Monday, May 16, 2011

Faces without noses.

Here we go again! There’s a rumbling on the labour front in the not so metaphoric “silly season” of public service wage negotiations.

The latest salvo is the suspended municipal workers strike which intended to involve some 220 thousand members and threatened to cripple the already poor service delivery. Quite puzzlingly, South African Municipal Workers spokesperson, Tahir Sema claims that their real motive is to improve service delivery! Included in this demand is a call for the sacking of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka.

The attempt to glorify the strike as an act of concern for ratepayers and recipients of municipal services rings rather hollow when you unpack the Union’s solutions: one being a demand that President Zuma not sign into law the Municipal Amendment Bill which is intended to "depoliticise" municipalities and ensure they appoint skilled people. Another is to scrap provincial governments and divert their funds to local authorities. Even the most ardent supporters of decentralised power (of which I am one) would baulk at the idea. What would happen to the hundreds of thousands of provincial government employees? One shudders to think what incompetent local authorities would do with the extra manpower and extra funding. Even our best run municipalities are nowhere near the proficiency of a Swiss Canton. A third “grievance” is the old perennial of opposition to outsourcing of services. People intent on service should not be too concerned about where the service comes from, but rather how they can do better.

clip_image002Adding to the rumblings of a bigger storm cloud is Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s warning this week that there was “no money to afford steep wage demands.” Few can forget the devastating 21 day civil service strike of last year. Images of patients dying in hospitals and empty seats at schools are still fresh in our minds. Initial empathy with underpaid teachers and nurses turned to anger as unruly vandalising crowds and scenes of violence were shown repeatedly on our television screens.

One of the silliest expressions in the English language is: “to cut off your nose to spite your face.” Who on earth would perform such a bizarre form of self-mutilation? But labour behaviour brings the metaphor to life. There are many civil servants and municipal workers out there who probably still have not made up what they lost in income during last year’s strikes. Certainly many a South African still conjures up those unfortunate images when they hear the word “nurse” or “teacher”.

We are proud of having an advanced labour-law framework. But it is a dispensation that many argue is far too utopian for a developing country like South Africa. Study after study shows that it is too inflexible to encourage employment. Felicity Duncan’s latest article and graph showing comparative unemployment rates is one confirmation of that.

Another is the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. In 2010/2011, of the 139 countries surveyed, South Africa ranked at 135 for hiring and firing practices, at 131 for flexibility of wage determination, and at 112 for pay and productivity.  There seems to be some hope that this penny has finally dropped.

Law is one thing. Behaviour is another. I believe the latter is far more important than the law itself. Without detracting from the important role business can play in ensuring a healthy level of trust at both individual and collective level, labour seems to be still locked in a destructive and outdated confrontational mode with its old enemy, “capital”, and is ready at any time to play the strike card.

The SAMWU action this past week is a good example. Even if we accept that negotiations have been underway for some time, the threat of a strike came out of the blue for many. Even non-sceptics saw the move as expedient ahead of the municipal elections. The subsequent “suspension after talks with the ANC” is equally expedient and disingenuous, leaving the threat hanging in the air and a lingering “we’ll show you who’s the boss”.

For good measure, SAMWU throws in its 18% increase demand. It then tries to legitimise this outrageous level by saying it is “only the opening bid and can be negotiated down”. “It should not be taken seriously”, said Tahir Sema. Then why say it at all? Apart from the obvious ploy of claiming kudos for being conciliatory when the settlement is at a more legitimate level, it creates expectations and heat in an already inflamed environment.

We know we live in a violent society, one that we keep on trying to rationalise in avoiding our own present day accountability. The source of most violence starts at a much more innocuous level, at minor confrontations leading to intransigent positioning, then to strikes and then to violence. Have we not come to accept this process too readily?

Lasting and legitimate power is never achieved through coercion. That is control, and control without legitimate power sows the seeds of its own destruction.

Legitimate power can only be earned by contributing to those around you. It is also where true empowerment comes from.

Will we have more faces without noses in the months ahead?

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