- Unions are consulting members about whether to go ahead with a strike over wages.
- The government appears to be betting on financial pressures deterring strike appetite, while analysts say these pressures may strengthen labour’s resolve.
- Meanwhile, government is expected to start paying the unilaterally implemented 3% increase in public service wages from next week.
- For more financial news, go to the News24 Business front page.
Unions spent Monday gauging the appetite for a full-blown strike among their members, with the Cosatu-bloc of public service unions set to announce their plans on Wednesday.
However, analysts say the government is counting on unions’ strike ambitions being undermined by financial household pressures, a possible low strike appetite, and the working year winding down for the festive season.
Meanwhile, their salaries will increase next week, as government begins to pay its unilaterally implemented 3% wage increase for the public service,
Acting Public Service and Administration Minister Thulas Nxesi invoked section 5 of the Public Service Act, which allows the minister to implement an increase without majority unions settling.
READ | Possibility of 800 000-strong public sector strike looms as unions weigh options
While the Public Servants’ Association (PSA) has had a strike certificate and placed the government on strike notice, they have not officially started their industrial action. However, the 235 000-strong union is currently picking government offices.
PSA general manager Claude Naicker said the union was continuing with pickets as well as a planned march on Thursday. Naicker said if the union’s strike in the public service commences and becomes protracted, the PSA had a fund in place to pay striking members.
“We will have to assess the balance of the fund and the appetite if it [a strike] becomes protracted. We will check with our provinces and then plan the way forward from there,” said Naicker.
Four other unions – National Education, Health, and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa), the Police, Prisons, and Civil Rights Union (Popcru), and the Health and Other Personnel Services Trade Union (Hospersa) – have received certificates of non-resolution in the deadlocked public service wage talks.
Like the PSA, Popcru also has a strike fund, but spokesperson Richard Mamabolo said “it is currently premature to consider” using it.
Mamabolo said Popcru was in the process of canvassing membership for a mandate on whether to strike and that union leadership should know the results of that process by the end of this week.
Much of Popcru’s membership in the public service is employed in areas that constitute an essential service, and cannot go on strike. However, the union can apply pressure with lunchtime pickets.
Denosa spokesperson Sibongiseni Delihlazo said the union would provide an update about its stance at Wednesday’s briefing.
Hospersa said senior management was holding meetings to discuss whether they should join the briefing on Wednesday.
Running out of excuses
Economist Thabi Leoka said the public wage talks would continue to be tough, especially since the unions and the government remained deadlocked this far into the process.
“Over the years, there has been a stalemate in the last round. In 2020 unions felt government reneged on the 2018 agreement, but government won in court because of the economic climate and Covid-19.
“But now government cannot use that excuse and unions have more ammunition than the first time around. There is a surplus and inflation is 7.5%. They can also argue that the cost of living is high and their current salary is being eroded,” said Leoka.
READ | Govt strike: Police, nursing unions issued with non-resolution certificates
Leoka said the government was in a tough position and might have to capitulate in some way if it underestimated the resolve of the public service unions.
“When it comes to industrial action, there could be fatigue and the timing may be wrong. If it was in January the impact might be greater. Having said that, there is a lot of desperation and the extent to which people enjoy their festive season if they don’t secure a larger increase,” Leoka said.
Labour analyst Terry Bell said although the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union reluctantly accepted the 3% wage offer in September, the teachers he spoke to were angry about the situation. He said government’s reneging on the 2018 wage agreement, which the Constitutional Court upheld, was also a sore point for unions.
“I think the PSA is one union in this country that has a substantial strike fund. One of the main problems with a strike is that people get starved back to work and need help. The PSA can actually help their people. But people are so angry because of what happened in 1999 and 2018.
“I can’t see this thing resolved, because government is looking at a long-term fight and a lot more resentment, because of all the anger around what happened last time. The courts might have turned it down, but they did it on a technicality,” said Bell.
Bell said the government seems to be hoping to get away with the implementation of 3% by betting on the difficult financial times that most South African households are facing.
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