Threats of a massive public sector strike next month are being undermined by disunity in the public sector trade unions. The Public Servants Association of SA (PSA), trade unions affiliated to Cosatu and the Federation of Unions of SA (Fusa) declared a deadlock last week.
This was after government negotiators doubled down on National Treasury’s stance that there was no money to foot the bill for the proposed salary increases linked to inflation plus 4%.
Instead, government’s “revised offer” came in the form of a proposal that the funds currently allocated for pay progression, resettlement costs for workers from one province to the other and daily allowances no longer be paid out.
This money would instead be channelled towards the salary increases that public sector workers are demanding.
While it’s understood that all the unions outrightly rejected government’s latest offer, describing it as “absurd”, the challenge appears to be finding common ground regarding a blueprint of how they can work together as they take on government.
At present, it appears the public sector unions are all working independently while pursuing the common goal of getting the department of public service and administration to buckle and table a revised offer.
The PSA, according to its general manager Reuben Maleka, presented the “absurd” offer from government to their members, and it was rejected.
Maleka said the union was in the process of drafting conciliation papers, which he expects will be filed this week.
City Press reached out to but did not get a response from SA Democratic Teachers’ Union general secretary Mugwena Maluleke, who is also Cosatu’s public service unions’ chief negotiator, or Nehawu’s deputy general secretary December Mavuso on whether the Cosatu-affiliated unions had filed their conciliation papers.
There was also no response from unions affiliated to Fusa on the steps they were taking to address the deadlock.
The conciliation process, facilitated by the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council, takes the form of a hearing where a panellist meets with the parties involved in the dispute and explores ways to reach a settlement in an effort to avert the pending public sector strike.
While the commissioner or panellist may start the meeting between the affected unions and the employer, City Press understands that, because the unions cannot reach consensus and have not make a joint submission, the parties might have to meet the mediator separately. Each party will express their concerns before a final meeting is set up for all the parties.
City Press also understands that a “private facilitator” appointed by government, who has been sitting in on the bargaining council meetings leading up to the stalemate, might be involved in the conciliation process.
A source close to this year’s wage negotiations told City Press that although there was an expectation that the public sector unions would meet following the stalemate with government, such an undertaking had not yet materialised, with unions choosing to “go it on their own”.
The source added that this would most likely undermine their threats of “mass industrial action”.
The PSA indicated that it expected some sort of industrial action next month, but had not expressed whether this would be done jointly with other unions. Other unions, while also indicating that the strike was unavoidable, had not decided when the mass action would start and whether they would do it in unison.
This was deeply worrying because the employer, the department of public service and administration, could exploit such disunity.
“Also, a fragmented strike action will not bring government to its knees. It’s only when these unions start speaking in one voice and taking one course of action that government will start taking their demands seriously,” said the source.
Neither Maleka nor Maluleke responded to questions on whether the public sector unions were reluctant to work together and what this lack of understanding could be attributed to.
Should the conciliation process fail, as it was largely expected to, the unions would apply for a strike certificate that would officially allow them to embark on protected industrial action.