Business Maverick

Public Servants Protest Action

More public sector trade unions to embark on one-day protest action over the government’s below-inflation pay increases

More public sector trade unions to embark on one-day protest action over the government’s below-inflation pay increases
The civil servants' strike on 10 November 2022 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

At least six trade unions have not declared an indefinite strike but will down tools for just one day on 22 November. The unions don’t have the appetite for a full-blown strike. They want the government to reconsider its decision to not award public servants inflation-beating pay increases in 2022.  

More public sector trade unions representing public servants are set to down tools next week to back their demands for above consumer-inflation pay rises for 2022 — an action that might paralyse key government services.

Trade unions affiliated with federations, Cosatu and Fedusa, plan to embark on a one-day protest action on Tuesday 22 November, which will involve public servants picketing across the country at government-operated facilities including hospitals, border control points, state offices, and others. 

The unions that will join the protest action include the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa), the South African Policing Union (Sapu), the Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Union of South Africa (Hospersa), and the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (Nupsaw). In a coalition, these unions have about 800,000 public servant members. This represents 62% of total public servants in the country (there are 1.3 million) that might participate in the one-day protest action.

The unions were recently awarded strike certificates by the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC) because their pay rise negotiations with the government, which started in May, have collapsed. The strike certificates allow the unions to embark on a full-blown strike after giving the government a seven-day notice. 

But the trade unions are avoiding the protracted strike route — such as the one in 2010, which lasted for 20 days and paralysed schools and hospitals. To end this strike, trade unions eventually accepted a 7.5% pay rise and an R800 monthly housing allowance.

No appetite for a sustained strike 

The reluctance of public servants to down tools is mainly due to financial household pressures — as they lose out on wages during a strike action — and the working year winding down for the festive season. Also, the negotiating power of unions had been weakened by a fairly recent ruling from the Constitutional Court, which reinforced the government’s powers and discretion to enter into collective wage agreements and renege on them when it can no longer afford to do so.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Big victory for the state as unions lose bid to force public sector wage increases”  

Any protest action proposed by trade unions so far this year has failed to secure strong support from public servants.

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First, about 350,000 teachers (also public servants), mainly members of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, have already accepted the government’s 3% pay rise offer. Second, other public servants including doctors, nurses, police, and prison officials are not able to go on strike because they are considered to be providing essential services and are prevented by the Labour Relations Act from striking. These public servants cannot participate in full-blown strikes, only in lunchtime pickets. 

Addressing the media on Thursday 17 November, December Mavuso, the deputy general secretary of Nehawu, said essential services are prepared to join the protest action next week. “We are going to mobilise all public servants — including essential services workers. Even essential services workers are ready to strike,” said Mavuso. 

Further negotiations with the government

The trade unions have not declared an indefinite strike but will down tools for just one day, paving the way for further negotiations with the government about their demands for a pay rise in 2022 of at least 6.5% or one that is linked to consumer inflation. In September, inflation was measured at 7.5%. A memorandum of demands for a higher pay rise is expected to be handed over to the government on 22 November.

The government has rejected the demands of the trade union saying it is unaffordable and is pressing ahead with implementing a 3% pay rise for public servants. 

Popcru’s first deputy president Khehla Masemola said the protest action is designed to “send a strong message to the government that public servants will not be taken for granted”. It is an ultimatum for the government to cooperate with trade unions and accede to their demands, failing which a full-blown strike might be declared.

Arguably such action barely leads to results, judging from the recent protest action by the Public Servants’ Association (PSA), which represents about 235,000 public servants. The PSA was the first trade union to declare a dispute with the government and also the first trade to be issued with a strike certificate by the PSCBC, which it hasn’t used to embark on a prolonged strike. 

Thousands of PSA members downed tools on 9 November and held marches across South Africa for one day over their unhappiness about the government’s pay rise offer. Since then, the government has gone ahead with unilaterally implementing a 3% pay rise (backdated to April this year). The government also offered public servants a R1,000 monthly cash bonus, which will run until the end of March 2023. DM/BM



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