Public Servants Association members. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
Public Servants Association members. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

Cracks are beginning to show in the previously united front between public-service unions on what action they pland to take against the government to compel it to increase public servants’ salaries on April 1.

The unions were previously in unison that embarking on strike will force the government to honour the wage agreement signed in the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC) in 2018. While some are still in favour of downing tools, others seem to be rejecting that idea and want the matter settled in the courts, if push comes to shove.

On Thursday morning ,the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), SA’s largest public-service union, said it has postponed its national day of action against planned cuts to the public-sector wage bill.

Nehawu had said it would embark on a national day of action on March 30 as a “warning shot” to government to implement the last leg of the multi-year wage agreement, failing which they threatened to embark on full-blown national strike.

However, the 21-day lockdown from midnight on Thursday, announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday, threw a spanner in the works for the unions, which have expressed their anger at the government for “its plan of implementing a 0% salary increase for public servants” during their last meeting at the PSCBC on Tuesday last week.

The unions included the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa) and the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (Nupsaw). The Public Servants’ Association of SA (PSA), the country’s second-largest public-service union, said it is not in favour of a strike and wants the matter resolved through the courts, if needs be.

On Wednesday, the Nehawu leadership convened an urgent special meeting of its national executive committee to discuss a way forward. This followed a stakeholder meeting held by the PSCBC meeting earlier on Wednesday, “in which government demonstrated vividly that it is not prepared to honour the [multi-year wage] agreement”, said Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha.

“At the council meeting the employer proposed that workers fund the last leg of the increment through pay progression and capped leave,” he said.

Saphetha described Nehawu as a caring union that understands the dangers posed by the rapidly spreading coronavirus, confirmed in more than 700 people in SA. As such, it has taken a decision to “postpone the planned national day of action” to a date to be confirmed soon.

“During the lockdown, the [Nehawu] leadership shall explore all possible avenues at their disposal, particularly if the agreement is not implemented as it is by April 1 2020, and shall use the union’s internal forms of communication with its members on the developments if any.”

‘Premature to accuse the government’

Nupsaw general secretary Success Mataitsane said they still reject the 0% increase tabled by public service and administration minister Senzo Mchunu at the PSCBC. He said while the strike has been suspended, the action will still be considered when the lockdown is lifted.

PSA assistant GM Reuben Maleka told Business Day that its lawyers will send a letter of demand to Mchunu on Thursday requiring him to make an undertaking that “he will implement the salary adjustments come April 1”.

“We are not going to down tools as the PSA, even when the lockdown has been lifted, because this matter requires us to litigate. If the minister fails to increase our salaries we will approach the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). If the outcome is not in our favour, we will then approach the courts,” said Maleka.

Denosa, which previously said it was willing to down tools if the government showed “disdain” to workers by not honouring the wage agreement, seems to have had a change of heart.

Denosa acting general secretary Cassim Lekhoathi told Business Day that embarking on strike is now not their “primary objective and intention”, adding, “It will be premature to accuse the government of not honouring the wage agreement ... let’s wait for April 1. We will take the government to the CCMA if it doesn’t enforce the wage agreement.

“If the CCMA outcome is not in our favour, we approach our members and see if they are saying they are ready to down tools.”

Mchunu, who couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, has said they do not want to speculate about what will happen on April 1 as the matter is “too sensitive and serious for speculation”.

At the first meeting of the PSCBC since the February budget, detailed plans to cut the wage bill by R160bn over three years were announced.

According to the existing agreement, on April 1, pay should rise at the rate of the consumer price index (CPI) plus 1% for the first eight grades of the bargaining unit; and at CPI plus 0.5% for the higher grades. In addition, all employees should receive notch increases equal to about 1% of pay. This would cut R37.8bn from the wage bill in 2020/2021, Treasury officials said in February.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za