Strikes loom as public-sector wage dispute set to drag on
It is highly unlikely that the dispute over the implementation of wage increases for 1.3-million public-sector workers will be resolved before the next round of wage negotiations start later in 2020, setting the scene for aggressive talks that could be accompanied by strikes.
Frikkie de Bruin, general secretary of the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC), and major public sector unions all indicated in interviews with Business Day on Friday that the dispute over the implementation of the final year of a multiterm wage agreement between the state and its workers would not be resolved before the negotiations start.
The agreement, which was supposed to be implemented on April 1, has been the subject of much controversy since it was signed in 2018, but finally set unions on the warpath when finance minister Tito Mboweni pencilled in huge cuts to the public-sector wage bill in February.
The reason was simple: according to the government, it is unaffordable to pay the increases in the agreement.
This was despite the state backing an unmandated offer by its own negotiators in 2018, when it was already clear it did not have the money to pay for it.
As a result of this, the government did not implement the wage increases, and that decision is now subject to court action, as well as arbitration proceedings in the PSCBC.
De Bruin said he did not believe the dispute would be resolved by the time negotiations have to start in September or at the latest in October.
He said the arbitrator would only hear oral arguments on the jurisdiction of the PSCBC in the arbitration proceedings — the government argues it is a constitutional issue — on August 28, after which a decision would have to be made on whether the bargaining council should deal with it.
He said it was likely that whoever the decision did not favour would then head to court, which would drag out the process even further.
Meanwhile, in parallel proceedings, the labour court has still not set down the challenge brought by, among others, the Public Servants Association (PSA) to force the government to implement the agreement, which would likely follow the same route by whoever loses that court case.
De Bruin said multiple issues would have to be discussed during the negotiations, which have to be settled by April 1 2021, when the new salaries need to be implemented for 2021/2022.
He said if the current dispute was not sorted out, the biggest issue would be the trust deficit between the employer and the employees.
The second issue was that the unions may not want to start the 2021/2022 negotiations before the current wage dispute was sorted out, as it was difficult to start negotiating if you did not know where you stood.
De Bruin said the big danger that faces the public service would be protest action, given that municipal workers have already gone on strike to ensure they could get their salary increases, even though it was legally not allowed at this stage.
Mugwena Maluleke, chief negotiator for most of Cosatu’s public-sector unions, said it was unlikely the dispute would be resolved before the new negotiations started, given the parallel processes that were still unfolding, especially as the substantive matters in arbitration have not been dealt with.
He said the effect of not resolving the dispute before the negotiations would be “disastrous” as one would have to decide how to proceed with the negotiations.
Maluleke said they believed the employer may say they could not proceed with the negotiations before this dispute was dealt with, as it would affect the next round. He said it could mean that labour would have to drag the state into the next round of negotiations.
He said to do that “we may have to embark on an action to force them into negotiations”. Based on all the documents submitted in court, as well as the supplementary budget tabled by Mboweni in June, “we will have to start with a fight”.
“A strike on that one is likely. Let’s be honest,” he said.
Reuben Maleka, spokesperson for the PSA, said the likelihood of the dispute being resolved before negotiations start was unlikely as they were already starting to get mandates from their members ahead of tabling new demands.
“I am not optimistic that it would be resolved,” Maleka said.
He said if the PSA and the other applicant unions won the labour court case, they expected the state to appeal.
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