Public Sector Strikes Sweep through South Africa

Mis en ligne le 19 novembre 2007

One mil­lion wor­kers across South Africa went on strike June 1, shut­ting down public ser­vices throu­ghout the coun­try. While their imme­diate demand was an across-the-board pay increase, the strike also reflec­ted wor­kers’ gro­wing dis­sa­tis­fac­tion with the govern­ment led by the African National Congress (ANC) and President Thabo Mbeki. The strike is the country’s lar­gest since apar­theid rule ended in 1994.

The strike led to what one source called “a total public ser­vice shut­down,” with hos­pi­tals and schools repor­tedly par­ti­cu­larly hard hit. Courts and govern­ment offices were also affec­ted.

Strikers and sup­por­ters mar­ched on govern­ment buil­dings, picke­ted schools and hos­pi­tals, and ral­lied in all regions of the coun­try. The 16 stri­king unions ini­tially deman­ded 12 percent wage increases, though many of them repor­tedly redu­ced their demand to 10 percent a few days into the strike.

The govern­ment raised its ini­tial offer of a 5.3 percent raise to 6.5 percent, and then to 7.25 percent, but with infla­tion in South Africa at seven percent, unions say a raise lower than 10 percent doesn’t represent signi­fi­cant impro­ve­ment.
Strikers got a boost on June 13 when 600,000 pri­vate sector wor­kers joined them on the picket lines for a one-day natio­nal gene­ral strike. Strikers and sup­por­ters ral­lied in some 43 cities across the coun­try, hol­ding demons­tra­tions of up to 10,000 people.

Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) spo­kes­per­son Patrick Craven called the strike a “fan­tas­tic mani­fes­ta­tion of wor­kers’ power and soli­da­rity,” noting that many of the pri­vate sector sup­por­ters “sacri­fi­ced a day’s wages to demons­trate their sup­port for their fellow wor­kers.”

HARD LINE RESPONSE

The govern­ment took a hard line with the stri­kers. During the strike’s first week, police repor­tedly used rubber bul­lets, stun gre­nades, and water can­nons against demons­tra­tors at various picket loca­tions, inju­ring dozens of stri­kers.

While govern­ment offi­cials asser­ted that the police and mili­tary were pro­tec­ting non-stri­king wor­kers who tried to get past the picket lines, COSATU condem­ned “employers’ inti­mi­da­tion and bul­lying antics.” Eight of the stri­king unions are COSATU affi­liates.

Health care wor­kers, and nurses in par­ti­cu­lar, were the focus of govern­ment ire. On June 10, after repea­ted threats, the govern­ment fired some 600 stri­king nurses, saying that their wal­kout was ille­gal. Under South Africa’s Labour Relations Act, wor­kers pro­vi­ding “essen­tial ser­vices,” such as nurses and police, can be barred from stri­king.

The law does, howe­ver, allow essen­tial ser­vices wor­kers to sign “mini­mum ser­vice agree­ments” that will allow these wor­kers to strike as long as agreed mini­mum levels of ser­vice are main­tai­ned. According to Fikile Majola, gene­ral secre­tary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, the govern­ment has drag­ged its feet on signing mini­mum ser­vice agree­ments, thus seve­rely res­tric­ting nurses’ right to strike.
Majola explai­ned, “It has been seve­ral years now that we have been trying to nego­tiate a mini­mum ser­vice agree­ment.

We have now come to the conclu­sion that the govern­ment doesn’t want to nego­tiate a mini­mum ser­vice agree­ment because it wants to under­mine strike action.”
COSATU offi­cials condem­ned the nurses’ firings, cal­ling them “the sort of cal­lous pro­vo­ca­tion one would expect from the worst mave­rick employers in the pri­vate sector—unforgivable from a demo­cra­ti­cally elec­ted govern­ment put in power by the wor­king class and the poor.”

POLITICAL TENSION

Since the fall of apar­theid, COSATU and the ANC have been formal allies in South Africa’s gover­ning coa­li­tion. Recent years, howe­ver, have seen gro­wing ten­sion bet­ween the country’s lea­ding labor fede­ra­tion and ruling poli­ti­cal party. The scale and inten­sity of the cur­rent strike sug­gest that these ten­sions have erup­ted into an all-out war bet­ween the govern­ment and its mil­lions of employees.

Critics say that ANC rule has been cha­rac­te­ri­zed by gro­wing inequa­lity, mas­sive unem­ploy­ment (esti­ma­ted as high as 40 percent), fal­ling wages, and poli­cies that favor busi­ness inter­ests over wor­kers and the poor. The ANC’s pri­va­ti­za­tion of the country’s water and elec­tric ser­vices, which cut off mil­lions of South Africans’ access to both of these resources, was par­ti­cu­larly contro­ver­sial.

— William Johnson
— Labour Notes, June 2007

Editor’s Note : On June 29, South Africa’s stri­king public sector wor­kers called off their four-week strike, announ­cing a ten­ta­tive agree­ment with the govern­ment. Full details are not yet avai­lable.

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