“The time has come in our labour relations history that trade unions should be held accountable for the actions of their members. For too long trade unions have glibly washed their hands of the violent actions of their members.” (Labour Court)
Our Constitution provides strong protections for the right to strike, and it is thus extremely easy to go on a protected strike. But this right is subject to the limitation that strike action must always be peaceful and unarmed.
The upshot is that our courts will robustly shield lawful strikers from any unlawful action by employers (see “Footnote: The other side of the coin” below), but they will also penalise both violent strikers and, in appropriate cases, any trade unions involved.
Thus in a matter recently before the Labour Court, a union and its members had been interdicted by the Court from continuing with an unprotected strike; from harassing, threatening, assaulting or intimidating any non-striking employees; from carrying any weapons; from blocking the employer’s access road; and from coming within 300 metres of the employer’s premises.
When the strike nevertheless continued with numerous incidents of violence and damage to property (including the stoning of vehicles and buildings, brandishing of weapons, setting a delivery truck alight and preventing vehicles from entering the employer’s premises) the employer asked the Court to –
- Hold the union and members guilty of contempt of court
- Fine the union
- Imprison the guilty employees for 180 days
The request for imprisonment of the employees was dropped after those directly involved in the violence were disciplined and dismissed, but the union and its officials were held to “have not taken sufficient steps to dissuade and prevent their members from continuing with their violent and unlawful actions”.
The result – a R500k fine
The Court held both the union and its office bearers in contempt, imposed a hefty R500,000 fine on the union, and ordered it to pay the employer’s legal costs on the punitive attorney and client scale.
Employers faced with strike violence should lose no time in seeking a court interdict, and then in enforcing it.
Unions should take adequate steps to dissuade and prevent their members from violent action.