Johannesburg — Efforts to resolve the public sector wage dispute took a grisly turn on Wednesday as Cosatu-affiliated unions declared that negotiations had "collapsed". Things seemed to be going well. So what happened?
Tensions were eased last week after reports that the department of public service and administration would agree with labour on a wage increase of 7%, with slight increases tied to inflation in the next two years. The deal would avoid a repeat of 2010, where public service employees went on strike, crippling schools, hospitals and municipal services.
But negotiations broke down on Tuesday night. Cosatu-affiliated unions are accusing government negotiators of acting in bad faith, using a thesaurus' worth of adjectives to describe the experience.
"The employers' attitude in yesterday's meeting further vindicates labour's view that government is arrogant, misleading, dishonest, deceitful and is taking workers for granted," said Cosatu's chief negotiator, Mugwena Maluleke, on Wednesday. Maluleke is general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union.
The unions have declared a dispute and want a mediator appointed this week to resolve the matter in a maximum of 30 days. Maluleke said the mediator would determine how things proceed. He wouldn't rule out industrial action.
Negotiations broke down over government's proposal of a 6.9% wage increase. Both parties agreed it was tabled in 4 July for the unions to canvass with members. But the nature of the proposal split the council on Tuesday night.
The unions had taken the offer as an official position and were still discussing the proposal with members when they returned to negotiate other aspects in dispute. They were told on Tuesday night that the official offer remained at 6.7%.
Tapes of the last negotiations reportedly had to be played to determine the whether 6.9% was officially or unofficially offered.
"We have not improved our offer from 6.7%," said public service minister Lindiwe Sisulu's spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya. "The unions have not said whether they have accepted 6.9%... It was given to them to go and consult with members... We need to know whether their members will accept 6.9%."
The Cosatu unions said government had "reneged" on what was couched as its final offer. Maluleke said government was confident on the weekend that an agreement could be reached. "What do we consult our members on if it is not an official offer?" He accused government negotiators of turning the negotiating council into a farce.
"Failure to find a solution [means] we will hit the street," Maluleke said at Cosatu House. He was flanked by leaders of the People and Prisons Civil Rights Union, National Education, Health and Allied Wokers' Union, the Public and Allied Workers Union and the South African Medical Association.
"They must understand they are inciting a strike," said Maluleke. "As a public servant you don't want to play with the lives of the public who receive the services."
Sisulu's spokesperson dismissed the events as part of a complicated negotiating process. "We don't think that there's been any hostility. We also believe we are united to meet the one thing," said Mabaya.
But the negotiations remained stalled on a number of issues. Labour is demanding a housing allowance of R1,400 a month, while the highest offer on the table is R900.
Chris Kloppers, chairman of the Independent Labour Caucus (ILC), said it was a contentious issue. "Even if they put 10% on the table we wouldn't sign... The housing is an extremely important issue for us. They want to replace the present housing scheme with the government employees' housing scheme."
The caveat here is that the government scheme offers the subsidy on a diminishing salary scale. Many of the workers represented by the ILC are teachers and nurses and will miss out, said Kloppers. The subsidy is also restricted to registered bonds and excludes leases, an offer he says his members won't accept.
Despite the disagreements, you shouldn't start burning your own garbage just yet. The ILC lodged a dispute three weeks ago to restart stalled negotiations, and Cosatu's dispute is intended to do the same. So far, all parties have been publicly committed to finding a resolution.
If an agreement can be reached without workers taking to the streets, it will be a success for Sisulu, who took over public services recently amid fear that she'd apply the same pressure she did in the department of defence.
Despite the collapse of negotiations, labour representatives have praised her performance. Since she took over, all parties have shown they're willing to compromise, and when the state's chief negotiators disrupted the process by going overseas, it was Sisulu who brought them back.
But with a number of high-profile service delivery failures in 2012, notably in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, the government can ill afford to let a strike exacerbate the situation. If negotiations remain deadlocked, Sisulu will no doubt take the blame.