South Africa: Strike ends, COSATU declares 'victory'

June 29, 2007

After several days of intensive, sometimes heated, discussions and membership consultations, public-service unions voted on June 28 to end their national strike and accept the South African government's "settlement offer". The strike, which began on June 1, was the longest and largest public-sector strike in South Africa's history, with more than 700,000 workers on strike and another 300,000, for whom it was illegal to strike, taking part in militant marches, pickets and other forms of protest.

Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) public-sector affiliates, together with other public servants' unions, launched the strike for a 12% wage boost, better housing and medical allowances, and a 30% increase in the minimum annual pay for public servants. Public servants' pay has lagged behind inflation for a decade.

Picketers came under repeated attack by police using tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades and batons. The African National Congress (ANC) government mobilised thousands of soldiers as strikebreakers in hospitals throughout South Africa. Thousands more, decked out in bullet-proof vests and armed with automatic weapons, were provocatively stationed at picket lines outside hospitals and schools, and near protest marches. More than 3000 health workers, deemed "essential workers", were sacked for striking. The ANC government and mass media relentlessly demonised the strikers, in particular health workers and teachers, singling out isolated incidents to paint a false picture of widespread "intimidation" and "violence".

During the course of the strike, the unions reduced their pay demand from 12% to 9%. On the day the strike began, the ANC government was offering a below-inflation 6% and little else. Twenty days into the strike, public service and administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi made a final "settlement offer" of a 7.5% wage increase, a 10% increase in the monthly housing allowance, a 30% increase in the minimum wage benefiting 29,000 public servants, and the withdrawal of all dismissal notices. The government also said it would negotiate an agreed definition of an "essential worker" and their rights during industrial action. However, Fraser-Moleketi warned that the government would revert to an earlier "offer" of 7.25% and no other improvements or concessions if the unions rejected it.

COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, speaking at the national congress of the 194,000-member National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) on June 26, said that the government's offer, while much less than demanded, "represents some progress and gains". He pointed out that the strike has surpassed "the historic 1987 mineworkers strike in size. It's the biggest strike lasting over 25 days involving between 600,000 to a million workers [on each day]" in the country's history.

"Not in our wildest dreams did we think the COSATU unions could manage to lead the entire public sector unions in the manner they have done. We never thought that the unity forged in the past 27 days of strike action would be possible", Vavi said. "Never again will government treat bargaining in the public service as a collective begging process where it predetermines outcomes through the budget process ... the strike organisationally and politically represents a victory for the public sector workers in particular and the South African trade union movement in general."

Addressing the NEHAWU congress, South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande told delegates that the strike "has already achieved some major gains that you dare not underestimate", especially the unprecedented unity of "about 1 million public service workers embarking on joint action irrespective of trade union affiliation" and "across racial and occupational divides". He pointed out that since 1999, the ANC government "has never considered salary increases of more than 6%, thus [the strike has broken] through the ceiling that government has placed upon itself in terms of its unilaterally decided national inflation target".

Nzimande stated that the strike action had politically challenged the ANC government's "wholly irresponsible and inappropriate" policies based on "lowering the cost of doing business". "It is afraid that granting a higher wage increase will put pressure on the private sector to grant higher wage increases", Nzimande stated.

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