Sdumo Dlamini. Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Sdumo Dlamini. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

THE government and labour continue to be at loggerheads over strike balloting, an issue that Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant wants to enforce under threat of trade union deregistration.

The ongoing dispute flies in the face of the assurance given by President Jacob Zuma in his state of the nation address last Thursday that "a framework to stabilise the labour market by reducing the length of strikes and eliminating violence during strike action is being finalised".

Strike ballots are seen as one way of addressing these issues because they test worker support for stoppages and prevent strikes going ahead with the endorsement of only the trade union leadership and a small minority of members. Business is strongly in favour of strike ballots, which it believes should be part of a package of amendments to render the labour market more flexible and attractive to investors.

Protracted strikes, especially in the platinum and metals and engineering industries, in 2014 led to renewed calls for changes to labour legislation, with strike balloting emerging among the proposals on the table.

A provision for secret strike ballots to be compulsory if a strike were to be legal was removed from the Labour Relations Amendment Bill after fierce resistance by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) during parliamentary hearings more than a year ago.

Unions are firmly opposed to the Department of Labour’s proposals, which would require the vote of each worker to be noted and recorded over a proposed or ongoing industrial action.

Ms Oliphant said during a media briefing by the social development cluster of ministers on Tuesday that discussions were under way at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) and there was an agreement in principle that strike ballots should become a requirement. A concrete and final agreement would have to be reached by Nedlac’s committee of principals.

Ms Oliphant stressed that the legal advice obtained by the department on the requirements imposed by the Labour Relations Act on balloting, obliged trade unions to incorporate provisions for strike ballots in their constitutions "whether they like it or not".

The only outstanding question, she said, was who should administer the strike ballot, with both employers and trade unions saying that they did not trust the opposing party to undertake it.

The government’s proposal was that the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration should be given the job of overseeing the ballots.

The minister said it was important to determine whether the majority of workers supported a strike and its continuation "because in most cases it is the leadership that calls workers to go on strike. Sometimes you find workers are forced to go out."

It was also important that the records of the ballot — per voter — be retained for about three years.

However, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini had a totally different understanding of the situation. He said it would be "quite alarming" for the minister to state that there was an agreement in place. "There is no agreement." Where trade union constitutions had a strike ballot clause, this was because they had freely decided upon this, and not to comply with any law.

"She can’t impose this. We have to have an agreement at Nedlac," he said.

Mr Dlamini also disagreed with Ms Oliphant’s view that the law required trade unions to have a clause in their constitutions making strike ballots obligatory.

He said Cosatu was opposed to strike ballots in the manner proposed by the government, with ballots being taken from each worker at every company.

"We are still opposed to that type of thing," he said. "It is not workable."

"The decision to go on strike based on the majority of union members who have been balloted is the business of the union. The union does this according to a workable process within the union. We are not opposed to balloting before a strike, but we are opposed to the way it is proposed by the minister," he said.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA — no longer a member of Cosatu — warned it would oppose any measure that forced people back to work and "undermined freedom of association".