Benson Ngqentsu | Public sector unions must not back down in wage negotiations

Cosatu members ask Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis to come talk to them. Photo: News 24/ Marvin Charles


The writing is on the wall. The organized part of the working class in the civil service does not succumb to the dictates of neoliberal and austerity forces.

The resolute and combative position taken by the labor movement in the Public Sector Bargaining Council (PSBC) is more than a pay dispute between the government and its employees. It is a fierce and broader battle against neoliberalism and austerity as the current economic trajectory in South Africa. In this context, to workers, stand firm, don’t cry, don’t back down and mobilize beyond the civil service for support in the fight against neoliberalism and austerity.

Neoliberalism, as a model of a basic principle of free market capitalism, is based, among other things, on the drastic reduction of government social expenditure, deregulation and privatization. Thus, during recent wage negotiations, the government insisted on the 2% wage increase as the final offer in the face of the unions’ new demand of 10% to 8%, a position which led the unions to declare a dispute with the PSBC.

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Therefore, there is no doubt in my mind that the neoliberal and austerity forces of our government and the movement have already engaged with Western rating agencies and Bretton Woods institutions, such as the World Bank and the international monetary system, in terms of their compliance with their prescriptions to reduce government social spending. Neoliberals view wage increases for workers and funding for public services, such as the health, education, and security of our people, to name a few, as reckless government spending. Such a view must be rejected.

The current 2% offer simply does nothing to stop the continued impoverishment of the working class.

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The SA Reserve Bank’s inflation forecast should not just be treated as a bourgeois index for banks, big business and the government to set their fiscal stance. It should also be the minimum acceptable rate at which working class wages or salaries are increased, whether in the private sector or, in this case, the public sector.

The government has a choice to make: does it want to risk a strike by 1.3 million essential public sector workers or does it want to create a virtuous cycle of growth by putting enough money in the pockets of 1.3 million workers, stimulating the economy and injecting much-needed help into local economies, communities and families?

In our view, the choice is between regression and growth.

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Moreover, the labor movement of all affiliations must come out and sensitize the broadest part of the working class to the direct implications of the current neoliberal trajectory on lives and livelihoods.

Let our people know that there are not enough nurses, doctors, resources, no drugs in public health care, not enough police vans, not enough detectives, shortage of personnel in government institutions, no regular operations, no massive construction of schools and not enough CCMA commissioners, among other things, because of austerity measures.

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So when public sector workers finally go on strike, they will have to be joined by the broader section of the working class that also bears the brunt of neoliberalism and austerity. Therefore, the National Day of Action, August 24, 2022, declared by both Cosatu and Saftu should be an important launch of the working class struggle against neoliberalism and austerity.

Benson Ngqentsu is the provincial secretary of the SACP in the Western Cape.