Striking a deal can be sole-less . . .

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Welcome, class, to the start of another school year. I’m your substitute teacher for this week. Today, we are going to start by doing a very simple exercise in arithmetic. “Arithmetic” means “the branch of mathematics dealing with the properties and manipulation of numbers”.

Let us pretend that there is a company making shoes; which is run by a lovely woman named Angie and has an equally nice group of employees whose spokesman is John. Angie is currently paying John and his friends R100 000 per month to make shoes.

So John goes to Angie to talk about their pay increase for the next year. John says that life is really hard for them, their expenses have gone up, and they want R120 000 per month next year.

Angie in turn says business has been really bad, many people are now not wearing shoes, especially in rural areas, the company’s expenses have gone up, and she can only pay John and his friends R105 000 per month.

So John and Angie argue back and forth for a long time and then finally agree that Angie will pay John and his friends R110 000 per month, but that John and his friends won’t work at all in April and Angie won’t pay John and his friends at all in April. They shake hands, smile, thank each other for a nice discussion, and agree to meet again.

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John goes back to his friends and tells them what he’s agreed to. His friends are very happy because Angie originally offered R105 000 per month and John got her to go up to R110 000 per month. They say three cheers for John and agree that they could not have done as well without him.

So class, here is my homework question for you: where can Sipho go in April to buy shoes?

If this sounds like a nonsensical tale, please bear with me. You see, it’s barely a fortnight into this academic year, and teachers’ union Sadtu has already dashed any hopes of a strike-free 2012.

A news report this week quotes Sadtu General Secretary John Maluleke saying that the union cannot guarantee that its 250 000 members would not down chalk this year.

“Almost every year in the past decade — Sadtu — a union aligned to the ruling party — has disrupted schooling by embarking on strikes — some lasting for more than a month,” said the report. “Pupils have in the past had to resort to organising their own classes to prepare for exams — as teachers abandoned their posts.”

And why is this relevant to the story of John and Angie? Well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that whereas Angie originally offered to pay John R1 260 000 per year, she in fact ends up paying John R1 210 000 per year. Angie has saved R50 000 per year.

And this is why I am presenting this lesson in arithmetic; it’s for the benefit of Sadtu members.

Every year, Sadtu’s John Maluleke (or his representative) sits down with Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga (or her representative) to discuss pay increases for Sadtu members. Angie, following the advice of the finance minister, offers an inflation-linked amount. John asks for more than double that amount. Sadtu goes on strike for a month or thereabouts. Sadtu and the government reach agreement on a percentage that is roughly halfway between their starting points, and teachers go back to work.

But in the month that the Sadtu teachers have been away from work, the “no work, no pay” rule applies. So the teachers end up worse off than they would have been if they had accepted Angie’s offer in the first place.

How on earth did these people get to be teachers in the first place? Surely being able to read, write, and count should be prerequisites for becoming an educator?

But the bigger picture is not about who has come out better off at the end of wage talks; it is about the fact that Sipho now walks barefoot so frequently that he decides that wearing shoes is not for him.1

  • 1. The print version ended at this point because Ronnie Borain preferred it as a punchline. My original added the following:

    Angie in turn realises that they are selling fewer shoes and so tells John that some of his friends who are slower than the others have to leave work. John and his friends stop work in protest. They make fewer shoes as a result…