June 15, 2007

Public sectors on strike

South African trade unions have launched one of the biggest national strikes of the post-apartheid era in a move seen by some commentators as spearheading the left's challenge to win control of the ruling African National Congress ahead of next year's presidential election. The unions called out hundreds of thousands of members in support of public sector workers who have already been on strike for a fortnight, forcing schools to close and hospitals to treat only emergency cases. Municipal workers have also joined the strike, shutting down rubbish collection, maintenance of power supplies and public transport.
The unions wanted a 12% wage increase but have lowered their demand to 10%. President Thabo Mbeki's government has increased its offer to 7.25%, well below inflation. Striking workers joined protests in major cities including Johannesburg, where some held up signs reading: "The ANC government is a replica of the then apartheid government."
Millions of children have been kept out of school just ahead of their exams. The government has fired hundreds of striking nurses and sent soldiers into some hospitals to work in the wards and protect staff who have not joined the protest. Critics say the strike has already cost lives after paramedics attending to accident victims were turned away from some hospitals, and a baby died after nurses refused to allow its mother into a hospital.
Underpinning the strike is the looming power struggle for control of the ANC at its national congress in December ahead of next year's general election. South Africa's trades union confederation, Cosatu, which has 1.8 million members, is part of the ruling alliance with the ANC and the Communist party. Its leadership has fallen out badly with President Mbeki over economic policy, accusing him of enriching a small black elite at the expense of the majority of poor. Public sector workers are a prime example of qualified workers who survive on low pay - nurses earn as little as £250 a month.
Jovial Rantao, political columnist for Johannesburg's Star newspaper, described the strike as a political strategy beyond pay issues. "This is war, a show of force by the unions after 12 years of being bludgeoned into submission in the ruling alliance," he wrote.
South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki strongly condemned the violence and intimidation which has occurred in the ongoing strike. "I should at the same time express my strongest condemnation, as would all law-abiding citizens, of the irresponsible element that has used the negotiation process to engage in unacceptable criminal activities," President Mbeki told MPs. "All of us should ask ourselves, what kind of society we are building and what moral lessons we are imparting when insults, violence against fellow workers and damage to property become the stock-in-trade during protests of this kind." Mbeki explained that society did not benefit from such activities, "neither do workers themselves, in whose name these acts of thuggery are committed." He added that government's work to strengthen the capacity of the state also involved recruiting into the public service and retaining individuals with skills.
"Indeed, in the present salary negotiations, among other things, government is proposing the introduction of a new salary structure which would appropriately reward professionals in the medical, nursing and legal fields as well as educators and social workers," the President said. "I therefore trust that worker representatives will utilise the existing channels to look closely at the proposals on the table in order to reach an agreement that, inter alia, would benefit the professionals in the public service, and therefore the public whom they are employed to serve."
ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma commented that South Africa's public sector strike should have been avoided and was damaging the country's image abroad. He said negotiations since the start of the strike on June 1 indicated compromise between government and unions was possible and should have been explored beforehand. "I don't think it is doing any good for the country," Zuma stressed, one day after thousands of extra workers joined the stoppage. "I think that both parties should have found a solution before the strike." My understanding is that some movements have been done (in negotiations) which indicates they could have been before the strike."
The government meanwhile also accused the unions of failing to explain their revised offer to their members and took out adverts in newspapers to give details of how its offer included increases on housing and medical allowances. "Part of the difficulty we think we as a government have is actually that there has not been sufficient reporting back: the negotiators and their members were not informed properly about the details of the negotiations," government spokesperson Themba Maseko told public television.
In the meantime, the government has instructed banks to recall the full salary payments of striking public servants. The action is expected to fuel protesters' anger because they have not been on strike for a whole month. In a memorandum circulated at First National Bank branches, the bank says that in the past couple of days various government departments have requested banks to recall salary payments. "All these requests have been processed. Government employees approaching branches and enquiring about non-payment of salaries must be advised to contact their employer," says the memorandum. "FNB is not responsible for actions taken by the employer."
Unions greeted the news with anger and dismay. They said they had instructed their lawyers to look into the matter. "I don't need to tell you what this is going to cause. It looks like a blanket recall that makes no distinction between who has been on strike for how many days," said Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie negotiator Chris Klopper.
Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi's spokesman, Lewis Rabkin, denied any knowledge of the recall. He said it would be illegal to dock pay for the days the public servants had worked. Although public servants are aware of the principle of “no work, no pay” it appears they may not be paid for the days they did go to work. Although members of some unions have been on strike for the entire period, others participated only on certain days. FNB and the Bankers' Association of South Africa (Basa) confirmed that the government had issued instructions for deductions. "Yes, we have received an instruction from government, which we will comply with," said Xolisa Vapi, FNB spokesman. (The Guardian, London/Business Day, Johannesburg/Rts/sapa)


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