Municipal union battles for recognition and workplace access

A newly formed municipal union, which split from the allegedly corrupt South African Municipal Workers Union, has been barred from accessing workplaces to advocate for workers.

Municipal workers who are fed up with the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu), which is alleged to have stolen over R178 million from its subscription fees, are being stymied by the ANC alliance from forging ahead with a new trade union.

Members of the Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (Demawusa) recently gathered outside the municipal headquarters in Nelson Mandela Bay in Port Elizabeth to protest against the municipality’s refusal to recognise Demawusa, a South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) affiliate, and sign an organisational rights agreement with the union.

Without a recognition agreement, Demawusa is barred from accessing the workplace to service its members and its members are unable to have subscriptions deducted from their wages and paid over to the union. According to Demawusa provincial coordinator Siphiwo Ndunyana, municipalities in the Eastern Cape have called security guards to intercept Demawusa officials and shop stewards when they tried to enter municipal work sites.

The rights of minority unions

At the heart of the problem is a circular the South African Local Government Bargaining Council issued a few months ago, which instructed municipalities not to recognise unions such as Demawusa unless they have a membership of 15% of all municipal workers nationally. The South African Local Government Bargaining Council is a partnership between Samwu, the South African Local Government Association (Salga), and one other union in the local government, the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (Imatu).

The 15% rule is not a legal threshold but rather a figure arrived at in a deal between Samwu, Imatu and Salga. It flies in the face of a recent Constitutional Court judgment. This judgment clearly states that even when an existing collective agreement states that minority unions should not be recognised unless they meet a threshold, the constitutional right of all unions to collectively bargain takes priority, and therefore employers must enter collective agreements even with minority unions.

Despite this, the South African Local Government Bargaining Council has insisted the ruling does not apply in the municipal sector and has instructed municipalities “not to enter into recognition agreements with any unrecognised minority trade union”. During the six years Samwu has been embroiled in allegations and criminal charges over the theft of the funds, its national programme of action against privatisation and outsourcing has ground to a halt.

A fast-growing union

Ex-Samwu staff and shop stewards dismissed or expelled from Samwu for demanding a forensic audit into the union’s finances launched Demawusa two years ago. Demawusa is a fast-growing union. Its deputy chair in the Nelson Mandela Bay region, Bongani Cola, said the union is waging ongoing struggles to have vacant and key service delivery positions filled, to end discrimination in hiring, and to end the outsourcing of security guards, electricity workers, plumbers and meter readers.

“Top management in Nelson Mandela Bay municipality couldn’t care less about filling critical vacancies such as plumbers. They are busy fighting over who gets executive jobs,” said Cola. The Demawusa chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Bay region, Mlamli Sidzumo, told New Frame that Demawusa was currently challenging the municipality on a plethora of issues, including the municipality’s failure to provide workers with personal protective equipment, maintain the municipality’s fleet of cars, and keep ablution facilities up to standard.

“Security guards are wearing their own clothes because the municipality has failed to provide uniforms and protective clothing, the water workers were given the prescribed warm jackets one year late. These are just two examples,” said Sidzumo.

Barred from bargaining

Speaking after the meeting on 12 June, Ndunyana said the union was “furious” that not only did city manager Noxolo Nqwazi not attend, but the executive manager she promised to send was also a no-show. Demawusa had to meet with a labour relations officer who had no authority to agree to anything. According to Ndunyana, the labour relations officer presented a legal opinion obtained by the municipality, which supported the Constitutional Court ruling and said that the municipality should enter into an organisational rights agreement with Demawusa.

Ndunyana said the instruction from the top to municipalities not to bargain with Demawusa will not stop the budding union. But Lukhanji Local Municipality, which recently recognised the union, is now threatening to withdraw recognition, which the Buffalo City Municipality has already officially done so. According to Ndunyana, municipalities mainly led by the ANC “are comfortable with the status quo of sleeping in the same bed as the current unions because those unions are not raising the workers’ issues sharply like Demawusa”.

“We demand that meter readers be insourced. We want an end to outsourcing of municipal plumbers, security guards and electricity workers. We don’t support the hiring of seasonal workers. All these workers are vulnerable and have no pension or medical aid,” said Ndunyana.

Recently, the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality agreed to give Demawusa a proposal to insource all plumbers and meter readers by this week.

New leaders, old problems

While Samwu’s central executive committee meeting passed a no-confidence motion in the allegedly corrupt leaders and replaced them just a few weeks ago, at least one of the new leaders, the new president John Dlamini, was first deputy president during the corruption scandal and it is unclear why he is still part of the so-called “new” leadership. Other members of the new national leadership have also been part of Samwu throughout the years of corruption and did not blow the whistle, unlike the Demawusa activists. This leaves Samwu with an ongoing credibility problem.

“Demawusa knows that organisational rights are not handed over on a silver platter. So we are oiling our machinery for action. If we don’t get our organisational rights, we will force our way through mass action,” warned Ndunyana.

Disclaimer: Anna Majavu was a Samwu employee in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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