers."

What this means is that the class war is again emerging strongly from beneath the blanket of ethnicity, race and color that nationalism cast over it. This spells trouble for the COSATU and SACP leaderships if they persist in loyally tailing the ANC in government.

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