WHAT IS THE WAY FORWARD FOR PUBLIC SECTOR WORKERS?

by Apr 19, 2022Amandla Issue 81, Articles, Labour

Amandla! interviewed Nehawu’s Sidney Kgara 

Amandla!: The Constitutional Court recently ruled that government does not have to honour collective bargaining agreements if they “can’t afford” to do so. From Nehawu’s point of view, what are the key elements of this judgement? 

The judges are now entering the space of neoliberal logic. They are saying there are competing interests. And government cannot satisfy the interests of a smaller group of public service workers at the expense of the larger population.

Sidney Kgara: Treasury wants to ensure that its fiscal framework, once it’s set, cannot be changed by any department. Arising from that, it reduces the collective bargaining at the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC) to almost like an advisory structure, such as you had in the 1970s in the apartheid government. Effectively, what it means is that when the PSCBC agrees to salary adjustment and benefits, where they may have fiscal implications, upon signing the agreement it will not be final until the Treasury approves. 

But the overarching implications are that the judges are now entering the space of neoliberal logic. They are saying there are competing interests. And government cannot satisfy the interests of a smaller group of public service workers at the expense of the larger population. Meanwhile, we know that in addition to cuts in the Public Service wage bill, the budget was also proposing tax cuts, including corporate tax cuts.

And as a larger, overarching issue, the government is sending a message to other employers in the wider economy, that they can just walk away. And that’s also in keeping with the National Development Plan, which has a section that speaks about more flexible collective bargaining arrangements. And if you read the IMF’s Report on its consultations with the South African government, it strongly includes the need for stronger action in relation to public service wages. So there’s a policy achievement also simultaneously. 

A!: In the light of the judgement, what’s the way forward for Nehawu and other public sector unions in collective bargaining? How do you get back the ability to collectively bargain?

SK: As we speak, we are preparing for the Public Service Summit, which is happening at the end of March. The government is showing some contradictions. On the one hand it supports the theme of the Summit to be strengthening and defending collective bargaining. But on the other hand it is attacking collective bargaining. And then questions arise as to who are we defending collective bargaining from.

We think this agenda will give us an opportunity to actually address what is happening to public sector collective bargaining, and why we need to defend it. Government must clarify, in writing, the status of its PSCBC mandating team. And we have made it clear in our document that we cannot negotiate with any mandating team that excludes the Treasury. 

A!: So Treasury has to be present because, without Treasury present, you don’t talk to the people who matter. And negotiations have to take place before the budget is finalised. And then there is a third issue, which your statement covers – that you can’t have any more multi-year agreements, because of course they will simply come and say it was fine last year but since then, these following things have happened. So we can’t afford it anymore. 

SK: Yes. But in my understanding of the budget cycle, there is no earlier time to bargain. Tito’s first budget set out clear targets in terms of the fiscal framework for the deficit, for the full term. So everybody else can only work within that framework of restricting debt to 78% of GDP, and wanting to have a surplus budget at around 2025. 

A!: That leads, surely, to the point that there is actually no technical solution to this issue. There is only a political solution. The struggle of public sector workers is actually inseparable from the struggle against the whole government strategy of austerity – the budget cuts, for example of education and health over the next three years, the intensified commitment to privatising energy and transport. All of this is part of the same story. And it can’t be dealt with in a confined kind of collective bargaining way. So the question then is does Nehawu – and does Cosatu – have the will to support that kind of a movement to challenge the government’s economic strategy?

The organised workers are the primary backbone who can sustain action and make it effective for a longer time.

SK: Of course. That’s even what we said in our statement in responding to the budget. But we also know that there isn’t much appetite for mobilising, from other quarters in Cosatu and outside. Government has been successful in driving the narrative and neutralising the middle ground for the general petit bourgeois stratum about the problem of debt, the problem of deficit, the problem of a “bloated” public service. You will see that even among people you think understand better what’s happening, Not necessarily open agreement, but a sort of a nod in sympathy to government.

Before Covid, in 2020, our programme was going to our memberships, going back to our branches. We made a few statements. And then we realised very shortly, that hey, we’re isolated here as Nehawu.

The issue is, can you energise? Can you go back to the ground and mobilise the rest of the other forces, who can back you up when you link the issues together into one form of action? In 2020 that didn’t happen. Obviously Covid intervened. We had a few strikes, for example, the National Health Laboratory Service. But it was restricted. So there was a certain sense of mobilisation. And Nehawu Congress last year was frustrated by the fact that the conditions didn’t really permit, because comrades were saying, if other unions don’t want to go, we must go. We must die fighting. This is the basis why we rejected that agreement. We didn’t sign that agreement. And it was for the first time that Nehawu didn’t sign an agreement.

A!: So it seems at the moment that Nehawu finds itself in an alliance with others who don’t support the same fundamental position as itself, either in Cosatu or in the ANC. So who are your real allies?

SK: Our political position was clarified at the Congress: we remain within the Alliance and we support the ANC. So we are on our own, but also institutionally part of where we have always been. So we’re not on our own completely.

Secondly, many of our members still support the ANC. In fact, many of our shop stewards are branch leaders and regional leaders of the ANC. So, even though our Congress accepted that we did not have the resources to campaign for the ANC, amidst the severe financial strain that members are facing, we are still in Cosatu. And it’s still a fighting federation.

There is a view, inside and outside Cosatu, that Nehawu wants to do the Numsa thing, and this must be fought against. But simultaneously, we think that everybody knows in Cosatu that will be the last thing that Nehawu would want to do.

We fight for unity, but we want to unite on a more class-oriented radical basis. And we understand that the nature of our union as a general union, not a health union, allows us to be militant relative to others. But the banking union or the teachers or the nurses’ union, can be different. You have got to balance and sometimes you will be too much ahead of others. It will take time for them to recognise reality. And actually, most of the time, they are forced by the ground to move. For example, I can tell you that in my own personal view, the other unions that signed last year’s agreement won’t be willing to sign again this year. Because they learned a lesson that we foresaw last year.

The third point is that the issue of the willingness to fight is not only a subjective issue; it is predominantly an objective reality of an exhausted working class that has been really battered by a long period of stagnation in the economy. Even worse, by Covid. But also a sense of disillusionment as to how much strike action, for example, can change things. There is that scepticism.

Objectively, the membership of the union requires much more, but we can’t do it as one affiliate. With us, unfortunately, it will also mean we target hospitals. And in the context of Covid, I think government is really moving strongly on essential services. There was a strong move to actually stop last year’s strike in the laboratories by virtue of their function being part of the essential services. It won’t be surprising if that will also happen in relation to hospitals and patients.

So it’s very much a watershed moment where we are. And useless as most of the Public Service Summits have been, we are raising the issue of the mandating process and also the size and shape of the public service. What must be the appropriate size of the wage bill relative to GDP or relative to the budget? We’re forcing the Treasury to come to that discussion. We’re hoping it will expose certain things to other unions so that they realise. Because our arguments are showing that this is exactly the approach that the IMF has taken post-Covid, when it comes to countries that are borrowing – the wage bill to GDP ratio.

Government clearly concedes that the public service is not bloated. Their argument is that we’re overpaid. We’re challenging them to compare a doctor in the public and private health systems. Or compare teachers. And I think generally the minister and the Department of Public Service and Administration are with us on many things. You can see the contradictions, obviously with the Treasury.

A!: Yes, that’s the problem, isn’t it? That Enoch isn’t with you. The problem is that Enoch is with the IMF. And while that remains the case, there will be no fundamental change. And therefore, the only way forward is a head-on confrontation with the government about its economic strategy. You talk about other unions being behind you in recognising these kinds of things, and that it takes time. But how much time is there? The economy is really seriously being destroyed by this approach of government. 

SK: Yes, you’re right. When it is possible to fight, you must fight, even if you lose. For members it is important to see that the union has confidence, is taking the issue seriously and is fighting for them and with them. The tendency to want to analyse at a national level and have a conclusion that we’re not going to win and then do nothing is also dangerous because, over time, people would realise that we are suffering as the working class, but nothing is done.

A!: Maybe your allies are not so much in other unions as in the popular organisations around the country who are affected by these cuts and are protesting against them.

SK: That’s true. The problem is this. First of all, to be able to mobilise popular organisations in that way you need to lead via Cosatu. When we want to take a lead as Nehawu, we avoid being seen to be rivalling the federation. But at the same time, there’s some scepticism about unions in community structures, and even NGOs. When you want to have a mobilisation of that nature, the organised workers are the primary backbone who can sustain that action and make it effective for a longer time. As soon as they collapse, it will collapse.

So we’re calling for a reconfigured Alliance in which the ANC is not the leading component, and a popular left front, more or less around Cosatu and the Party. 

A!: Do you think it’s fair to be somewhat sceptical about this reconfiguring of the Alliance? It must be at least 10 years since this idea has been around. And the ANC has resisted all that time. Now, you’re saying that the trade unions are weaker than they have been before. Their members are not willing to mobilise in the same way. They’re tired and they’re battered. So, what makes anybody think that this reconfiguration could take place from a point of weakness when it wasn’t able to take place from a point of greater strength?

SK: Yes, to be sceptical. But your scepticism must also take into account reality. For example, when I say the working class is battered, I’m not just talking about our members. I’m talking about the wider working class, including the fact that 70% or so of the youth are unemployed, and you can see the impact it has in households and so on. In my view that’s the challenge that is before the Cosatu Congress this year. And if it doesn’t resolve on some of the issues facing us now, I don’t think there will be a better opportunity next time. Because then you’re right. The issues have been there on the table for a while. It is right to be sceptical.

There was a time when such views, calling for this discussion in a more robust way, were expressed by a small minority. I think now, the appreciation or the need for clarity on these strategic matters is a shared one. And it’s happening at a time when we’re developing a medium-term vision for Cosatu. Where we want to be in the next 15 years. I think that will mean we can’t just remain in the same kind of way we are. That’s my sort of militant interpretation of that. There can be different interpretations. We will see at Congress.

Sidney Kgara is head of Nehawu’s Policy Development Unit.

 

70% or so of the youth are unemployed, and you can see the impact it has in the househlds and so on. In my view that’s the challenge that is before the Cosatu Congress this year.

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