South Africa

ANALYSIS

Unions vs government: There’s a battle royal on the horizon

Cosatu protesters in Cape Town during the Cosatu national strike in February 2019. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Unions and government are coming closer to a full-blown confrontation over wages and the number of people employed in the public sector. It has the potential to be bloody, bruising and damaging to all.

To judge from the public comments of unionists and some leaders, a confrontation between public sector workers and government is imminent. This has been many years in the making, with successive finance ministers warning about the public sector wage bill for almost a decade. 

In the past, unions held much political power in disputes of this nature. During Zuma years the ground has shifted significantly and this will have an impact on any future outcome. 

This looming dispute has the potential to make or break the union movement – and it could also hold the keys to our future as a nation.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s announcement in his Budget speech that the government will cut spending on the public sector wage bill by R160-billion over three years was politically dramatic. The night before, the government had sent a letter to unions telling them that it would not be able to afford the increase for workers, scheduled to start from 1 April 2020. This was despite an agreement signed two years ago that mandated the increase. 

For the government to first renege on a pay increase and then to announce dramatic wage bill cuts within 24 hours suggests that Mboweni is on the offensive. It is also clear that he would not act without the backing of President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

The unions have made the usual comments. They want Ramaphosa “to lead”. They exclaim that Mboweni has broken the trust between them and that they will not back down. 

Their main weapon — the threat of a major national strike, is tied to public sentiment.

A dramatic change in the power of unions over the past few years can’t be overstated. The number of members of unions that belong to Cosatu, the main player in the workers’ block, has dropped from 2.2-million in 2013 to fewer than 1.6-million today. 

At the same time, Cosatu’s inner balance has shifted from the private-sector unions, which have declined dramatically, to the public sector unions. This has happened in many other countries too, where the number of private-sector workers who belong to unions has dropped significantly.

By default, public-sector unions will now have a bigger impact on decision-making than in the past. But Cosatu does not command the strength that a broader range of membership would bring. Public-sector unions can no longer rely on resources and finances brought into the union by private-sector unions. 

Public sentiment about unions has changed over the last decade. There was a time when unions were seen as vitally important and were supported and celebrated. Union leaders were seen as heroes. Cosatu members used to queue up for selfies with its then general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

Now, a discussion about unions on Twitter or talk radio elicits sharp criticism. The public is angry with them, and many see them as holding South Africa back.

This is backed up by numbers. At the weekend, the Sunday Times reported on a Treasury document that showed that the salaries of government workers had risen dramatically over the last decade, unlike those of private-sector workers. 

Many people have stories about being mistreated by government workers, from nurses who refused to help a woman giving birth at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital to teachers who neglected children (or simply did not arrive for work), to the drivers’ licence office that was closed for a union meeting. For citizens to be treated like this, and then to see that public sector workers are earning more than they are, is not going to lead to widespread support for industrial action.

Other dynamics have changed too.

Certain sectors have been declared essential services, which means that metro police officers and other emergency workers can no longer join a strike. This could blunt the sharpness of any nationwide action they attempt to embark upon.

However, the unions have not entirely lost their potency. 

Many disputes between unions and the government have not been solved solely in the negotiating chamber. The close political relationships between union leaders and ANC leaders and the Tripartite Alliance means there are parallel processes that could be used as well.

Cosatu is a strong supporter of Ramaphosa within the alliance and campaigned hard against former president Jacob Zuma. Without this support, Ramaphosa may overnight find his political agenda much more difficult to defend.

The president’s already in a difficult position. A long public fight with unions could help his enemies. He will have to manage this situation very, very carefully to prevent that from happening.

Unions are still capable of mobilising and organising hundreds of thousands of people. They could keep their members out of their workplace and on the streets for days at a time. This is a stark problem for the government, which must keep services running, regardless of political gains or losses for the warring parties. 

There is much at stake in the coming series of disputes. Everyone has much to lose. Politics of brinkmanship and sabre-rattling may end-up dominating this dispute, to the detriment of the entire country. DM

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