Saftu wants keys to the kingdom

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The SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) is gearing up for exactly the same battle that laid the previous new labour federation low – getting into Nedlac, the labour constituency that negotiates economic policy with business and government.

Rules set completely at the discretion of Nedlac’s three incumbent federations – the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) – already exclude the recently established Saftu simply because it is less than two years old.

This leaves the new federation at the mercy of the three, despite Saftu being the second-largest union federation in South Africa.

With roughly 680 000 members, Saftu is larger than Fedusa (whose members number 327 236) and Nactu (whose members number 263 694), combined.

Even after two years, the rules permit Cosatu and its peers at Nedlac to indefinitely deny Saftu membership – literally just because they do not like them.

On Friday, Saftu picketed outside Nedlac’s annual summit – which took place at Emperors Palace in Johannesburg – in protest against this “stonewalling”.

City Press has seen correspondence between Saftu’s lawyers and Nedlac since May, in which the lawyers enquire after the forms and rules for joining Nedlac.

As founding members of Nedlac, the incumbents are automatically part of negotiations with business and government.

Saftu’s initial request for a membership form and for the rules for admission to Nedlac was followed by more than a month’s silence before it received the rules.

On June 23, Saftu’s lawyers demanded the minutes of the meeting in which these rules were adopted. Two months later, they filed a request for Nedlac’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) records.

Saftu’s secretary general, Zwelinzima Vavi, told City Press that the Paia request would be “pursued all the way” – suggesting that the rules themselves will be challenged as being arbitrary or irregular.

Meanwhile, Nedlac claims that “there is no record of an application of membership yet”, which is subtly different from saying outright that there is no application.

“There is definitely an application,” Vavi told City Press on Thursday, before the summit and the accompanying protest.

Even if Saftu’s application has not been formally declined, it is clear from the rules that it will be – unless the incumbent federations feel like letting Saftu in.

And even if Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu arbitrarily invented conditions to stop Saftu from joining Nedlac, they may be perfectly within their rights to do so.

THIS HAS ALL HAPPENED BEFORE

Another new union federation was launched in 2003, and it also tried to join Nedlac.

The Confederation of SA Workers’ Unions (Consawu) ultimately lost its bid for a seat at the table in 2011, after taking its case to the Supreme Court of Appeal.

The judgment came with a cost order that Consawu is still paying off.

In Nedlac’s most recent annual report, it lists R429 608 in outstanding debt from Consawu.

The inability to crack Nedlac was a blow for the confederation, which lost many members straight afterwards, its secretary-general Piet du Plooy told City Press this week.

“It is a perception. People think social dialogue cannot happen outside Nedlac,” said Du Plooy.

“In reality, the major parties that should be part of social dialogue – vulnerable workers – are not at Nedlac.”

Consawu had been automatically excluded by a stipulation that it had to have 300 000 members. The confederation had 226 148. In court, Ebrahim Patel – who headed the labour constituency in Nedlac at the time – admitted that the membership threshold had “informally” been raised from an earlier level of 200 000 to a level that blocked Consawu.

The law was simply against Consawu, said Du Plooy.

“The Nedlac Act says it can set a threshold.”

The legal precedent does not bode well for Saftu, although the newer federation is almost three times larger and better resourced than Consawu was.

THE NEDLAC RULES

The rules state that the incumbent federations can block Saftu to defend Nedlac’s “stability”. The “extent to which the applicant may disrupt the effective functioning of the organised labour constituency” is another consideration.

Put bluntly, the rules allow Nedlac to base the decision to admit applicants on “the advantages to Nedlac and/or existing members of the organised labour constituency”.

Saftu has indicated that it will shake things up at Nedlac. One of its first promises after launching in April was to fight the “paltry” national minimum wage of R20 an hour that had been negotiated at Nedlac by the incumbent federations.

Dennis George, Fedusa’s general secretary, told City Press this week that the rules could be relaxed to let Saftu in – depending on how it motivated for its inclusion.

“They have to commit to working together as labour. We have an obligation to protect the integrity of the institution. There is no animosity from our side. There is no agenda to keep them out.”

Asked why Consawu did not succeed in attaining membership, George said it was different.

“They said they do not like the rules and went to court, where they lost all the way ... You must not be silly. Nedlac is not a place for grandstanding.”

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