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In times of union rivalry

Author: Imraan Mahomed - Practice Area Lead, Employment/Labour Law

SAFTU recently launched itself under the name South African Federation of Trade Unions and enters into the fray on the heels of four other existing union federations. This is not going to settle the workplace; on the contrary, it is going to stir things up. 

Regrettably, SAFTU does not launch itself in a growing economy that calls for more trade unions. It is on the opposite spectrum that SAFTU is born. It is born, in very uncertain economic times and where the economic outlook is bleak and gloomy. 

So, where does SAFTU as a start-up federation with an already large number of trade unions affiliated to it gain new membership? This is so where its philosophy is the same as that of COSATU, perhaps its greatest rival: "one industry, one union"? It will seem that poaching members from other unions is the only way to keep membership numbers up. 

Many seasoned ER/HR practitioners in unionised environments will bear testimony to the fact that in recent times there has been an increase in intra-union rivalry. SAFTU's entry into the fray is only going to move intra-union rivalry to outright competing union rivalry. With this comes the question of the conduct of union representatives across the workplace.

Sometime ago, I overhead a recently appointed shop steward in Northern Natal say to his colleague: "It's great to be a shoppie, management can't touch you." Is this true?

This misnomer runs deep in my experience and has its origins in the old "anything goes" principle of the late 80s, which was derived from the old Industrial Court. The Industrial Court in Harvestime Corporation held that: "(A)n employee, when he approaches or negotiates with a senior official or management, in his capacity as shop steward, does so on virtually an equal level with such senior official or management and the ordinary rules applicable to the normal employer-employee relationship are then somewhat relaxed." But does this give a shop steward carte blanche to behaviour in an unbridled fashion in the workplace?

There is obviously a balance to strike between the right of the shop steward to exercise his/her functions as the representative of the union and the right of the employer to discipline shop stewards when exercising their duties as shop stewards for acts of misconduct. 

Our courts hold the view that a shop steward should fearlessly pursue the interest of his/her constituency and ought to be protected against any form of victimisation for doing so by his/her employer. This accords with our constitutional dispensation and can hardly be faulted. However, it is important that a shop steward bear in mind that this is no licence to resort to defiance and needless confrontation. After all, a shop steward remains an employee, from whom his employer is entitled to expect conduct that is appropriate to that relationship. The fact that the bargaining meetings often degenerate does not mean that one should jettison the principle that, as in the workplace, at the negotiation table the employer and the employee should treat each other with the respect they both deserve. Assaults and threats thereof are not conducive to harmony or to productive negotiation. 

In conclusion, it is accordingly unacceptable to hold the view that when one acts in a representative capacity “anything goes” as it simply "does not" neither in deep Northern Natal nor the rest of the country.

Also published in Legal Times on 7 July 2017.


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