Public sector unions renew strike threat over 'pathetic' wage increase

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Nehawu will not accept a 3% wage hike offer.
Nehawu will not accept a 3% wage hike offer.
Photo: Daily Sun
  • Nine public sector trade unions say they will strike over wages.
  • But unions are less united than before over labour action
  • Many of those wishing to strike are classified as essential services
  • For more financial news, go to the News24 Business front page.

Nine public sector trade unions said on Thursday they will embark on an "indefinite strike" to force the government to raise last year's wage increase. 

The unions also said they would not attend the start of this year's wage talks, which the government had hoped would kick off on Friday at a Public Sector Co-ordinated Bargaining Council meeting. The unions said they believed the government would have nothing substantial to offer.

They included some of the biggest in the public sector – the National Education Health Workers' Union (Nehawu), the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) and the SA Police Union (SAPU). One of Cosatu's biggest affiliates – the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), and trade unions affiliated to Fedusa, did not support the action.

Fedusa, which includes the 235 000-strong Public Servants Association (PSA), supported strike action last year and held a number of one-day protest actions. Fedusa stated on Thursday that their affiliates were ready to move on and begin talks on the 2023/24 settlement. 

"We are confident that cognisant of the crippling cost-of-living crisis in the country, the employer will offer workers a reasonable increase in their cost-of-living adjustment," said the federation.

The nine unions are "engaging members to revive the mandate, mobilise and ballot them for strike action". They will launch the seven-day notice period of a strike on 22 February, the day the budget is tabled in Parliament. 

READ | Govt clarifies that 'final offer' to public sector unions is an effective 7.5%

The dispute between public servants and government dates back to 2020, when government reneged on the final year of a three-year agreement. In 2021/22, an agreement between the parties was reached, including an R1 000 (after tax) non-pensionable allowance. In 2022/23, talks deadlocked, and government unilaterally implemented a 3% increase as well as the gratuity, which it said amounted to a 7% increase.

Government has been determined to arrest the growth of the wage bill, which has outpaced CPI since 2008. Slowing down the wage bill is a key part of the strategy of National Treasury to borrow less and bring debt service costs under control.

The nine unions said on Thursday that they had not given up on their demand for a 10% increase in pensionable salaries and could only start talks on a new round with a resolution of the previous year.

In a statement, they said:

After butchering public servants in 2020/21 and 2021/22, in the current financial year of 2022/23 the employer still expects us to accept a pathetic 3% wage increase. Yet, this is a financial year in which the cost of living skyrocketed as inflation hit a 13-year record of 7.8% in July last year and remained above 7%. Statistics South Africa recently found that inflation still remains very high at 6.9% in January 2023. Clearly, 3% is not a wage increase – it is a wage cut when taking into account the rising cost of living. We consider the unilateral implementation of this 3% increase in the middle of the dispute as yet another attack on collective bargaining and undermining of representative trade unions.

But the vast majority of members in six of the nine unions – Nehawu, the Democratic Nurses Association of SA, Popcru, the SA Policing Union (Sapu), the SA Emergency Personnel Workers Union and the SA Medical Association Trade Union - are classified as essential services and may not legally strike.  

The reluctance of Fedusa unions and Sadtu to support a strike makes a successful strike in the public sector difficult. 

Deputy secretary general of Nehawu, December Mavuso, said that union leaders had not called on workers to strike last year because they wanted to give parties in the negotiations time to find each other. 

"Last year we did define our programme of action as a long haul, and we were not rushing into a strike. We are in a position now where unions have given us a mandate. Workers were ready to strike last year and have always been ready. We have now arrived at the decisive moment," he said.  

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