Unity shaky as unions bicker

Mary Papayya and Gertrude Makhafola

Mary Papayya and Gertrude Makhafola

The united front that public sector unions had presented for almost four weeks during the strike seemed to crumble yesterday.

Cosatu in the Western Cape yesterday announced that it would end the strike for the good of the public service, but did an about-turn later in the day.

After sending out a statement calling a media briefing to announce the "suspension" of the strike, Cosatu organiser in the province Mike Louw told journalists at the briefing: "We're not suspending the strike."

He conceded that some unions involved in the strike had jumped ship, but declined to name them.

Gavin Moultrie, president of the Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Union of South Africa (Hospersa), claimed that Cosatu was using the strike to pursue a political agenda.

Spokesman Noel Desfontaines said Hospersa had signed the government's new offer, which had surpassed the union's mandate for a wage settlement.

He said the "political agenda" being pushed by Cosatu's leaders was a factor in the decision.

"We are no longer in dispute with government," Desfontaines said. "Our original mandate for the wage negotiations was anything over 7  percent.

"Our decision was also prompted by the undertaking that no workers will be dismissed."

Desfontaines would, however, not elaborate on the nature of the "political agenda".

The National Professional Teacher's Union (Naptosa) said it has also suspended its participation in the strike, though its members have not accepted the government's offer.

Naptosa president David Balt said his members had suspended their strike because the government's latest offer signalled an end to the current round of negotiations.

"We have not signed the offer and will only do so once an acceptable and decent offer is put on the table.

"We have abandoned the strike because we feel we cannot use the withholding of labour as a tool when the employer has ended the negotiations."

The striking teachers' unity also seemed to be undermined by the fact that inland schools broke up for winter holidays on Friday.

Naptosa said that teachers at inland schools were on strike while on holiday and that it was unfair for coastal teachers to bear an additional week of striking.

Naptosa has 52000 members countrywide.

Meanwhile, thousands of Hospersa members started returning to work this week. The union's members countrywide gave leaders the mandate to sign the wage deal last Friday.

Hospersa was one of 17 public sector unions involved in the strike. The union has 86000 members, 23000 of whom are in KwaZulu-Natal.

"The majority of our workers are back at the hospitals. However, because of intimidation, workers are being prevented from entering RK Khan and Mahatma Gandhi Hospitals," said Desfontaines.

Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven said it was "unfortunate" that Hospersa had abandoned the strike.

"Cosatu is not pursuing a political agenda, nor is it being opportunistic," he said. "It is important that we remain united and represent our members' interests."

The Cosatu unions have dropped their wage demands from 10percent to 9percent.

The government has made a final wage offer of 7,5percent, together with improvements in medical aid contributions and housing subsidies.