The South African Federation of Trade Unions congratulates its affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), on its important victory in the Labour Appeal Court (LAC) which found in favour of the union.
The case arose from an application to interdict strikes brought by two companies, Foskor and Mahle Behr, who argued that NUMSA had failed to ballot their members before calling the strikes, as required by the Labour Relations Amendment Act No. 8 of 2018. Judge Gush in the KwaZulu-Natal Labour Court agreed with the employers and interdicted both strikes in March 2019.
But the LAC has overturned this decision, on the grounds that the Act includes transitional provisions, which recognise the time it takes for unions’ constitutions to be amended and says that the requirement for compulsory ballots can only be triggered after the Registrar of Trade Relations has issued a directive for the union to amend its constitution.
The LAC ruled that a secret ballot was not required because the registrar had not consulted with NUMSA and had not issued any directive to it to amend its constitution to provide for a secret ballot.
This is a significant victory which basically means that until the Registrar complies with the terms of section 19 of the LRA, workers may embark on strike action without being forced to ballot first.
SAFTU further congratulates NUMSA on the major gains it has made for workers of both companies following the strikes, winning improvements in allowances, compact and recognition agreements, shares of profits going to workers, better health and safety provisions and, above all, the right to strike.
As NUMSA says: “This is truly a victory for our members and for the working class at large. This victory has inspired us to work even harder to defend the interests of workers and their families.”
But the struggle continues! All unions still have to fight against all the other provisions of the Labour Relations Amendment Act, which SAFTU has consistently opposed. SAFTU had drafted a militant programme to fight these other attacks on the working class such as austerity programme, the worsening quadrable crisis of unemployment, poverty, inequalities and corruption. The ruling class and ruling elites have the COVID-19 and lockdown to thank. The workers and their class allies must remain in the trenches so that they can start the ball rolling immediately after the lockdown get lifted.
On secret ballots SAFTU has always been clear. It is absolutely committed to its members having democratic control over their unions, with the election of leading bodies, and votes on whether to accept or reject negotiated settlements or whether or not to strike.
But decisions on what should or should not be in union constitutions and decisions on the best way to consult members over strikes must be taken democratically by an elected structure of a union, not imposed by the employers and the government.
Unions have every right to choose to ballot their members before any industrial action is taken and many unions already have clauses in their constitution committing them to organise such ballots.
But they also the right to organise workplace mass meetings to decide on strike action, where members can hear and join in the arguments for and against in an open forum.
It is for the union to decide whether they want to have a ballot provision of not to have one. The employers and the government cannot claim to want unions to be under the control of members when they then want to dictate what must be in a union constitution, against the decisions of workers. It must be the workers, not the government, who decide!
Unions will also have to fight the Act’s provisions which impose complex bureaucratic rules on picketing outside employers’ premises, which render it virtually impossible for strikers to speak to replacement workers who are being recruited to break a strike. Above all picketing has systematically been removed as a weapon workers can use as the courts and the employers insist that workers must picket up to 100 meters away from the gates of the employers. This we are taking to the Constitutional Court and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Workers also face the challenge of the clauses in the Act which provide for the establishment of an advisory arbitration panel supposedly to deal with “long and violent strike action in the interest of labour stability” but which in reality will provide employers and government with powers to delay, frustrate and even ban strikes and picketing by workers.
This Act is a blatant attack on workers’ constitutional right to withdraw their labour and shifts power even more firmly into the hands of the employers who already have the upper hand in industrial disputes. The federations who negotiated these amendments had no mandate from their own members to cooperate with the ruling class to emasculate workers and tie their hands from behind at the time when the bosses are relentlessly attacking the working class.
SAFTU applauds NUMSA’s dogged determination to fight every inch of the way to defend their members against wealthy employers, and we shall continue to back the union if the bosses decide to appeal the ruling, and in the battles that lie ahead for NUMSA and every other union in the coming months and years.