Conglomerate Bidvest has tried to block metal workers’ union Numsa from gaining a foothold in one of its subsidiaries by exploiting the bureaucratic hold-up with the union’s attempt to register a new constitution.
This comes as Numsa is already fighting its own sister unions in union federation Cosatu about their “one sector, one union” policy as it tries to become a much larger general union.
Bidvest subsidiary Bidvest Foodservice went to the labour court last week to stop Numsa from calling a small strike at one of its operations.
The only strike demand is that Numsa get organisational rights at the company after having gained 160 or so members.
According to Bidvest, that demand is unlawful because Numsa’s own constitution defines its scope as being in the metals and engineering sector only.
The argument exploited the fact that the registrar of labour has this year refused to accept the new constitution Numsa drew up at its special national congress late last year.
The new constitution expanded Numsa’s scope, but was rejected by the registrar because of a handful of other failings.
According to the registrar, Johan Crouse, the new Numsa constitution interpreted the law around strike ballot procedures incorrectly, among a few other things.
It was rejected with the understanding the union would fix the flaws and resubmit it, he said.
There is no legal requirement that a union specifically define which sectors it is organising in, and it is perfectly acceptable for a union to register a constitution that says “we are open to all workers”, says Crouse.
Numsa’s current constitution includes a long and precise list of what it considers to be part of the “metals and engineering” sector, but the only reason for that is to honour the Cosatu policy of one union per sector.
Bidvest’s court bid for an interdict against the Numsa strike failed anyway.
According to labour court Judge Anton Steenkamp’s judgment last Friday, Numsa may very well fail to get recognised at Bidvest due to its constitution – but this does not remove its members’ right to strike.
Unionisation at Bidvest is patchy despite the company being one of the major private sector employers in South Africa.
Only about 29% of its roughly 86?000 South African employees belong to a union, according to its last annual report.
The union membership varies “widely” between the many different segments in the group, which range from contract cleaning to banking.
Some of its affiliates are organised by the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, and others by Cosatu’s chemical sector affiliate Ceppwawu.
Numsa has been trying to get organisational rights at Bidvest Foodservice since July this year. The dispute went to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration in September, and by October 20, it was declared unresolved.
This allows Numsa to either launch a protected strike or take the matter to arbitration.
The fight at Bidvest echoes the far more acrimonious battle at Transnet, where Numsa has established a small presence in what is traditionally the turf of the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu).
Since January this year, Numsa gained about 100 members at Transnet’s Ngqura Container Terminal, out of about 625 workers.
Most of these had been Satawu members.
Numsa called a strike there in February, which led to a lockout by Transnet and escalated into violence. Transnet did not recognise Numsa, but in that case it was because its membership was below the company’s threshold.