Over 150,000 municipal workers in South Africa have gone on strike in a dispute over paltry pay offers in the face of massive inflation.
In an overwhelming display of unity, over 150,000 workers employed by municipalities and belonging to both South African Municipal Workers' Union (SAMWU) and Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (IMATU) across the country rejected the latest wage offer of the employer body, South African Local Government Association-SALGA. SAMWU together with IMATU members have embarked on strike action from Monday 27 July 2009 in all municipalities in every Province of the country.
SAMWU stands by its demands, which are as follows:
:arrow: Minimum wage of R 5000 for the sector;
:arrow: Wage increase of 15% or R 2500 whichever is the greater;
:arrow: 70% housing loan assistance of the bond up to R 200 000;
:arrow: 70% housing rental up to R 3000 maximum;
:arrow: Rejection of multi-year agreement;
:arrow: Filling of all vacant posts within municipalities; and
:arrow: No linkages between finalisation of wage curves and our demand for wage increases.
Food inflation over the last year climbed to a staggering 17.9 %, easing off slightly to 13.7% in April. This increase in the price of foods has hit workers’ pockets hard as food is generally a much larger part of what they spend their money on than it is for the middle class. In the context of workers’ receiving a below inflation level increase in the last financial year (effectively taking a 4.5% cut in real wages), the economic crisis, and the cost of basics like food and transport, workers’ demand for a 15% increase is not unreasonable. It must be noted that in reality, workers are not just demanding this increase for themselves, but for the families, neighbours and the many unemployed community members that they support.
The Polokwane resolutions of the ANC committed the government to reducing poverty and inequality in the country. And yet, while workers’ legitimate wage demands are being ignored and denied, local government managers are paying themselves exorbitant salaries – well over a R1 million a year in many cases. It would take a municipal worker, earning the current minimum wage, more than 28 years to earn as much as a municipal manager earns in a year, or a national government Minister pays for a single motor car. Is this just and equitable?
It is misleading and disingenuous for SALGA to claim that municipalities cannot afford this increase, an increase which would go some way to giving workers a decent wage for the important work that they do. It is our members who perform the vital day-to-day work of the municipality, who are out in the field day and night, in the searing heat and drenching rain, fixing broken water pipes, maintaining parks, filling potholes and providing electricity. But their work mostly goes unacknowledged and undervalued.
And yet it is management, with their hugely inflated salaries and outrageous performance bonuses, who are responsible for the sorry state of so many municipalities. The auditor-general, in his recent report on local government finances in the 2007 – 2008 financial year reported that almost half (45%) of all municipalities have engaged in unauthorised, fruitless and wasteful expenditure. How can municipalities engage in this kind of expenditure, but not accede to a decent wage increase? SALGA claims that one of the reasons it cannot afford the wage increase we are demanding is because municipalities are currently owed almost R 54 billion. And yet, 40% of this is owned to the municipalities by national government and businesses – must workers suffer because business and government cannot pay their bills?
We are deeply concerned at the reckless attitude that SALGA is showing towards labour relations in the sector. It is not only in relation to the wage dispute that we are experiencing this, but also in their failure to extend a number of other agreements, such as the disciplinary agreement and the job evaluation agreement. They are also refusing to negotiate picketing rules for this strike. This undermines workers’ right to picket peacefully in support of our demands, and is in contravention of the NEDLAC Code of Good Practice on Picketing.
Marches are happening in all the major centres – Johannesburg, Tshwane, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Sol Plaatjie, as well as in many of the smaller municipalities ranging from Bredasdorp, Mossel Bay and Beaufort West. In other municipalities workers are picketing the municipal offices.
Our structures report massive support for the strike, with many services, such as refuse removal, traffic, water maintenance, revenue collection not operating. In many centres, both SAMWU and IMATU members are marching and picketing side by side.
In Johannesburg 10,000 workers marched to Mary Fitzgerald Square where a defiant mood reigned. Salga’s position was rejected whilst the members reaffirmed Samwu’s demand for a 15% wage increase and a housing subsidy based on a R200 000 house.
In Cape Town 3,000 workers marched to the provincial offices of the employers’ organisation, Salga, to hand over a memorandum reasserting the union’s key demands of a living wage of R4000, filling of the 25% vacant posts in the sector and the improvement of the housing benefit.
In Durban 5,000 workers marched and are now picketing workplaces to ensure that no scabs perform the work of the strikers.
Though the actions around the country were conducted in a peaceful and disciplined manner by SAMWU members the union expressed "outrage" at reports of police action against its members in Polokwane, where workers have been shot at and arrested.