One strike and you’re out – registrar tells unions

The department of employment and labour has said it is not using new strike ballot rules to take aim at labour federation Cosatu’s rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu).

In the wake of the labour registrar’s decision to deregister the Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (Demawusa), department spokesperson Teboho Thejane said that all unions have been warned that failure to comply with strike balloting rules will have ramifications.

“Irrespective of whether they are affiliated with Nedlac [the National Economic Development and Labour Council] federations or not, all have been made aware of the consequences.”

A relatively small union, Demawusa was founded in 2015 in reaction to corruption allegations at the Cosatu-affiliated South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu). Demawusa joined Saftu, which has not yet been given a seat at Nedlac.

Demawusa’s deregistration makes it the first casualty of the strike ballot provision, which requires trade unions to conduct a vote in secret before embarking on industrial action.

When the rule came into effect in September last year, the department released a statement warning that “it is now illegal to embark on a strike action before conducting a secret ballot of members”.

Critics, including Cosatu, described the move as inflammatory, pointing out that there is no such thing as an illegal strike.

Saftu took their criticism one step further, saying that the secret strike ballot provision “emanates from a class collaboration that took place behind closed doors at Nedlac between government and sweetheart unions”.

When Demawusa was deregistered, Saftu took a similar stance, accusing the registrar of targeting its affiliates.

Demawusa agreed. In a statement, the union’s president, Sello Selepe, said: “Ever since the formation of Saftu, there have been attempts to undermine its strength”.

The union’s deregistration came as a result of a successful effort by Johannesburg Metrobus to interdict its workers from going on strike.

In its application to the labour court, Metrobus argued that the strike by Demawusa members could not be protected because of the union’s failure to hold a secret ballot.

According to Thejane, in September last year the registrar wrote to Demawusa to ask if the secret ballot was held.

The following month the union confirmed that it did conduct a secret ballot, but when the registrar asked for a record of the ballot it was never provided, Thejane said.

But, according to Demawusa, “the ballot, and all of the documentary evidence required to ensure it was a free and fair ballot were carefully assembled and stored for scrutiny”.

Thejane also said there is “no basis” for Saftu’s accusation that the department has sided with Cosatu against its competition.

He noted that the registrar has decided to place three unions affiliated to Cosatu — Samwu, the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union and the South African Medical Association Trade Union — under administration.

(John McCann/M&G)

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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