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Vol. 74/No. 35      September 20, 2010

(front page)
South African public workers
press wage demands on gov’t
Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
Public-sector workers in South Africa on strike in capital Johannesburg August 26

A three-week nationwide strike by some 1.3 million public workers in South Africa was suspended by union officials for 21 days September 6. Workers will consider again a revised government offer that the largest unions had voted down earlier. The government, led by the African National Congress (ANC) and headed by President Jacob Zuma, has campaigned against the workers’ walkout.

The strike began August 18 after the federal government refused union demands for an 8.6 percent pay raise and a doubling of the monthly housing allowance to 1,000 rand (US$137). The government had offered a 7 percent raise and an R700 (US$96) allowance, saying this would be imposed unilaterally after three weeks if the unions did not accept it.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), with more than 2 million members, organized support for the striking unionists. Nurses and health workers blockaded hospitals and teacher walkouts essentially brought public education to a halt.

The strikers defied a court order that “essential staff,” including doctors, nurses, and teachers, return to work. They faced provocative actions by the cops, including attempts to prevent unionists from demonstrating, and in some cases firing rubber bullets on crowds and arresting demonstrators. Some 2,800 troops have been deployed to hospitals nationwide.

Unable to halt the work stoppage through acts of intimidation, two weeks into the strike the government upped its offer to a 7.5 percent wage increase and an R800 housing allowance. But it was not enough to meet the strikers’ demands.

Two of South Africa’s biggest public unions—the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union and the South African Democratic Teachers Union, each with about 250,000 members—rejected the offer. The 9,200-member South African Democratic Nurses Union also voted down the proposal.  
Rising food prices
The striking workers are insisting on higher wages because of rapidly rising costs of living, especially food prices. According to the government inflation is running 4.2 percent. But food costs are actually rising much more, said Sizwe Pamla of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union.

“Look at Mozambique—we are sitting on a potential time bomb,” he told the Financial Times. “Too many workers are living from hand to mouth; the costs for poor people are skyrocketing.”

Strikes and other protests erupted in Mozambique in early September because of rising food and fuel prices. The government there had announced a 30 percent rise in bread prices, 10 percent in the cost of both water and electricity, and the third increase in two months for gasoline. The average worker in Mozambique is paid about $37 a month. With cops rioting against protesters, seven people were killed and more than 280 wounded in Maputo, the capital, over two days.

During the course of the public workers strike in South Africa, other unionists have also walked out. On August 30 water workers organized by the South African Municipal Workers Union began strike action, demanding a sliding scale wage raise of up to 13.5 percent. The same day tire and rubber workers walked out after wage negotiations with the employers broke down. The workers are demanding a minimum wage of R20 an hour (US$2.73) and wage raises of at least 10 percent.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, which organizes 70,000 workers at gas stations and car component manufacturers, struck September 1, calling for a 15 percent wage raise. Some 8,000 members of the National Union of Mineworkers struck Northam Platinum September 6 after rejecting the company’s offer for an 8 percent wage raise. The miners are demanding a 15 percent increase.

Over the past year South African bosses have eliminated 1 million jobs. The official unemployment rate is around 25 percent.  
Rifts within coalition gov’t
In 2008, ANC leader Jacob Zuma was elected president with the support of Cosatu and the South African Communist Party. The three groups have functioned as part of the governing coalition.

The public workers strike has led to deep rifts within this tripartite alliance. Zuma has blasted Cosatu, saying the disruption of “essential services” by workers is “foreign” to the culture of the ANC and the alliance. “Even during the campaigns against the apartheid government we did not prevent nurses from going to work,” he stated. An ANC statement charged the unions with “acts of assault, intimidation and plain thuggery.”

In an August 22 statement the South African Communist Party, echoing the ANC’s position, urged unions to “take the lead in condemning acts of grave indiscipline which are, in effect … counter-revolutionary and anti-people.”

Cosatu has accused ANC leaders of pursuing “a caviar lifestyle” while expecting workers to scrimp. Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi said the ruling alliance was now “dysfunctional.” He told reporters August 26 that the trade union federation would no longer “give the ANC a blank check” in next year’s local government elections.
Related articles:
Workers at U. of Miami win gains in new contract
Workers in Peru force gov’t to lower gas prices  
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