The South African civil servant’s strike for better wages and living conditions has affected essential service provision. Schools in the townships are closed and there is a break down of services in government hospitals. Striking civil servants are seen to intimidate those who will not strike and to prevent access to schools and hospitals while schoolchildren wander around in frustration and patients are neglected. And there are some dire consequences: deaths of a few critically ill patients and threatened violence at schools and hospitals. But the suffering of parents, pupils and patients is regarded as collateral damage.
And because the suffering of pupils and patients is obvious, the striking civil servants are seen as morally irresponsible and heartless. But teachers and nurses do not embark on strikes lightly; they are aware of the essential nature of their services and their moral obligations. They undertake strikes only when personal circumstances become intolerable. And one has to acknowledge that teachers and nurses are traditionally the lowest paid of professionals because they are government employees. As they are not independent professionals and are dependent on the state, it is easy to take them for granted and subject them to subtle forms of exploitation.
Their welfare is in the hands of bureaucrats who operate in a perfunctory manner and treat them as ciphers in the system. Teachers and nurses, because they are a mass of workers, are regulated and controlled like those in a factory even though they are called professionals. They are civil servants and as servants unquestioning loyalty is demanded of them. How then do they protect themselves from exploitation? Like other workers, their vulnerability stems from dependency on employers and the only recourse open to them is to embark on strikes. With other workers, striking is purely a matter of economics but teachers’ and nurses’ strikes affect other vulnerable people, pupils and patients mainly from the poor sector and takes on a moral consideration; So when teachers and nurses strike, it is considered morally reprehensible. But what other choice do they have against unfair employment practices?
All strikes, whether of civil servants or other workers, affect society negatively. And it is usually the poor and vulnerable who suffer most. That is unavoidable. What is avoidable is the strike itself. So why do workers embark on strikes? They do so when they perceive that they are being exploited. The way to avoid strikes is for employers and employees to come to equitable arrangements that do not simply cater for needs of the moment but take into account changing circumstances and make provision for a lifetime of service. Workers must feel confident that with each year of service, their circumstances are improving, not falling back, and a decent life is within their reach. Living in the moment (a present day cliché) is not good enough. Employers and employees must look to the future and make provision for continuous growth and development not only of the enterprise and its managers but also of those employed in it, the workers who keep it running.
There have been strikes of nurses, doctors and teachers before but compared to this strike they were merely demonstrations. This strike has an earnestness that cannot be ignored. What has exacerbated the situation is the corruption that is perceived in government. Where those who came into power on the strength of the Freedom Charter are seen to be abusing power for their own personal advantage, workers who remain in states of poverty are outraged and forced into taking desperate measures.