South Africa

Politics, South Africa

Parliament: Claims, denials and disciplinary measures as Mgidlana and Nehawu members butt heads

Parliament: Claims, denials and disciplinary measures as Mgidlana and Nehawu members butt heads

Parliament’s labour relations have gone pear-shaped again. On Thursday hundreds of members of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) walked out of a meeting called by Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana, the second in two days for his management team, to present quarterly institutional reports. After Tuesday’s abandoned meeting four Nehawu members, including two union officials, were charged with gross insubordination and/or gross conduct. The union says all it did was raise concerns about how this meeting was conducted and the institutional failure to resolve outstanding collective bargaining matters. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

After Thursday’s walk-out, Mgidlana continued the meeting surrounded by his senior managers and a few people who Daily Maverick was told were representatives of the companies to which Parliament has outsourced much of its cleaning, maintenance and catering.

But Parliament said it held a successful meeting.

In a clearly rehearsed and orchestrated manner several members of the union tried to disrupt the meeting unsuccessfully… The meeting, however, proceeded and successfully dealt with ongoing organisational transformation, organisational performance to date, reflected on challenges and successes,” it said in a statement. “There was general consensus around common purpose. The meeting ended on a positive note. An information brief for all staff has also been produced and shared.”

As with the disciplinary charges related to Tuesday’s meeting – a guilty verdict could lead to dismissal – Parliament again promised that “pursuant to (Thursday’s) attempts to disrupt the meeting, appropriate action will be followed as part of Parliament’s internal process”.

Nehawu’s parliamentary branch is the largest in the Western Cape and represents over 1,000 of the national legislature’s 1,389 employees, including senior white-collar workers in the committee, documents and translation services as well as those cleaning and catering staff that is not outsourced.

Parliament’s labour relations have been crabby since a dispute over performance bonuses and conditions of services in November 2015. Then Parliament called in riot police – intervention by MPs ended the standoff only after smoke and stun grenades were fired – and interdicted workers from protesting in the precinct.

Despite a return to work agreement on 5 December 2015, various outstanding matters affecting about 570 workers have dragged on unresolved at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

Like on Tuesday, Thursday’s 09:30 staff meeting called by Mgidlana kicked off with him addressing employees. For about half an hour he talked of the Constitution, institutional change and said Parliament was no different to other organisations of similar size. For Parliament to be a professional institution, there needed to be a good institutional culture, he said, adding that staff needed to “listen to new ideas, ask questions for clarification, observe proper decorum”.

After the address, in which Mgidlana said everyone had to be considerate and allow others to state their views, a woman union member raised concerns. Central to these was the deteriorating working environment since the Secretary to Parliament’s arrival at the national legislature and his patronising tone: “Every time we want to speak, we get spoken down… It is painful to wake up and come to work in this institution.”

Mgidlana asked her to stick to the agenda, but the response was that it was important to deal with underlying issues, such as his claimed attitude of speaking down to staff as if they had not been educated or did not know the country’s Constitution.

Apparently other Nehawu members’ hands were up. But Mgidlana brooked none of it: “Stop howling…” One Nehawu member maintained staff should be allowed to engage the Secretary to Parliament’s opening remarks, but was told “Hayi (No), sisi” by Mgidlana.

Then one Nehawu member pointed out there were police officials sitting in the meeting and, if there was no willingness to engage, the union would walk out. And so they did.

Two days earlier it had been Mgidlana who left the meeting after being asked “a procedurally sound question” as to why the documentation had not been shared with staff ahead of time, according to a Nehawu statement. It added that the Secretary to Parliament told the questioner to “take a chill pill”.

Describing Mgidlana as “Mr Know-it-all”, the union said: “Workers are not here to disrupt operations of Parliament, but will also not smile when they are being subjected to the inhumane treatment of the Secretary to Parliament. For so long, workers have to endure being spoken to and treated in a very unprofessional manner and are saying enough is enough.”

The union statement could not have been more different from what Parliament said in its statement issued earlier but on the same Tuesday meeting:

The Secretary to Parliament, Mr Gengezi Mgidlana, adjourned the meeting following consistent refusal by the singing members of the union to comply with repeated requests to allow the staff meeting to proceed…

The behaviour displayed by a few staff members aligned to Nehawu is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Parliament will do all that is necessary to normalise the situation in the institution, including taking appropriate action where necessary,” said the national legislature.

And on Wednesday, Parliament acted. Disciplinary charges were brought against four Nehawu members, including a shop steward and parliamentary branch chairman Sthembiso Tembe.

One of the charge sheets, which Daily Maverick has seen, does not include any of the usually required details, but motivates the count of gross insubordination like this:

You hindered and/or obstructed the Secretary to Parliament in the execution of his official duties… This is against being cautioned and directed by the Secretary to Parliament, who was chairing the meeting, to desist from such actions of gross misconduct, insubordination and insolence. Your actions resulted in the meeting being adjourned unceremoniously.”

It goes on:

You failed to obey a reasonable and lawful order or instruction by the Secretary to Parliament to stop disturbing the staff meeting held on the 21 June 2016. This is gross insubordination, which is a very serious misconduct.”

Nehawu has insisted there was no singing on Tuesday while Mgidlana was still in the meeting venue, and that it only started after he left. Daily Maverick understands that Mgidlana had objected to being addressed as “mfo wethu (my brother)”.

It has also emerged that someone had, tongue in cheek, asked Mgidlana to include blessers (effectively, supersized sugardaddies) after he had wished everyone a belated happy fathers’ and mothers’ day during his opening address on Tuesday.

After Thursday’s walk-out and a brief picket in the parliamentary precinct, Tembe confirmed he was one of the four, including one shop steward, facing disciplinary hearings on 30 June. The names of the other three are known to Daily Maverick.

The motivation behind calling this week’s staff meetings remains unclear. According to the agenda, which Daily Maverick has seen, various senior managers were to present on the institutional performance and financial reports for the 2015/16 fourth quarter, ending 31 March 2016. However, at least the institutional performance report has already been submitted to the presiding officers, and was tabled in early May by National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete in the Announcements, Tablings and Committee Reports (ATC), or Parliament’s record of work.

It may well have been an institutional power play in the absence of MPs, who have left Parliament for a “constituency period” ahead of the 3 August local government elections. But it has not eased the terse labour situation.

A series of meetings to find a political solution between Mbete and Nehawu president Mzwandile Makwayiba have failed to break the stalemate. In early May national Nehawu office-bearers called for the removal of Mgidlana for his failure to fully implement last year’s collective bargaining agreements.

Like Nehawu, the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and the DA have called for Mgidlana to be investigated for his trip last year, with other administrators, to three overseas parliaments at a cost of R1.8-million last year and the payment of a R71,000 ex gratia allocation, just a few months into his job.

This week’s turn of events means there’s no end in sight to ease the state of labour relations at Parliament. DM

Photo: Nehawu members walking out of staff meeting called by Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana. (Marianne Merten)

Gallery

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