- One of the important objectives of the Labour Relations Act, 66 of 1995, as amended (“the LRA”) is to “regulate the right to strike … in conformity with the Constitution“.
- Strikes are no longer distinguished as being “illegal” or “legal” because the LRA, when it was introduced in 1996, sought to de-criminalize participation in strike action.
- The purpose of these strike handling guidelines is to distinguish a strike from a work stoppage, unprotected strike action from protected strike action, and to provide a strike plan in order to deal with misconduct during a strike, sympathy strike action, picketing and when it is appropriate to approach the Labour Court for urgent relief.
- These guidelines are intended to provide employers with a practical strategy which is sufficiently flexible to allow them to achieve their primary objective of persuading employees to remain at work and not participate in the industrial action, alternatively to achieve the earliest possible return to normal work.
- Industrial action can take a number of different forms and it is essential that employers identify whether the industrial action constitutes a strike or whether the action is a work stoppage only. This is important in assisting employers to co-ordinate proper responses to the industrial action in conjunction with the SEIFSA Industrial Relations and Legal Services Team.
- Members of management (“designated officials”), who are tasked with various duties in handling the industrial action, need to be familiar with this plan as it saves valuable time and assists the employer effectively to decide its best course of action in response to a strike or work stoppage.
- The aim of the strike plan is to identify –
- the nature of the possible industrial action;
- establish managerial objectives;
- establish a strike handling committee and a command centre, together with report line structures, roles and responsibilities;
- implement techniques to gather precise information and the articulation of grievances;
- tips on how to maintain a strike diary;
- dealing with the SA Police Services;
- dealing with the media, communicating information to the relevant trade unions and the strikers, which includes keeping precise contact details of relevant parties.
INDUSTRIAL ACTION STRIKE vs. WORK STOPPAGE
- The starting point is to understand what constitutes a strike. Section 213 of the LRA defines a strike to mean:
- “the partial or complete concerted refusal to work, or the retardation or obstruction of work, by persons who are or have been employed by the same employer or by different employers, for the purpose of remedying a grievance or resolving a dispute in respect of any matter of mutual interest between employer and employee …”
- Importantly, what distinguishes a strike from a work stoppage is that a demand is made by strikers which is rejected by the employer associations. A demand which is not met gives rise to a dispute between the parties. Where the industrial action takes the form of a work stoppage only, the distinguishing factor is that no demand is made by the participants. For example, a work stoppage in response to an employer’s breach of contract does not constitute a strike as contemplated by the LRA. The work stoppage must be for the purpose of remedying a grievance or resolving a dispute if it is to conform to the definition of a strike contained in Section 213 of the LRA. If no evidence of the purpose of the work stoppage is tendered then the employer associations may not be able to claim that it constitutes a strike. It may amount to nothing more than a breach of contractual obligations, unless indirectly the industrial action aims to exert pressure on an employer to perform a particular act or refrain therefrom
- This distinction is relevant if employer associations intend to pursue an interdict in the Labour Court to declare a strike unprotected and to force a return to work by obtaining an appropriate Order of Court. If the work stoppage does not constitute a strike, it means that such an interdict could fail. This places a direct obligation on any strike handling team to ensure that they gather sufficient information to prove the existence of the grievance or dispute giving rise to the industrial action.
PROTECTED vs. UNPROTECTED STRIKE ACTION
- For a strike to be protected in terms of Section 64 of the LRA, the dispute must have been referred to the MEIBC for conciliation. Where a certificate, confirming that the dispute remains unresolved, has been issued by the MEIBC, alternatively 30 days has lapsed since the dispute was first referred to it (or such longer period as has been agreed upon by the parties), the relevant trade unions and their members can give 48 hours’ notice to commence a protected strike.
- There are limitations placed on the right to participate in a protected strike. If the strike does not comply with Section 64 it will be an unlawful strike. If the strike contravenes a collective agreement that limits the opportunity to strike on the issue in dispute, the strike will be unprotected. Likewise where the strike concerns a rights dispute (e.g. an unfair labour practice or unfair dismissal) and the LRA prescribes that the dispute is capable of arbitration or adjudication, such a strike about a rights issue will be unprotected.
- These distinctions are important in order to understand when an employer is entitled to opt for an urgent interdict to prevent a threatened strike or to put an end to a strike that is in progress. Unlawful conduct during a protected strike can also be interdicted.
- If a strike is protected, then participation in the strike does not in itself constitute misconduct. However, unacceptable behaviour during the course of a protected strike should obviously be the subject of appropriate discipline. Please bear in mind that an employer’s disciplinary code and procedure is not suspended during a protected strike.
- A strike may not necessarily take the form of an entire withdrawal of labour by the workforce. The definition of “strike” in the LRA also covers partial strikes, overtime bans or go slows in which only a section of the workforce might participate.
- Under the old LRA, the question whether, and in what circumstances, strikers could be fairly dismissed spawned a wealth of complex and frequently inconsistent jurisprudence. The current LRA has attempted to codify what is regarded as best practice contained in the Code of Good Practice: Dismissal (“The Code”) and, in particular, Item 6 thereof which deals with dismissals for participation in industrial action:
“Item 6: Dismissals and Industrial Action
Participation in a strike that does not comply with the provisions of Chapter IV (of the LRA) is misconduct. However, like any other act of misconduct, it does not always deserve dismissal. The substantive fairness of dismissal in these circumstances must be determined in the light of the facts of the case, including –
the seriousness of the contravention of this Act;
attempts to comply with this Act; and
whether or not the strike was in response to unjustified conduct by the employer.”
WHEN DOES A STRIKE QUALIFY AS A PROTECTED STRIKE?
LOCK-OUT: DEFENSIVE OR OFFENSIVE
- The LRA does not create the distinction between an “offensive and a defensive lock-out”. However, informal practice has evolved to describe a defensive lock-out as a situation where the lock-out is effected in response to a strike notice, where the “offensive lock-out” predates any declaration of a dispute by the employees.
- The distinction between these concepts is vital, in that an employer can utilize replacement labour in a situation where the lock-out is imposed in response to a strike. Where the lock-out is used as an offensive tool, this right is not afforded to employers.
- Section 76 of the LRA, dealing with this issue, stipulates as follows –
“(1) An employer may not take into employment any person –
(a) to continue or maintain production during a protected strike if the whole or part of the employer’s service has been designated a maintenance service; or
(b) for the purpose of performing the work of any employee who is locked out, unless the lock-out is in response to a strike.
(2) For the purpose of this section ‘take into employment’ includes engaging the services of a temporary employment service, or an independent contractor.”
- It is obviously vital to obtain clarity on when a lock-out will be imposed “in response to a strike”. The Labour Appeal Court, in the judgment on point of Technicon SA vs. NUTESA 1 BLLR 58 (LAC) states that the lock-out notice must be done in response to the strike notice of the union. Accordingly, it is irrelevant whether the actual strike action contemplated by the employees in their Section 64 notice has commenced. The moment that the strike notice is issued, the employer can issue a defensive lock-out notice. The lock-out may thus commence before, simultaneously with, or after the commencement of the strike. The employer should take care to ensure that it complies with the provisions of Section 64(1)(b) i.e. the employer must in any event give 48 hours’ notice.
- The Labour Appeal Court issued a warning to employees in the NUTESA judgment; if the employees embark on power play, they must be prepared to bear the consequences of their decision.
DURATION OF LOCK-OUTS
- A lock-out, if legal, will continue until such time as an agreement on the issue or issues in dispute has been reached, alternatively until the lock-out is terminated by the employer.
- Accordingly, and even if the lock-out is declared in response to a strike notice by the employees, and the employees subsequently abandon their strike action and tender their services to the employer, the employer is not obliged to accept that tender. It can do so for the duration that the employer’s demands have not been met by the employees. Also, the nature of the lock-out does not change from “defensive” to “offensive” if the primary strike of the employees has been abandoned. The right to utilize replacement labour will be determined at the time that the lock-out notice is issued. If the employer has the right to utilize replacement labour at that time, the employer will remain entitled to that right, notwithstanding the abandonment of the strike action by the employees.
PARTIAL TENDER OF SERVICE
- Instances occur where a strike has been called by the union, but the employees indicate that they are willing to tender partial, but not complete services to their employer.
- The definition of strike action in the LRA includes “the partial or complete concerted refusal to work, or the retardation or obstruction of work …”
- The Labour Appeal Court, in the matter of 3M (Pty) Limited vs. SACCAWU 5 BLLR 483 (LAC) has endorsed the right of the employer to refuse to accept a partial tender of services. The employer has the right to refuse a partial tender, and not pay the striking employees any remuneration, in accordance with the principle of “no work, no pay”. Significantly, however, the employer may refuse only for so long as the tender is partial. Once a total tender of services has been made, and the employer rejects that tender in the absence of a legally protected lock-out, the employer becomes liable to remunerate the employees from the time that the tender is made.
- A shut-out can be effected by an employer without relying on any of the provisions of the LRA. In essence, a shut-out amounts to no more than an employer refusing the right of access to those employees who have indicated, through strike action, an intention not to tender their services in accordance with their contracts of service.
- This position will be altered if there is a valid picketing agreement (either agreed to collectively between the employer and its employees, or imposed by the CCMA). Should the picketing agreement provide that employees are entitled access to the premises (albeit on a limited basis) such agreement must be adhered to.
- The shut-out is reactive in nature and application. The shut-out can only be implemented when it is clear that the employees will not tender their services. As soon as the employees tender services (even if there is no undertaking to discontinue the strike action totally), the employer must accept that tender, alternatively pay employees for the period from which the tender was made.
- Critically, no demand may accompany this shut-out procedure. The moment the employer issues a demand (I will not allow you access, until you accept an X% wage increase and unconditionally call off the strike), the nature of the action of the employer changes from a shut-out to a lock-out. If the employer has not complied with all the statutory requirements, alternatively if the demand is different to that raised by the union initially, the lock-out will be unlawful. In such event, the lock-out can be interdicted, alternatively the employees are entitled to claim from the employer the wages they would have earned from the time their services were tendered.
- The utilization of a shut-out also makes the employer vulnerable to the concept of “grasshopper” strikes, alternatively the consequences of “go slow” action. Grasshopper action is where the strike will run for a certain number of days, employees will then return to work for a number of days without terminating the strike itself, and later continue with the strike action. This process can be repeated until such time as the employees’ demands are met. The advantage for the employees is that they could earn some income, but severely affect the economic viability of the employer. The possibility of sabotage in these circumstances is also enhanced.
- Go slow action is similarly problematic as the employer will be unable to accurately gauge whether employees are on the premises to work in accordance with their employment contract, or whether they intend to participate in the industrial action.
- For the reasons stated above, the “shut-out” should be used as a short term reactive measure, primarily in a situation where there is a full strike, and the employer wishes to prevent access to its premises because of fear of violence or damage to property.
SECONDARY STRIKE ACTION
- First and foremost, the issue of where the picket takes place is something that may be agreed on by the employer and the union in picketing rules. The LRA unequivocally places this responsibility for drawing up picketing rules on the employer and the union. But given the fact that the parties are locked in conflict, reaching consensus on where and how the picket will be conducted may be easier said than done.
- If no consensus can be reached, Section 69(4) and (5) of the LRA provides that either the employer or the union may then approach the CCMA for assistance, the CCMA must attempt to secure an agreement between the parties on the picketing rules.
- The relevant provisions of Section 69 of the LRA read as follows:
“(2) Despite any law regulating the right of assembly, a picket authorised in terms of subsection (1), may be held –
in any place to which the public has access but outside the premises of an employer; or
with the permission of the employer, inside the employer’s premises.
(3) The permission referred to in subsection (2) (b) may not be unreasonably withheld.
(4) If requested to do so by the registered trade union or the employer, the Commission must attempt to secure an agreement between the parties to the dispute on rules that should apply to any picket in relation to that strike or lock-out.
(5) If there is no agreement, the Commission must establish picketing rules, and in doing so must take account of-
(a) the particular circumstances of the workplace or other premises where it is intended that the right to picket is to be exercised; and
(b) any relevant code of good practice.
(6) The rules established by the Commission may provide for picketing by employees on their employer’s premises if the Commission is satisfied that the employer’s permission has been unreasonably witheld.”The Labour Court has indicated that the processes described in these provisions does not amount to conciliation and arbitration. The Section 69 procedure commences with a consensus-seeking exercise. Rules can be made only if this process fails, but this rule-making is also a flexible process of decision making. It entails a rational decision being made by a CCMA commissioner, a decision based on relevant and reliable information placed before the commissioner.
Evidence may be led to ensure that the information is reliable. The rule-making process flows from the consensus-seeking process and the deliberations during the first process are not automatically confidential or without prejudice. Parties should know that the information disclosed during the first stage of the process may be taken into account to reach a decision in the rule-making stage.
In respect of where the picket should be held, the Labour Court has indicated that the union bears the onus of proving that the employer’s refusal to grant permission to picket inside the employers premises is unreasonable. Before a commissioner can make a decision permitting picketing on the employers premises, there must be an enquiry into the reasonableness (and a finding of unreasonableness) of the employer’s refusal to permit picketing on its premises.
In the interests of all parties concerned, it is suggested that prior to the commencement of a protected strike, a picketing agreement should be reached with the affected union/s. It is in the employer’s interests that it is not prevented from carrying on its business, and that non striking employees, the production process and customers are not interfered with. It is in the interests of picketing strikers, however, to get as much exposure in terms of support for the strike, as possible. Since the recent amendment of the Rules of the CCMA, it does not issue a strike certificate in instances where Picketing Rules have not as yet been established.
An agreement dealing with picketing at the company should cover:
Specific provisions for authorisation, notice and control;
What is acceptable behaviour;
Numbers of pickets and their location; and
Communication between marshals, employers and police.
Strikes are by their nature unique and can be highly unpredictable. The time, rate, scale and sequence of events are infinitely variable. It is impossible to develop rigid guidelines for handling these events and there is no replacing the sensitive and sensible judgement of managers actually in the situation.
Strikes are fundamentally emotional events. Workers often initiate a strike in a mood of high emotion. This tends to elicit an emotional response from management. A strike is an expression of power; hence the parties act and react under pressure. It is often difficult to retain a rational perspective under these circumstances, and for this reason it is vital that strike guidelines are discussed, adjusted to an employer’s situation and internalised by management before a strike takes place.
Ultimately the objectives in handling a strike are to:
arrive at a settlement acceptable to both the industry and the striking employees in the shortest possible time;
restore order in production;
prevent injury to persons and damage to property;
diffuse management/employee tensions; and
emerge from the strike better equipped to handle similar future disputes.