The government has loosed off the first major salvoes of the 2014 election campaign - and all of them have backfired. That is one labour movement view of three official announcements over the past ten days.
The apparent commitment to a youth wage subsidy, the proposal to declare teaching an essential service and the R105 minimum wage for farm workers are all seen as ploys to gain electoral support next year. They seem designed to portray the government as masterful, in control and prepared to take tough action on matters of national concern.
But, by yesterday, it appeared that clichéd criticisms of ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and labour minister Mildred Oliphant, who were responsible for the salvoes, were vindicated. Mantashe was accused of "jumping the gun and shooting from the hip" over the subsidy and essential service issue, while Oliphant's minimum wage compromise was seen as "a knee-jerk reaction" that would cause future problems.
Subsequent spin and apparent backtracking on the wage subsidy and essential services indicate that the ANC also remains keen to ensure that its trade union ally, Cosatu, does not rock the electoral boat by opposing ANC policies. Cosatu president, S'dumo Dlamini, sits on the ANC executive where he is bound to support ANC majority decisions.
However, as the president of Cosatu, Dlamini is also bound to support the majority decisions of Cosatu, including opposition to both the wage subsidy and attempts to remove the constitutional right of teachers to strike. In the final analysis, however, the decisions of the ANC, as the leading partner in the alliance, should be implemented.
This is an example of the "democratic centralism" practiced by both these partners and the third member of the alliance, the SA Communist Party (SACP). But although the final say rests with the ANC majority, Cosatu, as the numerically largest component, needs to be kept on board.
This is a confusing balancing act that has been going on for more than a decade and has become increasingly problematic in recent years. It has also often led to the most convoluted explanations in an attempt to square ideological and policy circles.
A classic example of such obfuscation arrived on Tuesday in the wake of last week's ANC lekgotla. Finding itself in a minority on the essential services issue, but still wishing to appear loyal to the ANC, the SACP stated:
"Without locking ourselves into a language use debate...we are of the view as the SACP that in order to keep with the spirit and intent of the proposals the phrase essential service must be dropped...Concepts are not used in abstract in society but are an approximation of reality, as it exists..."
It is, as a trade union media officer remarked: "Many words that say absolutely nothing." But the meaning seems clear: both Cosatu and the SACP are already committed to supporting the ANC in the forthcoming elections as part of a united alliance. At the same time, both partners are opposed to several ANC policies about which no compromise seems possible.
One temporary way out of this potential conflict lies in rebranding and rephrasing. This the ANC did when the the youth wage subsidy policy this week became an undefined "youth employment support and incentive scheme". And removing from teachers their right to strike, became merely "a matter for discussion".
However, ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe has not retracted his comment that the unions and the government are "on the same page" regarding the youth wage subsidy. For this he was singled out for "jumping the gun" and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi flatly contradicted him.
Vavi noted that a youth wage subsidy to employers "does not even form part of the comprehensive package" of measures currently being negotiated at the National Education Development and Labour Council (Nedlac).
Vavi was supported by Federation of Unions general secretary Dennis George, who pointed out that Nedlac's comprehensive package acknowledges that the present education system "does not prepare people for the world of work". And the general secretary of the National Council of Trade Unions, Narious Moloto, warned that Mantashe's statements amounted to treating an important institution as "a toy telephone".
"Nedlac is the forum where issues like the proposal to make teaching an essential service should also be discussed," says George.
These rows continued yesterday as the first news arrived of the problems triggered by the new farm wage determination. Farmers in Limpopo and Mpumalanga have started retrenching permanent workers before the new wage rate comes into effect on March 1.
But there is more to this than R105: announcing the new rate, Oliphant said it was payment for a nine-hour day. This means an hourly rate of R11.66 for a 45-hour week, the maximum time anyone may legally work before qualifying for overtime pay.
Overtime, according to Basic Conditions of Employment legislation, must be rewarded by "at least one-half times the employee's wage". A sixth, nine-hour day -- a normal situation during harvesting -- would therefore qualify for payment of at least R152.50.
With casual workers, farmers can easily avoid additional payments by employing workers on different days from the army of unemployed. So one immediate effect of the new wage deal appears to be greater casualisation -- and more work for the labour brokers the unions bitterly oppose.
Oliphant also appears to have overlooked other workers who earn often much less than R105 a day. Some public works programmes pay as little as R30 and the minimum rate for a rural domestic, for example, is R68.85.
Given this background, Mantashe's comment that "there will be no blood on the floor" between government and the unions over coming months may be a case of wishful thinking. Especially since the government also seems determined to introduce e-tolling and to pass the Protection of State Information Bill.
This "Secrecy Bill" is opposed by the entire labour movement, and, like the ongoing battle against e-tolls, the unions are allied with quite solid community support.
Watch this space.