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Friday, June 1, 2007

Gov't union strike begins, violence at hospital

Police used force, including tear gas and rubber bullets, to disperse a crowd of protesting workers blocking the entrance to Tygerberg Hospital this morning, as the national public service strike got under way, hampering government departments across South Africa.

Initial reports showed that workers had responded en masse to the call to start an indefinite strike to-day to fight for a 12% salary increase. The strike affected in varying degrees all government departments, from Home Affairs to Social Services, and also courts, schools, hospitals, clinics and the deeds office.

At Tygerberg, protesting workers blocked the main entrance early this morning, causing traffic mayhem outside and queues of several kilometres long. There were unconfirmed reports that the hospital had planned to fly in patients by helicopter to access the hospital.

Police in riot gear fired rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the crowd. By 8.45am the en-trance was reopened, but it was not clear at time of going to press whether the situation had stabilised.

Nehawu provincial secretary Suraya Jawoodeen claimed that at Groote Schuur, Tygerberg and Lentegeur hospitals, the strike was being hampered by police, who were threatening workers.

Labour federation Cosatu lashed out at the police for firing on striking public servants. Provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich accused the state of acting "with insensitivity" to workers' demands.

"The police are also public servants and it does not make sense when they respond in this way. We are also fighting for them to ensure that they get a 12% wage increase."

At the hospitals, hundreds of nurses, cleaners and some doctors had responded to a call from the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union to gather outside at the picket line at key hospitals this morning to "discourage scab labour".

Major pickets were organised across Cape Town at other key government sites, including Voortrek-ker Road in Bellville, Klipfontein Road in Athlone and around the cluster of government buildings around Wale Street in the CBD.

The strike action, organised by Cosatu and affiliates, and supported by a number of non-affiliated un-ions, followed a last-minute appeal by Public Service and Administration Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi to unions to desist from going on strike.

Unions asked their members to report for duty at the picket line at the entrance of their workplaces.

Striking workers at Groote Schuur told the Cape Argus that 25% of staff who had been assigned to work today in terms of a minimum service agreement had entered the building and nobody else would be allowed to enter the premises for work.
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A number of workers, including doctors, arrived at the main staff entrance, but were told to use a different entrance and were shouted at by the striking workers, who numbered about 400.

Schooling across the Western Cape ground to a virtual standstill this morning as thousands of teachers re-sponded to the call to stay away from work and the majority of pupils also failed to turn up for classes.

By 8am school parking lots were virtually deserted as teachers across the city gathered at key points to stage picket demonstrations. And teachers warned of further disruptions to schooling next week as strike action looks set to continue.

The city was much quieter than normal today as public servants responded to Cosatu's call.

At Home Affairs in Barrack Street, the doors opened as normal at 7.45am and people entered the building for service.

School children in uniform stood around at street corners after finding that their schools were not functioning normally today.

Speaking to journalists at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg late yesterday, Fraser-Moleketi said that should the strike continue, contingency plans were in place to ensure continued service.

"As much as we respect the … right to strike, we appeal to trade unions and their members to respect the right of em-ployees to work," she said.

Fraser-Moleketi said security services, including police, were on standby to deal with any situations of intimidation.

Unions have denied that they had made a breakthrough with the government with regard to their wage demands.

This came after Fraser-Moleketi said in Parliament that the parties were getting closer to an agreement.