By Andile Ndlovu, Zandile Nbabela and Sapa
Unions claim victory but striking workers biggest losers, say economists
It was the tales of suffering of parents, pupils and hospital patients during the three-week public servants’ strike that inspired union members to suspend the stayaway, union leaders said yesterday.
SA Democratic Teachers’ Union president Thobile Ntola said this was why the members of all Cosatu-affiliated unions had agreed to a three-week suspension of the strike, which has crippled hospitals and schools around the country.
Ntola said the strike was suspended with immediate effect and government employees were expected to be back at work this morning.
He told reporters at the Bargaining Council offices in Centurion, near Pretoria: “This strike is not only about the increment of salaries. It’s not about housing. It’s about the delivery of public services, but this can only be done by focused, committed and passionate workers.”
In a joint statement with the Independent Labour Caucus, the unions said the next three weeks would be used “to finalise consultations on the draft [wages] agreement”.
Yesterday afternoon, while a few hundred workers danced and sang the strike song Mmakusheshe, ngoba thina sifuna imali (Let this be hasty, because we want money), union leaders were claiming victory over the government.
“The employer has failed to crush the strike and has finally succumbed … this is a victory in the history of the public-service negotiations where the employer was forced to reopen negotiations,” the union leaders said.
Ntola said the unions had taken a “quantum leap” forward in being able to “move” the government from an initial offer of an increase of 5.2% to the 7.5% offered last week.
About 1.3 million public servants rejected the government’s opening pay offer of a 7% increase and a R700 a month housing allowance. The government later increased this to 7.5% and R800.
The unions demanded an 8.6% increase, a R1000 housing allowance, and addressing other issues, including the equalisation of medical-fund payments.
The unions on Friday said they would explain the finer points of the deal to their members, many of whom have been on strike without pay for 20 days.
Yesterday, the unions said the government had “succumbed to pressure” by agreeing to backdate the wages increases to April 1. But the increases will not be phased in until May.
Public Service and Administration Minister Richard Baloyi said he welcomed the news of the strike’s suspension.
“The return to work is a welcome development for the public service and the country,” he said. “We urge those who are returning to the workplace to ensure that we deliver the services that are so sorely needed by all communities across our country.”
The Independent Labour Caucus’s Chris Klopper said the government was to blame for the protracted strike.
“Labour was not responsible for the breakdown in negotiations that lasted more than three weeks, in which we insisted that the government came to bargain and finalise the issue. They refused,” he said.
“They put an offer on the table which they said was a final offer, so we had to negotiate through the media.
“Instead, we expected the government to show statesmanship and leadership.”
Irrespective of whether the unions accept the government’s offer in three weeks’ time, economists believe that the workers have been “the biggest losers” in the strike.
Efficient Group chief economist Dawie Roodt said the “no work, no pay” policy meant that government employees had lost about 5% of their annual salary.
“That means they’ve come out of this the biggest losers if they take the 7.5% salary increase.
“The economy has also taken a significant dent,” he said.
Meanwhile, the military is taking no chances.
Defence spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini said that the 2800 defence force members – 1500 medics and 1300 soldiers deployed during the strike to 47 state hospitals in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape – will not be withdrawn untilthe Department of Health is able to assume control of the hospitals.
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said: “We believe this is a step in the right direction in ensuring stability and normality in our public sector offerings, particular around education and health services.”
DA chief whip Ian Davidson said financing the strike and the wage increases would affect the budgets of those departments that provided citizens with basic services.
“The greatest cost, of course, will most certainly be that the increased wage demands, which were made on a government fiscus that was already over-burdened and over-extended, will see the government having to source the funds elsewhere,” he said.
“Whatever the immediate victory, in the end, the short-sightedness of the unions shall only mean long-term defeat for many South Africans.