Cape Town - Furious debates about whether to sign or dispute the latest public sector pay deal are now underway at all levels within Cosatu-affiliated public sector unions following the decision by one of their number, police and prisons union, Popcru to agree to the deal.
Critical to whether the deal goes through or not is the stance of the largest of these affiliates, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) together with the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu).
Nehawu and Sadtu are now consulting members while, at the same time, leaders are attending a Cosatu executive (CEC) meeting that ends on Wednesday. President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has urged wage restraint, is addressing that meeting on Tuesday.
Unions affiliated to the Federation of Unions (Fedusa), headed by the PSA (Public Servants Association) have already rejected the deal. So too has the SA Policing Union along with other, mainly small, affiliates of the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu).
However, the combined Cosatu unions probably have a majority in the bargaining council. Should they all sign, the deal will be carried.
But this majority is likely to be challenged since, certainly in the case of Popcru, it appears that no up-to-date audited figures are available. The linking of Cosatu’s affiliation with the governing ANC and the fact that Ramaphosa is addressing the CEC, has also provided the independent unions with a propaganda bonanza.
Throughout, they have claimed that the Cosatu unions are compromised by being part of the ANC-led alliance. Even if all or most of the Cosatu unions outside of Popcru refuse to sign off on the existing deal, the government can impose it after 30 days. This happened in 2001 when then public services minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi imposed a pay and benefits deal.
The difference now is that there are more — and stronger — unions outside of Cosatu. And Cosatu unions, aware that they are being targeted for being in thrall to the ANC and in danger of losing members as a result, may also adopt a more militant approach than before.
At the core of the dispute are two issues: how the official cost of living index is compiled and the narrowing of the internal public sector wage gap by granting a 2% plus inflation pay rise to lower paid workers. Government insists on 1% across the board.
* Terry Bell is Fin24's Inside Labour columnist.
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