Trade Unions

Do you belong to a trade union or do you want to join a Trade Union in South Africa? Find out about the aims of the trade union, functions of trade union, union rights
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What is a Trade Union?

Trade unions are independent organisations that represent workers to their employers. If you join a trade union, you are joining a group that will negotiate workplace issues such as salary, hours of work, and other conditions, on your behalf.

Who can join a Trade Union?

In South Africa, according to Section 23: Labour Relations in the Constitution, every worker has the right to join a trade union. Trade unions are an important force in South Africa, with 3.1 million members representing 25% of the formal work force. The specific labour laws regarding trade unions are:

  • Every worker has the right to form and join a trade union and to participate in the union’s activities
  • Every worker has the right to strike
  • Every employer has the right to form and join an employers’ organisation and to participate in the activities of the organisation
  • Every trade union, employers’ organisation and employer has the right to engage in collective bargaining
  • Everyone has the right to fair labour practices

What are the benefits of joining a Trade Union?

Workers who join a trade union have the benefit of being part of an organised group who pull together around workplace issues. Topics ranging from paid maternity leave to salary increases to safety in the workplace are all dealt with as a group. You don’t have to tackle them on your own, as an individual. You also stand to get better protection from unfair treatment and victimisation and increased job security.

You also have the benefit of skilled negotiators and trained labour specialists who will strive to get the best possible deal for workers in their workplaces.

Unions can also help with other aspects of working life such as accompanying you to a disciplinary hearing and representing you if you're in dispute with your employers. 

Some unions run training, professional development and networking events.

How can you join a Trade Union?

The best way would be to find out if there is a shop steward or other union representative in your workplace. Make contact, find out what the conditions are for joining, and also find out what the union has achieved in the past couple of years. Be informed before you sign up.

Some unions, such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) offer online registration, which is quick and easy.

What can Union Representatives do?

The Labour Relations Act (LRA) allows a registered union or a sufficiently representative union to:

  • Enter an employer’s premises to recruit or communicate with members
  • Hold meetings with employees outside working hours
  • Conduct union elections or ballots at the workplace
  • Instruct the employer to make deductions of and pay over union membership subscriptions from member employees
  • Organise reasonable leave, including possible paid leave, for their office bearers

What are the major Trade Unions in South Africa?

Most of the trade unions in South Africa are affiliated to one of the three main trade union centres. This means that if you join a trade union at work, no matter if you are in catering, nursing, mining, teaching or any other work sector, it will most likely be affiliated to a specific trade union centre.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is the largest of the three with a membership of 1.8 million, and is part of the Tripartite alliance with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) has 560,000 members and the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) has almost 400,000 members. All three are affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

There is also a smaller, fourth national trade union centre. The Confederation of South African Workers' Unions (CONSAWU) is affiliated with the World Confederation of Labour (WCL).

Can any Trade Union be registered? And why?

The LRA guides the registration of trade unions and employer organisations. It allows a union which is independent, has a distinctive name, an address and which has adopted a constitution which meets the requirements of the law, to apply for registration. Unions and employer’s organisations do not have to register. But registration is necessary for participation in the industrial relation system developed by the LRA.

What is a Bargaining Council?

Bargaining councils are formed by registered trade unions and employers’ organisations. They deal with collective agreements, attempt to solve labour disputes, and make proposals on labour policies and laws. They may also manage pension funds, sick pay, unemployment and training schemes, and other such benefits for their members. 

What is a Collective Agreement?

A collective agreement is an agreement between employers and employees which regulates the terms and conditions of employees in their workplace. It also manages their duties and the duties of the employer. It is usually the result of a process of collective bargaining between an employer and a trade union representing workers.

It is a legally enforceable instrument, which generally lasts as long as each parties’ bargaining cycles. However, it could also be a long-lasting agreement, or one which is terminated after reasonable notice by either party.

What are Strikes and Lockouts?

The right to strike is entrenched in Section 23 of the Constitution. Employers have a reciprocal right to lockout, which is also in the constitution.

The LRA defines a strike as:

  • A partial or complete refusal to work or the obstruction of work by employees for the purpose of remedying a grievance or resolving a dispute 

The LRA defines a lockout as:

  • An exclusion by the employer of the employees from the workplace in order to compel the employees to accept a demand regarding a matter of mutual interest

While strikes and lockouts are legal, a very strict procedure must be followed in order to ensure they are protected. This includes first referring the dispute for conciliation, then undergoing a waiting period, and finally giving notice of the strike.

In a protected strike or lockout:

  • Workers or employees are guaranteed immunity from the reaches of the civil law i.e. they do not constitute a breach of contract
  • An employer is not obliged to remunerate an employee for services not rendered during a strike
  • Employees are protected from dismissal

In an unprotected strike or lockout:

  • The affected party can approach the Labour Court for an interdict or order restraining a strike or lockout
  • The Labour Court can also order the payment of just and equitable compensation in the circumstances
  • Participation in an unprotected strike may constitute a fair reason for dismissal

Can you strike if you work in an essential service?

No. Section 65 (1) (d) of the LRA prohibits strikes and lockouts in essential services and maintenance services. An essential service is one which, if interrupted, could endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or any part of the nation, the parliamentary service and South African Police Services. This would include medical staff and police staff.

Instead, employers and employees should refer their disputes to final and binding arbitration. 

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