South African government makes salary offer to striking unions

The strike of 1.3 million South African government workers about salary levels shows the limits of union support for the ANC alliance and President Zuma.

Rogan Ward/Reuters
Striking hospital workers picket in front of the Albert Luthuli General Hospital in Durban on Monday, August 30. Unions representing more than 1.3 million government workers have started consulting their membership on whether they should take up a revised government salary package.

For three weeks now, South Africa’s public schools, hospitals, and other government functions have nearly ceased to function, in nationwide strikes that are as much about political power as they are about civil servant salaries.

Now there is some hope that those strikes may be about to end. Unions representing more than 1.3 million government striking workers have started consulting their membership on whether they should take up a revised government salary package. Indications are that most unions are leaning toward accepting the new offer of a 7.5 percent wage increase and R800 housing allowance, effectively bringing the strike to an end. Others say they need more time to consult with membership.

Accept the wage increase?

The National Education, Health, and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU) said the new offer was acceptable, but pointed out that the whole process needed the workers' mandate.

"Presently we are busy consulting our members on whether to accept the new offer or reject it. But the bottom line is that our union has come a long way fighting from 6.5 percent to 7 percent and now a 7.5 percent wage increase,” said Sizwe Pamla, NEHAWU spokesman.

He said NEHAWU's National Executive Committee views the new offer as short of the minimum demands of its members of a wage increase and housing allowance.

"A decision was then taken [Tuesday] to take the offer back to our members for their consideration," said Mr. Pamla.

On the surface, the strike of 1.3 million government workers – mainly teachers, nurses, clerks, immigration offers, and home affairs personnel – is about salary levels that place many civil servants just barely above the poverty line. But with the leadership of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma in deep question, the many factions that make up the ruling African National Congress are using this time to show their strength and to push the ANC not only for concessions but for greater access to power.

Limit to support

The Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) makes up the largest and most disciplined part of the ANC alliance, and one of the strongest supporters of Mr. Zuma’s candidacy for party leadership in 2007. Now, as they seek an 8.6 percent wage increase and R1,000 housing allowance – while crippling public service and leaving thousands of sick patients stranded – they are showing Zuma that their support has a limit.

COSATU, which is coordinating the strikes, said the mandate was now in the hands of its affiliate unions to take the offer to members to accepted or reject it.

"We are happy with the outcome, but once again, the ball is in our union membership’s court whether to accept the revised offer or not," said Patrick Craven, COSATU spokesman.

South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU) said they would not decide until Wednesday afternoon whether they would accept the new government offer or not. SADTU deputy secretary general Nkosan Dolop said government had showed its commitment by putting a new offer on the table.

"This time government showed some seriousness and total commitment,” said Mr. Dolop.” But I can't say much at this moment because we are still consulting with our membership. They (the membership) are the ones to give us a directive whether to take it [the new offer] or leave it."

Consultation for the Public Servants Association of South Africa (PSA), a union of civil service office workers with a membership of more than 211,000, would run until Friday, said Mannie de Clerq, PSA spokesman. "We will only be able to announce our position by Friday morning," he said.

Mr. De Clerq also emphasized that the new revised offer was "a bit serious" as opposed to previous offers which were rejected by workers.

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