Labour consultant Tony Healy says the recent court ruling on the rights of minority unions could destabilise workplaces, as it promotes the proliferation of numerous groupings. File picture
Labour consultant Tony Healy says the recent court ruling on the rights of minority unions could destabilise workplaces, as it promotes the proliferation of numerous groupings. File picture

A Constitutional Court ruling that has reinforced the organisational rights of minority trade unions in the workplace will lead to chaos and heightened inter-union rivalry.

Organisational rights refer to access to workplaces for union organisers, the deduction of union subscriptions from employees’ wages and time off for trade union activities.

Labour experts have told Business Day that though the judgment handed down on Friday confirmed existing trends, it was problematic.

The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) filed an appeal application at the Constitutional Court following a drawn-out battle to revoke the SA Correctional Services Workers Union’s (Sacoswu) recognition at the department of correctional services, where the former is a majority union.

The department entered into a collective bargaining agreement with Sacoswu in 2010, giving it rights to represent its members at disciplinary hearings, among others.

This was in spite of an existing threshold agreement Popcru had with the employer since 2001, barring the admission of unions with fewer than 9,000 members to the departmental bargaining council. Sacoswu only had 1,500 members then.

However, the Constitutional Court dismissed Popcru’s appeal, with deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo stating that the department was not precluded from concluding a collective agreement on organisational rights with Sacoswu while its threshold agreement with Popcru was still operational.

"The interpretation I have adopted above results in a regime in which statutory rights and contractual rights on the same subject exist side by side. That is not an unusual situation in our law," Zondo said.

The provisions of the Labour Relations Act in question have also undergone some changes since the matter between the two unions and the department first arose.

The act underwent major amendments in 2015. Among these were inclusions of further organisational rights to minority unions, previously reserved for majority trade unions.

Labour consultant Tony Healy said the judgment has "rubber-stamped" the act’s amendments and also shifts the labour market from a majoritarian system where the "winner takes all".

"It promotes the proliferation of unions in a single workplace and can, depending on how far it goes, at best destabilise a workplace or wreak havoc," he said.

Labour law expert Albert Wocke said the country was one step closer to an "all-comers" approach that he was certain would result in instability and tension.

Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said that employers would probably also be affected by this approach.

mahlakoanat@businesslive.co.za