PROPOSED amendments to SA 's labour laws on organisational rights could result in increased rivalry among unions and a "proliferation of unions", analysts said yesterday.

A bitter rivalry over organisational rights between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) resulted in wildcat strikes at Impala Platinum Mine in Rustenburg, legal action and millions of rand in lost production.

The legislation - at present before Parliament - aims to facilitate the granting of organisational rights to unions that are "sufficiently representative". Current legislation allows for organisational rights to majority unions, with representation of 50% plus 1, and entitles them to access, subscriptions, leave for trade union work, shop stewards and disclosure of information.

Unions can be deemed "sufficiently representative" by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) even if their membership stands below 50%. They are afforded limited rights of access, the deduction of subscriptions and leave for union work.

The amendments propose that unions below the 50% threshold now be afforded all the rights of majority unions in the absence of a majority union, said Eversheds head of employment law Imraan Mahomed.

This would bode well for unions such as Amcu, which claims to be making headway even in mines that had not been organised by the dominant NUM. Amcu general secretary Jeff Mphahlele said this would benefit his union enormously, as employers had previously "hidden" behind the 50%-plus-1 stipulation in the Labour Relations Act.

"There would be a great improvement ... this will be a compelling factor, to ensure that any member obtains access. Unions like ours would benefit greatly," he said.

Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) parliamentary officer Prikashnee Govender said the amendment was an "important advance" as it "addressed the technical restrictions which blocked union access". The provision was not automatic, she said, as the CCMA commissioner would have discretion over the granting of rights.

Labour economist Andrew Levy said many larger unions, such as the NUM, were "shielded from competition" by the current legislation.

Now smaller unions would be able to gain a foothold - which could lead to increased union rivalry once these unions had established themselves, he said.

Mr Mahomed said the laws would worsen problems in the workplace. "The amendments will in my view dilute the existing principle of majoritarianism we have in place and open the door to more union rivalry," he said.

Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) general secretary Dennis George said the proposed legislation increased "worker democracy", whereby employees could have a say even if their unions did not make the cut to qualify as a majority union.

The amendments also opened the door for unions to club together to obtain representation.

He believed it would counter the principle of "majoritarianism".

South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry CE Neren Rau said the extension of organisational rights was a concern, particularly for small and medium-size enterprises, as it would make the process of engaging with labour more complex.

marriann@bdfm.co.za