On Strike.

As the joke goes, how do you tell when a civil servant is on strike? Perhaps the punch-line is that she moves her arse slightly more. At least, the nurses and teachers and bureaucrats blocking gates and chasing parents and singing and dancing are showing more vigour than they demonstrate when they are doing what they quaintly claim to be their jobs.
We all have to be a little careful to pick our way through a minefield of agendas, some of which can blow your foot clean into your mouth if you step on them. For instance, many people assume, on principle, that any strike is either legitimate (on the principle that the workers have the right to whatever they want) or illegitimate (on the principle that the bosses have the right to whatever they want). On the other hand, many assume that a strike is illegitimate when carried out against a private corporation (because the bosses of private corporations are necessarily good, decent and just) but legitimate when carried out against the government (because the government is run by a party which you happen not to support).
What is the August 2010 civil service strike about? The government is offering a 7% pay increase (0.5% higher than their original offer), which is approximately 2% above the rate of inflation. The civil servants are demanding 8,6%, exactly what their original offer was. So the issue is about 1.6%.
If we look at civil service salaries, these teachers and nurses are earning quite a lot of money. Qualified teachers get about R20 000 a month, and qualified nurses get around R15 000. (SADTU has raised a stink about the Minister of Education publishing the salary notches of teachers, claiming that this is misleading. To be precise, it isn’t misleading, but it doesn’t reflect the fact that many teachers are hopelessly unqualified and therefore are getting less than what was published. Of course, those teachers shouldn’t be there in the first place, since they have had ten years to improve their qualifications and have not bothered to do so, but the Ministry of Education is not going to get rid of them, partly because Kader Asmal wrecked the teacher training colleges and there is thus a desperate shortage of teachers, and partly because all the lazy, incompetent and unqualified teachers are SADTU members.)
If you get R20 000 a month, then you take home around 12-13 000. The extra 1.6% will thus increase a teacher’s salary by maybe R200 a month, and a nurse’s salary by maybe R150 a month. That isn’t hay, but it isn’t an enormous amount either. To be blunt, this strike is not conspicuously about money and it obviously isn’t about a living wage. It is about COSATU trying to throw its weight around with the government, and establishing its authority. Most probably this is not because COSATU is trying to improve its political position in the Tripartite Alliance, however — it has no real agenda which it is pursuing, so it has no reason to do this — but, rather, trying to keep its declining membership in line by stirring up distrust for the government — and thus for the ANC, of course. The SACP is joining in this, partly as a knee-jerk reaction, and partly because it also needs to keep trying to sustain the illusion that it has any left-wing credentials.
However, there are two problems with this.
Problem one is that it obviously annoys the government. The ANC is quite sensitive about being attacked, and is painfully aware that when COSATU attacks it, the ANC’s credibility as a party sympathetic to black workers is under threat. Meanwhile, because COSATU’s attacks are of course echoed by the white right wing (which has nothing to lose by supporting COSATU, since this helps divide the Alliance and undermine the ANC, while it is making no commitment to support COSATU should it ever get into power) these attacks also appear in the press. (There they are muted only because the press is quite sympathetic to Zuma, because he is sympathetic to the white right wing and big business generally. This is why Zuma has sat out the strike; his electoral constituency and his financial constituency pull in different directions, and he has no personal principles to guide him.)
The ANC is largely run by big businessmen pretending to be friends of the workers. In the end, however, they are big businessmen first. The danger of a faux-left strike movement denouncing the ANC is that it strengthens the line of those ANC leaders who support neoliberalism. If the ANC turns on the workers, they do not have the power to accomplish anything. The ANC can win this strike, in which case COSATU will lose it, and that would empower people in the ANC (such as Sexwale) who want a general rollback of workers’ rights. That isn’t going to happen overnight, but it’s a dangerous kind of fire to be playing with.
Problem two is the “labour aristocracy” problem. The workers going on strike and putting on a big act of being oppressed are the petit-bourgeoisie. They earn maybe four or five times what a genuine worker earns, and many of the workers don’t enjoy the luxury of going on strike because they aren’t unionised, partly as a result of the collapse of private sector union organisation. Such people, and the comparable number of people who are unemployed and earning virtually nothing, are unlikely to feel automatic sympathy with middle-class people who want an extra bottle of whisky a month and don’t care how many scholars fail their exams or babies die for want of attention in the process. There’s not a lot of class solidarity likely to be evident here; on the contrary, there’s room for resentment. This is obviously not going to be reflected in press coverage, since the press couldn’t give two hoots what the actual workers think or do, but it opens a dangerous breach between unionised and non-unionised workers. This can be exploited by business, especially because the unionised workers are so dominated by unions based in the government sector, who are vulnerable to a change of government policy but who love to pretend that they get what they want, not because the government doesn’t want to antagonise the unions for political reasons, but because they are so very objectively powerful.
We are being told, of course, that the strike is harming the economy. This is probably not very significant. If a million workers go on strike, obviously this harms the economy to some extent; the economy loses their productivity. If more learners fail their exams then their entry into the economy is delayed; if sick people remain sick for longer, or die, the economy loses something from that. If bureaucrats don’t do their jobs, important tasks fail to be completed. However, this will only have maximum effect after weeks rather than days of strike action, as with the 2007 strike.
We are also being told that giving in to the workers will harm the economy. This is a line invariably taken by anti-worker propagandists such as corporate economists, but it may have a lick of truth. A million people earning an average of R150 000 a year makes R150 billion a year, or 5% of GDP. If they get an increase of 1,6%, that’s R2.4 billion, which is just under 0.1% of GDP. With the budget deficit supposedly running at 6.6% of GDP (it’s probably really more), giving in to the strikers will make that 6.7%. This isn’t exactly going to break the bank, but with the deficit running at double the economic growth rate, every little hurts. (At the moment, with interest rates low, the deficit is less of a problem than it was a couple of years ago — but it seems there is another economic crisis looming, which could send interest rates up again and thus make servicing the swelling debt more expensive and thus making the current deficit more damaging.)
The difficulty for the ANC in trying to challenge the strike is obvious. As the government, it looks powerful when the unions look weak, even though this isn’t politically true. As the employer, it looks stingy when the unions look reasonable, even though the unions are being fairly unreasonable by refusing to reduce their demands at all, and the government is clearly fairly short of cash right now and in the foreseeable future.
More to the point, Zuma’s ANC lacks credibility on the issue of wanting to save money. It has massively increased its own salaries and perquisites. This was almost inevitable, since Zuma’s allies were virtually all concerned with personal gain rather than political agenda; they have to be bribed to keep them in line because Zuma lacks the political clout to do this in any other way. This means, however, that unions can say “If that Cabinet Minister gets to stay in a five-star hotel, why can’t we have our wages substantially increased?” and get a sympathetic hearing from workers. (Also, of course, from conservatives who wouldn’t dream of criticising private-enterprise CEOs for doubling their own salaries but profess horror when politicians soup up their perks.) The real problem with this is that the Cabinet is small and the public service is large, so public service increases hit the fiscus harder than anything Nzimande or Sexwale or Nyanda get up to. However, understandably nobody would listen to that sort of argument. A better argument would be to point out that if we need to save cash, then everybody needs to tighten there belts, and therefore instead of paying nurses and teachers more, we should pay Cabinet Ministers and MPs less. But unfortunately Zuma can’t use this argument because his allies would raise a rumpus if anyone suggested that their wallets suffer a stapling.
Meanwhile, an awkward problem is that some public service workers have already received increases a lot larger than the increases which the nurses and teachers want. Basically, because Zuma’s government backed down in those cases, this creates the false impression that there is plenty of money in the kitty. Why should nurses and teachers not, then, get their snouts in the same trough?
Part of the problem, of course, is that the large increases have often been in cases where the salaries were pretty low. Workers in a North-West platinum mine have received massive increases, but they were getting peanuts — and therefore, still are. Increasing the salaries of poorly-paid workers serves to increase social equality. But increasing the salaries of well-paid middle-class workers serves to increase social inequality, a fact which COSATU and everybody else is ignoring because it doesn’t suit the spurious image of the heroic worker which they are cultivating. However, increasing social inequality is what the Zuma government and their corporate friends seem most concerned with. Hence, perhaps, we should not be surprised if the Zuma government eventually caves in on this strike.
If there were any kind of plan for how to manage public spending over the next few years such problems might be fitted in to it. There seems, however, to be no plan, only a wish-list of might-have-beens. As a result, the unions will continue to squabble over their imaginary cake, as do the Cabinet Ministers and their corporate cronies, until some political hyena backed by corporate sharks stops the music and ends the game. And probably takes the whole cake for himself.

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2 Responses to On Strike.

  1. Cheryl van Rensburg says:

    This entry needs a definite response because you don’t have your facts right!!!! I am a Primary School teacher with a 4 year qualification and 20 years experience and clear less than R10 000 per month! The only deductions I have are for UIF, pension and tax. I do not have a housing subsidy and rely on my husbands medical aid.

    I really don’t know where you get your figures from!!! Even the heads of department at my school do not earn R20 000 per month! Perhaps you are speaking about teachers at private schools but certainly not in the civil service!!!!

  2. Nokwindla says:

    “partly because Kader Asmal wrecked the teacher training colleges”. Getting rid of the teachers training colleges was a good move by Asmal. They took an intake of trainees who themselves had not attained matric and merely regurgitated the reactionary pedagogy that they learned in those colleges. The error in Asmal’s policy was his failure to replace them with capacitated institutes, in adjacent localities to the communities to which their products would teach (as was the case with the colleges) rather than the rather elitist transfer of all teaching capacity to universities, most of which are located in urban centres.

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