Heat on unions over destructive protests

03 November 2011 - 02:22 By SIPHO MASONDO
Samwu strikers. File picture
Samwu strikers. File picture
Image: PEGGY NKOMO

The SA Local Government Association has asked parliament for the power to sue unions when striking workers loot and damage property.

Salga wants sections of the Labour Relations Act amended to pave the way for action to be taken against unions.

This comes at a time when Gauteng, South Africa's economic and business hub, is introducing measures to clamp down on protesters and marchers who become violent.

Salga will face stiff opposition from labour federation Cosatu, which says it will do whatever it can to oppose the attempt to have the act amended.

"We will oppose it legally," Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini said. "I'm sure it will go through parliament, Nedlac and public participation. We will mobilise against it; it's out of order."

In a presentation to the select committee on labour and public enterprise in parliament last week, Salga said the right to strike should be balanced with:

  • Protection of municipal, government and private property;
  • The rights of ordinary people, including hawkers, members of the public and non-striking workers; and
  • Health and environmental issues arising during strikes.

At present, the Labour Relations Act makes a union liable for damages and to pay compensation only if a strike is unlawful.

"The act is clear that every worker has a right to participate in the lawful activities of its union and every union has a right to plan and organise lawful activities. The question is what are the consequences of unlawful conduct during a lawful strike," Salga said. "Does a lawful and protected strike protect unlawful conduct during same? Why should an illegal act (damage to property) carried out within the context of a legal strike not attract punishment?"

The association said it advocated the amendment of section 68 (1) of the act to provide for compensatory damages even in strikes that comply with the law.

Salga said sometimes strikers deliberately looted and destroyed property, knowing they would get away with it.

"During the press conference at the signing of the current local government wage and salary agreement, in July 2009, members of the press asked the question around the acceptability of damage to property and trashing of rubbish bins. A union leader responded by asking, 'Is there a law that prohibits it?'" Salga said.

Cosatu's Dlamini said: "We know trashing of streets happens, but we do put measures [in place] to prevent it. We can't agree to [the amendment]; it is tantamount to union-bashing."

Dlamini said there was a danger that people who are not workers join strikes simply to create trouble. "Maybe they are planted to do just that. We all should take responsibility to ensure things go well."

Gauteng head of communications Matlakala Motloung said the province would ask all its municipalities to impose conditions on strikers, protesters and marchers.

"These conditions may be in the form of money, collateral or a letter making commitments that should anything go wrong, they will be responsible. There needs to be a common approach to public gatherings. We are saying people must take responsibility.

"During strikes small businesses suffer and hawkers are [robbed]. The damage is immense," Motloung said.

Johannesburg especially has experienced strikes in which streets have been dirtied and property damaged. Unions have always distanced themselves from their members' destructive actions.

In March, the DA submitted a private member's bill in parliament proposing that unions be forced to take steps to prevent their members from engaging in violence; that courts be empowered to stop a strike that has become excessively violent by forcing the parties into arbitration; and that courts be empowered to award punitive damages against unions whose members have committed violence, injured innocent parties or damaged property in the course of industrial action.

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