End of South African strike: ‘not quite win-win’

Only Canada’s Mail & Guardian had it in their heading. The public sector strike in South Africa (mentioned previously) is over, after 4 weeks. Impressive, no? Interestingly, I saw a comment that the teacher’s union had called an end to the strike because school holidays had begun. Which would be hilarious.

It is not quite win-win because the wage increase in the end was pretty well what it was in the beginning: 7.5% (recall that the government had initially gone to 6%, the unions had demanded 12%, and gone on strike when the government wouldn’t go higher than 7.25%. There are of course other elements not tied to the wage increase, including one interesting structural change:

The deal also contains a framework for setting up a minimum service agreement with essential-service workers. This will ensure that minimum services will be maintained during strikes.

“Definitely we would see a situation during a future strike that essential services would not be as severely affected. There would not be any loss of life,” said Success Mataitsane, of the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers.

The majority of unions have signed on – a few (the teachers) have not yet, but will continue negotiation (they won’t themselves strike, because their numbers will now be too small – one hopes). My original open question answered, with regard to the 600-odd nurses fired for going on strike:

The deal also makes provision for dismissed workers to return to work and receive a written warning instead of being fired.

What isn’t yet addressed – and might not be for a while – is the skills deficit implied by emergency service workers taking this action in the first place. The current ones will return to work (after 4 weeks of no-work-no-pay you either return or start a new career fast: that’s a long time to earn any money), but the next generation may not, for these conditions, go to the effort.

Also not yet apparent is who won in the broader context of this strike, with regard to the strained relations between the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the ANC. Again, 4 weeks is a long and punishing action, and a few groups were beginning to turn on Cosatu for its apparent avarice in not taking the 7.5% when it became clear that it was the ceiling (probably a week or more ago). The cost to the economy has been estimated at around USD418m (GDP in 2006 was only USD587.5bn), and food has pushed inflation to 6.4%. Mbeki could win politically if it appears he’s protected the economy and rewarded workers. And if he can keep is leadership of the ANC at all.


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