Has Samwu’s gamble backfired?

Despite high-profile protests last week the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) strike appears to have run out of steam.

With the union urging the South African Local Government Association (Salga) to up its 6% offer its 18% demand has clearly become a gamble that may have backfired.

At 18% or R2 000 whichever is greater the union’s demands far outstrip inflation. In fact it reopened negotiations on the ­basis of inflation falling below 5% but ultimately in doing so it has put itself in a precarious position.

If Samwu’s wage demands were accepted Salga has made it abundantly clear that an 18% pay hike would necessitate retrenchments.

While the union has urged ­cutbacks on outsourcing to make up for a rising wage bill (already the largest component of most municipalities’ operating budgets) an 18% wage hike would almost ­certainly imply retrenchments leading to the much-loathed and inappropriate mechanisation of menial tasks (for instance buying street cleaning equipment) and perversely outsourcing of work. The most vulnerable in this scenario are the least skilled of Samwu’s members.

But an agreement of this magnitude is unlikely given the vast difference in starting points between Samwu’s double-digit demand and Salga’s 6% offer.

Consider by contrast the recent public service wage agreement that saw 6.8% finalised – this constituted an inflation-bound range in which compromise and agreement was possible and maturity in negotiation was praised.

There are also long-term implications – one being the impact of the strike on future collective ­bargaining arrangements and the spirit of future industrial relations in the sector.

One of the sticking points leading to the strike is the interpretation of a clause in a three-year agreement struck after the ­protracted 2009 strike that terms could be renegotiated within the three-year period only if the inflation rate rose above 10% or fell ­below 5%.

Salga views the strike as undermining this agreement arguing that the intent was for Salga to ­reopen negotiations if inflation was low and unions if it were high.

Unfortunately poor wording has led to the current dispute with ­labour reopening negotiations ­arguing that fuel and food inflation and the impact on future consumer price index (CPI) figures should be considered with a conciliator ­proposing a 7.5% compromise (Salga claims this figure was ­rejected but Samwu has suggested it was never tabled).

This is not the only area of long-term concern. One of the most ­surprising elements of this year’s strike is poor turnout. Ultimately workers need to weigh up the likely success of strike action given that it is their pay that is docked – a calculation is required as to whether this loss is likely to be rewarded with better pay and/or conditions.

The most conspicuous erosion of support was perhaps in Johannesburg where allegations of ­corruption in the union surfaced and only 10% of workers did not report for duty.

The strike has done no good to Samwu’s public image either in the wake of trashed streets and damaged public property not to mention the looting of vendors’ stalls in some instances.

Within Samwu although not ­officially condoned there is the widespread view that the messing up of streets is the most powerful leverage available to street cleaners and similar workers.

But the English experience of municipal strike action in the 70s is illuminating. The public lost sympathy with worker demands as rubbish piled up on pavements and this sentiment has been partly blamed for the rise of Thatcherism and anti-union sentiment.

All of these issues – overshooting tactics on percentage demands revisiting medium-term agreements on a technicality and trashing tactics – make the Samwu strike look more and more like one that’s driven by a political agenda not worker interests leading to the perception that a militant and fractured leadership may have become distant from workers’ realities (never mind that of its public image).

While the union continues to blame the media for bad press ­(surrounding poor turnouts and damage incurred during strike ­action) it has undoubtedly been left in a poor light.

Using low inflation to reopen negotiations only to demand double-digit rises smacks of an immaturity that will only serve to accelerate the thrust towards a single public service in which the union will lose much of its (remaining) clout.