Public Sector Strikes are about More than Just Wage Negotiations

By Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen · 29 May 2009

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Picture credit: World Bank
Picture credit: World Bank

The changed political context defined by the inauguration of President Jacob Zuma is obviously weighing on the minds of workers. Rather than making the reasonable assumption that the new administration will deliver on its promises, public service workers are rattling their sabres to remind current leadership that existing agreements are vital to long run improvements in the performance of the public service.

COSATU unions, especially those in the public service, have conducted extensive political education on the relationship between unions and dominant political parties. Shop stewards in these unions will have internalised that uncritical support for dominant political parties, usually results in the long-term decimation of worker organisations.  There is little doubt that within the unions themselves, there may be voices calling for a softer stance towards 'our government' and in this sense, workers are reminding their leaders about where their first allegiance should lie.

Nevertheless, trade unions are also acutely aware of the changes in the global economy. Many commentators would argue that these changed circumstances require a softer approach to be taken by trade unions, especially due to the impact of government settlements on inflation. This call for reasonableness, however, fails to recognise the hard-won gains by workers, who have clawed their way out of the defeat of unilateral wages in 1999.

A surprising development in South Africa today is that workers traditionally considered "high skilled professionals" in the health sector have been at the forefront of ‘wildcat strikes’.  In some respects, it suggests that current trade unions will need to fight hard to recruit or retain these members in their respective unions.  In another respects, it indicates a pervasive mood of defiance in the public service.

Whilst the wildcat strikes in the public service are linked to wage negotiations, there are a multitude of labour relations issues specific to a hospital, school, district or province that are also brought to bear. Since the last wage negotiations, there is evidence to suggest that there has been a worsening of local conditions. So whilst the breakdown of relationships in a small educational district does not make headlines, it provides the basis for mobilisation and organisation by trade unions.

Workers in these situations reason that through strengthening the hand of their union nationally, they get something more than salary increases, as their relative position at a local level is strengthened. This link between these local and national issues is vital to understand, especially because demands in unions are increasingly being driven from below. In fact, across the ideological divide, trade unions have been forced to make impassioned demands for unity and discipline.

In present day South Africa, public service wage negotiations will resume on the back of a historic strike in 2007. The strike demonstrated, up until then, an untested capacity to sustain strike actions beyond a couple of days. Research from the HSRC on the public’s perception of the strikes, indicates that the public was significantly more sympathetic to trade unions. This is indicative both of a better communications strategy in the trade unions, but also that salary conditions in the public service needed substantial changes. Public service workers emerged buoyant and confident, demonstrated by the recent wildcat strikes involving health workers, with other sectors indicating very early that a crisis is eminent in the public service.

Government for its part emerged politically battered but ironically with a much stronger mandate for change. This mandate was the agreement around the Occupational Specific Dispensation (OSD), which provided a pioneering approach to human resource planning in the public service. The OSD at its most rudimentary adjusts the salary packages of key personnel to market conditions. Thus potentially improving prospects for current workers with highly portable skills to remain in the public service, as well as improving prospects for young adults to enter training in jobs focussed on the public service.

However, the ODS promises more, with a much needed process for determining job descriptions and developing systems to move from one level to the next.  Moreover, in its design, human resource planners have included plans for internships, which would provide an important entry point for young entrants to enter the public service.

The sheer scale of the reforms envisaged in the OSD, in itself, would suggest that the tight deadlines government reached with unions would be challenging to meet.  This is especially true due to the absence of a long-term vision for public service reform. The salary agreements in 2007 recognised this deficiency and committed parties to holding a summit to debate key issues that would provide the foundation for systemic changes to improve public service performance. To date, the summits have not taken place, in part due to the changes in political leadership of the Department of Public Service and Administration. At a technical level, delays should have been anticipated simply due to the sheer complexity of the initiative. This complexity makes negotiated agreements extremely difficult because it provides so many opportunities for disagreement.

Important progress has, however, been made in the health and criminal justice sectors, with negotiators exceeding expectations and reaching agreements on OSDs. On other occupations, notably correctional services and education, no agreements have been reached.

In the case of education, the major obstacle relates to how performance will be assessed. Both parties have legitimate grounds. On the one hand, government wants performance linked to the performance of learners. Intuitively this should be a goal that everyone agrees to. On the other hand, unions argue that linking performance in this way is unlikely to improve performance because there are systemic weaknesses outside the control of teachers.

The unions have an important point given the historic experience with performance management systems in the public service that have led to accusations of “subjective assessment. “ Moreover, teacher unions are raising valid concerns that education outcomes are determined as much by teacher performance, as they are by the availability of learner materials, clarity on curriculum and its outcomes as well as the role of parents. 

Taken together, it is easy to see how the question of performance can lead to differing positions and in the context of negotiations, to a stalemate. However, agreement must be reached if, as a society, we seek to ensure that poor learners receive an education that permits them to enjoy the opportunities offered by democracy.

In the current round of salary negotiations, there is thus a very real danger that the systemic change envisaged in the introduction of the OSD, might be replaced with short-term agreements. Parties to the agreements would however not be meeting their commitment to building a better public service, which is a foundational requirement to breaking structural poverty in our country. These negotiations should thus aim to stay the course towards implementing the OSD, but catalyse discussions towards a long-term vision and operational plan for public service reforms.

Hassen is the founder of Zapreneur and Proposal Desk, both websites aimed at answering the question, "Can the Internet help South African small business?"

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