PUBLIC service trade unions want to hold pay talks ahead of the government's budgeting process in order to prevent the protracted yearly battle between the government and labour in the sector.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions' (Cosatu's) affiliates expressed anger and frustration over an apparent climb-down by the state on a 6,9% wage increase and declared a dispute on Wednesday, bringing them a step closer to issuing a strike notice.

Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu met unions yesterday to discuss the impasse. This year's budget for public sector wage increases was 5%, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said in his February budget. The offer by the state was not at the sole discretion of the Department of Public Service and Administration but had to be made in consultation with the Treasury.

Cosatu affiliates' chief negotiator Mugwena Maluleke described the regime for public sector wage negotiations as "very difficult" as the bar was set way before negotiations could commence. "We want change, negotiations have to happen before the passing of the budget,"

He said negotiations were tough as they were pitted against Treasury's preset amount.

Independent Labour Caucus chairman and negotiator Chris Klopper yesterday concurred with Mr Mugwena. "We repeatedly have to start negotiating against Parliament. It makes good faith bargaining impossible."

The public service sector has the largest bargaining forum in SA. The combined trade unions negotiate for about 1,3-million workers.

Mr Klopper said the finance minister "threw down the gauntlet" with his budgeted 5%. There was also very little opportunity for unions to have any say in the budget as it was a parliamentary process and they were not represented there.

Public service and administration department spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya said budgeting ahead of negotiations not only constrained his department but the Treasury as well - the last offer of 6,7% exceeded the budget by some R8bn.

This was the motivation behind the state's insistence on a multiyear agreement in the negotiations. But the unions initially opposed this, demanding a single-term agreement. Labour analyst Tony Healy said public sector bargaining was not "especially difficult or uniquely prone" to negotiating after budgets were spelled out.