Employers square off

2014-09-28 15:00

Survival of manufacturing bargaining council and metal union hang in the balance

The long battle over collective bargaining in the manufacturing sector is coming to a head. The labour court has given the Metals and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC) one month to fend off a legal attack that could undermine it completely.

In the balance is the survival of the largest private sector bargaining council, and the increasingly independent and politically active National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa).

The MEIBC is by far the most important institutional level Numsa has to affect changes in the labour market. It is the largest union in the council, which sets employment conditions for about 343?000 workers in the crucial manufacturing sector.

Making good on its long-standing promise to stop a new MEIBC wage deal, the National Employers’ Association of SA (Neasa) on Thursday went to court to block the three-year deal reached after July’s month-long Numsa strike.

The labour court granted interim relief and has given the MEIBC until November?4 to prepare for a hearing.

Neasa is applying for an interdict against the MEIBC to stop it from sending this year’s wage agreement to Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant in order for her to extend it to the entire sector.

These ministerial extensions are the basis on which bargaining councils function and blocking them amounts to making the councils redundant.

Neasa wants lower wage increases than those agreed to.

Neasa claims that the major employer group in the MEIBC, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of SA (Seifsa), cannot sign wage deals because it is a federation of employer groups – not an employer group itself, and this is not allowed in the MEIBC constitution.

That means the number of “employers” that signed the deal with Numsa, which was only Seifsa, is far below representative of the sector (see box).

Neasa also claims that a number of smaller employer groups are illegitimately being denied full voting membership.

The main argument in this week’s papers is that the MEIBC can’t really do anything because its management committee was improperly elected in April this year because of a variety of technical defects in the process.

A barrage of letters from Neasa and its lawyers to the MEIBC and its lawyers form part of Neasa’s court application and shed light on the complete breakdown of trust.

Last month, when the MEIBC ratified the wage deal, general secretary Thulani Mthiyane wrote a scathing letter to Gerhard Papenfus, Neasa’s CEO.

“It is apparent now that you have every intent to stop the functioning of the MEIBC,” he wrote.

Neasa’s attacks on the council “reflect a desire to challenge the foundations of the MEIBC on every technical argument, irrespective of its merit”, he added.

Mthiyane also lashed out at an “open letter” Neasa sent out after the wage deal at the end of July, accusing the insurgent employers’ group of holding views that do not sit well with the “current democratic dispensation”.

Neasa had earlier fought the extension of the MEIBC’s previous wage deal and won a short-lived victory by forcing the minister of labour to correct an error in her extension decision.

In numbers

The situation is complicated by an ongoing dispute about the actual membership of the unions and employer groups at the MEIBC, including Seifsa and Neasa.

This affects the voting rights in the council and also the ability of the minister of labour to extend the council’s agreements to the sector as a whole.

The outcome of an audit by the department of labour and the MEIBC, annexed to Neasa CEO Gerhard Papenfus’ application, cut the official numbers of practically everyone at the MEIBC.

For employer groups, the measure of representivity is how many workers their members employ, as a percentage of the total workforce that would be affected by the extension of the wage agreement.

Seifsa claims to have 137?091 of the 323?894 relevant workers (42%).

The verification report says Seifsa only has 110?768 (34%).

The minister will have to consider this 34% as “sufficiently representative” in order to extend the wage deal.

In his affidavit this week, Papenfus claims that Neasa employers have 83?022 workers spread over 3?044 companies. The MEIBC audit says this is really 45?951 workers at 2?255 companies.

This isn’t directly comparable to the Seifsa numbers, which exclude more than 100?000 workers in the sector who would not be covered by the wage deal due to their occupation or job grade.

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