The real reasons why the public-service strike stopped

The fraught two-week public-service strike was suspended for 21 days this week because it was losing public support and members could not afford to forfeit further pay, senior unionists have told the Mail & Guardian.

The sources said that union leaders will use the three-week cooling-off period to convince their members to accept the pay offer, arguing that government’s move from a 5.2% to 7.5% increase is a major victory. Labour’s official demand is for 8,6%.

The plan is, however, to tweak the non-wage components of the government’s proposed package.

KwaZulu-Natal Cosatu leader Zet Luzipho told the M&G: “Workers were beginning to betray one another. Towards the end, some of the public schools were running as normal,” Luzipho said. “At the end the strike [turnout] was very low.”

Another provincial leader confirmed this. “The strike was petering out and anyway, only Sadtu [Cosatu’s teachers’ affiliate] and Nehawu [its health affiliate] were on strike. Other unions didn’t join us. That is why people were getting desperate to get more workers on to the streets and started to intimidate members,” said the Cosatu leader, who asked to remain anonymous.

He said that the four-week strike in 2007 had driven home to workers the fact that extended industrial action was counterproductive as lost wages would not be covered by the increase demanded.

“People are still unhappy. But this year they’re living so close to the breadline, they can’t afford to go on striking,” the leader said.

A gulf had opened up between union leaders and their members, union leaders said.

“Cosatu may have misread the anger of the people on the ground,” Luzipho said.

In Pretoria Nehawu had serious difficulty in pulling its members on to the street, though that was attributed to a lack of leadership in the region rather than members’ reluctance to strike.

“In Tshwane we assumed the leadership was ready for the strike, but it failed,” Nehawu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla told the M&G.

“Our members came out for only about three days and then went back to work.”

Union leaders were also noticing an increasing loss of public support because of strike-related violence and were concerned about losing control of their membership.

Said Pamla: “We have to explain to our members that this is a strike, not a revolution.”

New housing scheme
During the next 21 days a task team comprising labour and government will adjust the government’s offer, though not its wage component, which the government regards as final. The offer was originally crafted by a union-state task team that failed to bring militant members on board.

Public Services Minister Richard Baloyi said the talks would focus on a new housing scheme for public servants, the equalisation of medical aid and a minimum services-level agreement, which will clearly define essential services in the state sector.

“We’re not looking at rands and cents and we’re not talking about a new offer,” Baloyi said.

Union leaders will tell their members that the state’s housing offer was a victory because the higher allowance—from R500 to R800—represented a 75% increase.

Workers will be told that the new housing scheme will give public servants access to houses “of better quality than RDP houses”.

One veteran union leader who works closely with Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi singled out Vavi’s role in role in resolving the strike, saying he had facilitated meetings that pushed overnment to improve its offer without labour having to revise its demands.

“He played a large role in affecting the last two moves and this will be good for his future,” the unionist said.

“If you’re in Cosatu, what do you do after that? You can’t stay in Cosatu forever. You can go into business or the ANC. He will easily get elected as an NEC member. Even at Polokwane he would have walked into a top ANC position.”

Vavi has made it clear that he is serving his last term in Cosatu and is looking towards working inside the ANC after his long service to Cosatu.

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