/ 18 October 2009

Unions cite dirty tricks

South Africa’s two military trade unions allege that the government is manoeuvring to get rid of them after the department of defence demanded evidence that the unions meet the minimum threshold to be part of the Military Bargaining Council.

But in a move that could make it difficult for the defence force to dismiss them, the South African National Defence Union (Sandu) and the South African Security Forces Union (Sasfu) have applied to the bargaining council to be admitted as one union. A minimum membership of 15 000 is required for participation in the council. Sandu is part of the council, but Sasfu is not. Defence regulations and the constitution of the council allow two unions to come together and be represented as one at the bargaining council.

Sasfu tried to attend a meeting of the council a fortnight ago but was ejected. “Sandu is entitled to three seats at the council, so we wanted to give one to Sasfu,” said Sandu president Mosima Mosima. But Colonel Phillip Dlamini, a South African National Defence Force (SANDF) representative on the council, said Sandu was trying to bring Sasfu in through the “back door”. Sasfu has failed to supply necessary documents supporting the merger of the unions, Dlamini said.

The unions have until October 26 to present an application with evidence of membership figures, Dlamini said. Sandu claims to have between 17 000 and 17 500 members, but the defence force says it has records showing only 12 932 members.

Sasfu claims to have more than 16 000 members, but Dlamini contests this figure. “What we have as an employer is the number that we pay for,” he said.

The unions claim the SANDF has manipulated the numbers. Said Sasfu president Bhekinkosi Mvovo: “They are always making sure that we do not meet the threshold, either by not implementing subscriptions or by removing some members from the database.”

Sandu general secretary Pikkie Greeff accused the SANDF of refusing to pay more than 4000 subscription fees for this union’s members and said Sandu did not rule out approaching the courts to ensure its existence.

Greeff said the defence force had already lost four legal cases concerning Sandu’s membership; and that courts have ordered the SANDF to pay R4-million in outstanding membership fees.

“They are unable to justify why they have not been paying for some members’ subscription,” Greeff said.

If the unions fail in their application to be recognised as one union at the council, they could find themselves out in the cold.

“They don’t provide their audited annual financial statements, they don’t want to tell us what they do with the money and they don’t want to provide audited membership figures,” said Minister of Defence Lindiwe Sisulu’s spokesperson, Ndivhuwo Mabaya.

“Whenever our human resources people try to speak to them about membership, they run to the courts. Are we saying the relationship between the military command and the unions has to be adjudicated by the judges?” Mabaya said.

Dlamini agreed that huge damage has been done to the relationship between the military and the trade unions, saying the “trust is gone… The relationship has been in and out of court more than it has been in the bargaining council.”