Whose business is this strike? More questions than answers.

For more than a week public sector strikers have been picketing vital public services of health and education. Why?

In a Business Day article yesterday (25.8.2010) John Brand refers to the Constitutional right to strike suggesting that “A violent class war by workers against employers is not the kind of conflict the constitution intends to protect.”

This implies that these strikes are evident of a violent class conflict? Is this correct?

In the past South Africans would have assumed that striking workers are “working class”, partly because until now there has been minimal unionisation of managerial, scientific, technical and academic occupations.

Yes, there are many workers who are clearly working class. But here we have many tertiary-educated employees so enraged about their conditions that they feel it necessary to embark on a protracted strike – in an environment where there is no strike fund available to support their families, and we know that most working people support at least another 4 people who are not working. Previously Doctors have gone out on strike. Why would they do this?

Are these not professional occupations? Do people who have studied for a tertiary qualification expect to live a “middle-class” lifestyle?

Let’s ask ourselves, would they be going on strike if they were adequately housed? If they felt that they could afford to feed and clothe their children, pay for transport to and from their work and children’s schools, for school fees and uniforms and other school essentials, and if they had – and could pay for – the basic services of electricity, and water, and refuse removal?

On consideration of this question, let’s suggest probably not.

Some observing the strike have asked: aren’t these essential services – should they be allowed to strike? Essential service workers may go on strike, after the employer and the union have identified essential service jobs and minimal service level agreements. (A whole industry or public service cannot receive a blanket “essential service” classification.) The union then has the responsibility to organise the roster of employees to fill the essential service jobs.

Why hasn’t this been concluded?

And what do we – as the public using these services – see as essential service jobs? For example: is a cleaner in a hospital an essential service?

Why has there not been a review of all public sector jobs, dealing not only with whether they are essential services, but also with what they should be paid? Simply because we have a large pool of unemployed people, does this mean that we should underpay qualified people in employment?

We have a shortage of trained teachers and nurses. One of the factors contributing to that shortage is that qualified people can obtain a much higher rate, by working in the Middle East, Europe and the UK.

Why have we simply adopted the salary levels that existed during apartheid and added x% each year? A basic understanding of how percentages work demonstrates why our salary range has widened from top to bottom.

What role is the Human Resource Department of each of the state departments playing in analysing the jobs and ascertaining appropriate packages? Or has this become completely divorced from human resource management and seen only as the preserve of the bargaining council? Is this part of the problem?

The information released to the public that included amounts accruing from a performance management system concluded in previous agreements was simply insulting to the public and antagonised the strikers further. As it is clearly a “cost to the employer” issue, it should have been stated as such, and not included in the current year bargaining calculations.

There may be more questions than answers, but unless we as the general public take an interest in these issues, and put pressure on our government – yes they are our government no matter who you actually voted for – to address these issues, and to provide us with their plan for doing so, these strikes will continue year after year – probably becoming more vociferous and more violent, as desperation increases. After all they are our teachers and our nurses.

We are the most unequal country on the planet. The maternal and infant mortality rates have worsened – that is more women giving birth and more newborn babies are dying than in the previous decade. Surely, we cannot continue to go about our daily business and ignore these facts. It’s a pity that we’ve already wasted so much time – and so much money – but that is now past.

The World Cup demonstrated to us that we can do whatever we set out minds to – now we need to set our minds to addressing not only the poverty of the unemployed, but also the poverty of many working people. It’s in all our interest, and most especially of our children and grandchildren.

(This article uses teachers and nurses as an example, but clearly many other jobs are represented in the strike.)

Prepared for the Skills-Universe

By sylvia hammond

26 August 2010

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