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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address to the POPCRU Bargaining Conference by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary

13 October 2006, Parktonian Hotel, Johannesburg

President Zizamele Cebekhulu
General Secretary Abbey Witbooi
Members of the National Executive Committee
Delegates to this Bargaining Conference
Comrades and friends

I cannot recall when last I had an opportunity to address a POPCRU gathering. Today I feel truly honoured by your invitation. I am happy that I am returning to this union, with which I personally feel I have always enjoyed a very close relationship.

That relationship did not arise only out of friendship with the leadership of the union. It is informed by the work in which all of us were involved during the union’s early stages. Many of you will be aware of the efforts to build unity and address organisational challenges.

Now that we are no longer being called to address comrades occupying the union office and threatening others with violence or threatening to take union property, we can celebrate that POPCRU, after 17 years, has fully matured. It is therefore with a very full sense of pride and satisfaction that we can declare that under this leadership POPCRU has succeeded in consolidating unity and building the organisation.

Not only has the union amassed substantial resources as a result of its effective financial management, it has also experienced phenomenal growth in the last three years. Its membership climbed from 67 000 in 2003 to 103 000 in 2006.

To underscore the strength of the union last year, it effectively led correctional services into a strike. The workers stayed for months out of work whilst the union was negotiating and fighting for their reinstatement using every platform. Upheavals and strife normally happen under these conditions.

POPCRU led those workers with such precision that we did not experience that at all. Members knew who the enemy was and who was responsible for their suffering, and stuck with their union until the day of triumph and celebrations.

I want to take this opportunity to salute the President, General Secretary, the National Office Bearers, the National Executive Committee and the entire membership for these achievements. Thank you comrades!

We must however not be complacent. Many outside don’t like this stability and are threatened by the power of the union. They are particularly unhappy when public servants, their own employees, demand decent working conditions, respect and normal labour rights.

Even within the democratic movement, some want COSATU and POPCRU to be pawns they can use to advance their own interests and impose their own hegemony in the movement and in society as the whole. Some want to turn us away from our militant traditions into sweethearts of management. Some want to make us conveyor belts. They are threatened by our critical stance - they want lapdogs! They don’t like independent voices - they want docile unions they can manipulate!

Three weeks ago we held a watershed Ninth National Congress of our Federation. A glance at our resolutions confirms that this workers’ parliament made a number of important statements.

Workers are restless. They are angry that the first decade of democracy saw capital consolidating its hold on the economy, so that business benefited more in economic terms than working people and the poor.

Workers are also angry that they are not driving transformation. They are not happy that the Alliance has been reduced into a crisis manager, a mere machine to mobilise during elections campaigns. They have said enough is enough with marginalisation of the people and centralisation of power and policymaking. They have said the voice of the workers and the people must be strengthened. They want the power of the working class to be consolidated and they have grown intolerant of unemployment, poverty and growing inequalities.

Unity remains a key objective we must pursue after the congress. The COSATU National Office Bearers are aware of their responsibility to lead the Federation in this spirit.

But we are not talking about some unprincipled unity of convenience. Unity requires that all of us shun the unheard-of practices that we saw in the run up to the COSATU Ninth National Congress. There can be no unity if sections of leadership remain disloyal to agreed positions. Unity means we must all champion all the positions adopted in Congress. Unity cannot be achieved if some continue to speak as Mzekezeke in the media, saying things and making allegations that they know they could not back up in open forums of the movement. Unity cannot be achieved if we campaign against each other in private, rather than dealing openly with our disagreements.

The demon of tribalism and regionalism is another phenonomenon that we must openly confront and defeat in our ranks. We are and must remain a national, non-racial and non-sexist movement!

We all now face the challenge of ensuring uncompromising implementation of all our resolutions. As we do this, we shall be inviting all manner of criticisms from our class enemy. We shall be ridiculed, contested and attacked. The burden will be much lighter if we remain united in defence of our policies.

One lesson we should long have learned is that we must now allow a situation where only one person champions the most difficult policies and others are allowed to take cover. Doing that only isolates individuals, who become the targets of campaigns to discredit them. Ultimately, that weakens the whole movement. It makes a mockery of our commitment to unity and solidarity.

All of this sets the context of bargaining, which in the public service always has broader political and social ramifications.

Let me salute POCRU for holding this Bargaining Conference on the eve of the negotiations round in the Public Service Central Bargaining Council (PSCBC). This underlines what we are - a worker-controlled movement whose mandate is derived from members.

We cannot develop new demands if we don’t take time to analyse the previous bargaining rounds. One of the features of the 1990s was the phenomenal growth of public service unions. The 1994 breakthrough brought us many rights that we used to consolidate the unions’ role on the bargaining front. The combination of this new strength and a much more worker-friendly government led to us registering a number of victories. But we are also experienced set backs and defeats. In analysing our progress, we must tell no lies, and claim no easy victories.

We can understand the past in terms of long-term changes in staffing and conditions of service, as well as looking at our own ability to manage the bargaining process.

A major concern, not only for public servants but also for all workers, has been the gradual decline in the number of public servants. Between 1996 and 2004, the number of public servants fell by over 10%. At the same time, more and more people need public services. The population has grown, AIDS has led to higher dependency rates, and many more people are in jail. Yet we see growing staff shortages and vacancy rates.

The shortage of staff places an impossible burden on many public servants. It leads to demoralisation and a growing flight into the private sector and even overseas. Moreover, understaffing means government cannot meet its commitments to our communities, leaving them with poor quality work or even completely closed facilities.

The outcomes in terms of wages overall are far better. Public servants have consistently scored increases above inflation. We have made progress in extending pensions and medical benefits to all workers.

But we cannot claim to have won in this area. The biggest problem remains the failure to transform historically oppressive hierarchical and oppressive management, establishing career paths and access to training for all our members.

An historic aim of the working class, especially in South Africa, was to ensure that every worker could expect on-going career progress and lifelong learning. What have we seen instead?

We have seen the elimination of rank and leg promotions, without ensuring a more favourable career path for our members. It is not surprising that frustration has mounted, as public servants have no practical guarantee that they can move forward in their careers.

We have seen continued weak skills development in the public service. Our SETAs and in-service training both remain unacceptably poor. We need to clarify our demands in this regard, and ensure that our claims for training are clearly tied to our demands around career pathing.

Finally, the wage gap has again been growing in the public service. Between 1996 and the early 2000s, we saw massive improvements in pay for general assistants. That trend ended with the establishment of a separate and hugely inflated pay scale for the senior management service. We have to admit that COSATU no longer seems to have a concept on what remuneration should be across the public service.

We need to review, not only our material gains and losses, but also the balance of power in the bargaining council.

From this standpoint, the 1999 bargaining round to me stands up as the most significant reference point. It was during that round that we registered our first real setback. Government succeeded in imposing a wage settlement. It humiliated us by implementing a settlement not agreed to with the unions.

The 1999 round was where real rifts emerged between COSATU and the government. Labelling and intolerance began, leading to the unprecedented crisis of the Alliance in 2001 and 2002. The anti-privatisation campaign only laid bare contestation that first appeared in the 1999 public-service workers’ struggles.

Whilst we recognise the defeat in the 1999 bargaining round, we are making some progress towards turning this defeat into a victory. The signs of progress emerged in particular in the 2001 and 2002 round. In that round, government agreed create 20 000 jobs and to do more about career paths for workers. The 2001/2002 bargaining round indicated that government has realised that it should not have implemented a wage settlement unilaterally.

But we still to resolve the principal challenges that led to our defeat in 1999.

To start with, we still do not have a minimum-service agreement that would give health and security workers in government the right to strike. We have moved far too slowly on this front. Yet we know that the only way we can restore the image of the word “collective bargaining” from “collective begging” is when we release as many workers from the clutches of the essential services as we can.

Second, we must improve coordination at COSATU level. We have far too many COSATU unions in the public sector, indeed within the same industry in the public service. We must move faster to merge DENOSA and SADNU and NEHAWU and SASAWU, as well as PAWUSA and SAMWU. We must unite POPCRU with SAPU. SADTU must redouble its efforts to organise non-educators in education, and unite the remaining teachers associations and unions.

All this combines to make one statement – unless we achieve the historic goal of one union, one industry in the public sector, our strength will never realise its full potential. The employer will always be tempted to use divide-and-rule tactics. Unions will tend to compete on their narrow interests, making them vulnerable to divisions and conflict.

Third, we must strengthen our organisation and improve communication with the base. POPCRU is in a very healthy state, as we said earlier. But if only a handful of unions have a good organisational state, the many will simply pull down the better organised and make all of them look equally poor, or even create tensions between the unions.

Fourth, looking ahead to the bargaining round next year, we must raise the importance of linking worker and community struggles. This is the link that has been central to COSATU playing its role as representing not only its members, but also the wider working class, which includes the unemployed. This link is not a short-term one, which we use to put pressure during bargaining. Rather, it is integral to what distinguishes COSATU as a transformative trade union movement.

In this spirit, I wish to suggest that leadership of POPCRU take the opportunity to consult with community structures on the resolutions that are reached at this conference. In this context, it is critical that this conference addresses the crime situation in our country and how it relates to our demands for police and correctional workers.

We know that only the defeat of poverty and underdevelopment can ensure the defeat of crime. It is a nature of capitalist system to breed conditions of criminality, corruption and immorality. But the time has come for COSATU and the working class to play a much more active role in the fight against crime. We cannot afford to sit idle with such a massive organisational power and network when society is clearly threatened by heartless gangs and individuals who cause so much mayhem and pain. We shall be contacting the Minister of Safety and Security to look at new ways of fighting scourge of criminality in our society. We join POPCRU in condemning the attacks on law enforcement officials.

Last, if we decide that we must push things to the wires in order to reverse some of the setbacks we have suffered since 1999, then we must from the onset tell our members of this. We must mobilise them and our communities so that they know eventually we will require their might more than we did in the past. Psychologically they must be prepared for a fight. Organising for a strike must not be driven by instincts and anger in response to provocation by management. Strikes must be planned more effectively and be more political driven by the leadership.

These are our challenges. POPCRU should use this Bargaining Conference to confront these challenges. We wish you luck in your endeavours to represent the interests of your members in the next year’s crucial bargaining round. Victory is certain only if we learn from our past mistakes.