Let's concede, for the sake of argument, that the protected right to strike is legitimate. If so, do our striking public sector workers deserve what they demand? Or are they worthy only of contempt?
Does anyone care whether striking teachers, nurses and other public-sector workers have a case?
They claim they earn too little, and deserve an increase of 8.6%. This is more than twice the consumer price inflation rate of 4.2%. That is before counting the R1 000 housing allowance they demand in addition to this boon. For a mid-ranking public sector worker, this “allowance” amounts to an additional 11.4% in fringe benefits, which would make the total demand, on average, almost five times the rate of inflation. When last did you see a 20% jump in your pay packet?
There is a good argument against the notion of protected strikes in the first place, because it grants employees the power of blackmail when they fail to reach a voluntary agreement with employers. Workers are far from weak in wage negotiations, despite being cast as powerless victims by those who champion unionism and collective action.
Let us concede the protected right to strike, however, for the sake of this argument. After all, it is the law.
If so, can anyone offer a reason why strikers shouldn’t be denied, and the strike shouldn’t be broken, by force if necessary? I can’t think of any.
Let’s start with the question of whether they are they worth the money they demand.
Considering the two most prominent striking sectors, health and education, the data suggests not.
A recent Newsweek survey, in which it uses public data to rank the world’s best countries, places South Africa 82nd out of 100, behind such stellar locations as Iran, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Indonesia.
The country does surprisingly well on grounds of economic dynamism, which considers GDP growth, investment in innovation, and ease of doing business. Economically, it scores about six on a scale of one to ten, and ranks 22nd out of the 100 countries evaluated.
In terms of the political environment, which rates political freedom, participation and stability, South Africa is also well-respected, ranking 31st.
Despite these highlights, however, average quality of life is dragged down to a ranking of 88th by poverty and high unemployment.
Worst of all are a 92nd place for health, which is heavily affected by AIDS mortality, and and astonishing 97th place for education, outperforming only Ethiopia, Yemen and Burkina Faso.
Is this what we pay our teachers and nurses for?
One might argue that workers are not at fault for the policy failures of their employers, and that those have indeed been quite spectacular.
The notion of outcomes-based education, a delusional philosophy which has long since failed even in wealthy countries with far more resources, has had to be abandoned. It succeeded only in creating a new “lost generation” of children, who lack even modest skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. As a consequence, masses of school-leavers are wholly unprepared for further education or the job market by the time the government is done with them.
The murderous vacillation about a response to the scourge of AIDS, too, has taken a heavy toll, making South Africa one of the few countries in which life expectancy has gone against the global trend, as has plummeted to a mere 48.
As much as government policy is responsible for these tragic failures, they do not exonerate the people who are employed in order to deliver basic services to the people. In a private organisation, competition would have dealt harshly with such failure. Lavish increases of four or five times the rate of inflation would have been entirely out of the question.
Consider too that South Africa has a formal unemployment rate, by the most conservative measure, of 24%. Consider that a mid-level public sector worker already earns 40% above the national average income. Consider that the rest of the country, far from expecting increased pay, has had to tighten its collective belt in the face of tough economic times.
In this light, the demands of public sector workers appear truly outrageous.
Even if the demands were reasonable, however, the behaviour of striking workers has destroyed whatever claim they might have had to legitimacy for their demands.
With callous disregard for the rights and even lives, of others, they rampaged through streets, schools and hospitals. The news reports late last week became ever more nauseating. They interrupted operating theatres, blocked hospital emergency entrances, and interfered with the operation of neonatal and intensive care units. They intimidated, often with violence, those who did not participate in the strike, or who volunteered try to save lives by trying to keep basic, essential services going. They have caused untold damage to property, both private and public. They turned on alternatives to state-provided services, marching on private hospitals, schools, and even day-care centres. They have threatened the lives and property of the fellow-citizens, with callous disregard for both common decency and the law.
The behaviour of striking workers has been nothing short of disgraceful. They are a discredit to their professions, and to their nation. A mere month after the euphoric national pride generated by our impressive staging of the World Cup football tournament, people are declaring themselves ashamed of their fellow South Africans.
Not all striking workers deserve this level of opprobrium, of course. Many really do work hard to make a difference, in trying circumstances. Many work for modest pay because their service to others is a calling. They deserve our respect and admiration.
However, their peers have brought shame on them.
The decent thing for the unions to do is to concede that even if their demands once were reasonable – questionable though that is – they have now lost all vestiges of moral legitimacy.
It is too late merely to condemn unlawful actions on the part of members. Accept the wage offer of government and order members back to work. Try to regain some trust and honour by showing the citizens who pay the public servants that their service is worth the expense. Demonstrate that these workers really are committed to building a better South Africa, instead of demolishing what little remains of the crumbling façade of public education and healthcare.
Failing that, break the strike by any means necessary. Meet violence with force. Pay the private sector to deliver the services that the government couldn’t deliver even before its employees decided that public service was too good for them.
As for the striking public sector workers, they deserve nothing but our contempt, framed in a letter of summary dismissal.
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