In the aftermath of the Marikana massacre, the rights of striking workers and the unions they might belong to have once again come under the spotlight. Judging from the letters pages of middlebrow newspapers, blog comments and callers to phone-in programmes, many middle-class South Africans are about just as sympathetic to strikers and their constitutionally protected rights as they are to Julius Malema. Many middle-class South Africans of whatever race seem to view striking workers as something of a menace, people who make unreasonable demands which – if agreed to – would threaten the comfortable existence of affluent members of society.
Luckily for striking workers, the majority of judges of the Constitutional Court do not seem to share this view. Last week, in the judgment of South African Transport and Allied Workers Union and Others v Moloto N.O and Another the majority rejected the minority’s argument that section 64(1)(b) of the Labour Relations Act obliges every employee who intends to embark on a strike to notify his or her employer of that intention personally or through a representative for the strike action to be protected.
In this case SATAWU members went on a strike and provided the employer with the requisite notice that its members would embark on a strike. Employees who were not SATAWU members joined the strike without individually giving notice to the employer that they would do so. These employees were subsequently dismissed because of their failure to notify the employer that they would join the strike.
Section 64(1)(b) states that striking employers are protected and cannot be fired if certain procedural requirements are met, including the requirement that “at least 48 hours’ notice of the commencement of the strike, in writing, has been given to the employer.”
For the majority the starting point of the inquiry was the Constitution, which protects the right to strike as a fundamental right without expressly limiting this right. The majority affirmed that constitutional rights conferred without express limitation should not be cut down by interpreting ambiguous legislative provisions as imposing implicit limitations on them.
As Section 64(1)(b) contains no express requirement that every employee who intends to participate in a protected strike must personally or through a representative give notice of the commencement of the intended strike, nor that the notice must indicate who will take part in the strike, it was sufficient that SATAWU had given notice that it would strike. As the majority stated:
“The point of departure in interpreting section 64(1)(a) he says section A here; section b everywhere else –is this intentional or a typo? is that we should not restrict the right to strike more than is expressly required by the language of the provision, unless the purposes of the Act and the section on “a proper interpretation of the statute . . . imports them. The relevance of a restrictive approach is to raise a cautionary flag against restricting the right more than is expressly provided for. Intrusion into the right should only be as much as is necessary to achieve the purpose of the provision and this requires sensitivity to the constraints of the language used.”
It is an accepted interpretative principle in our constitutional jurisprudence that if there is more than one interpretation of a statutory provision that is constitutionally compliant, the interpretation that best conforms with the spirit, purport and objects of the Bill of Rights should be preferred. In this case the interpretation not requiring every non-unionised member to give notice of their intention to take part in a strike organised by a union best conforms to the spirit, purport and object of the Bill of Rights.
This becomes even more evident if one recalls that the right to strike is protected in the Constitution at least partly in recognition of the fact that there are disparities in the social and economic power held by employers and employees. Employers have far more power than individual employees and in order to redress the inequality in social and economic power in employer/employee relations, employees are granted the right to strike to even out the playing field. To require individual employees to give detailed information of not only when they will strike but how many of them will strike, “would run counter to the underlying purpose of the right to strike in our Constitution – to level the playing fields of economic and social power already generally tilted in favour of employers”. As the majority pointed out:
“to hold otherwise would place a greater restriction on the right to strike of non-unionised employees and minority union employees than on majority union employees. It is these employees, much more than those who are unionised or represented by a majority union, who will feel the lash of a more onerous requirement. There is no warrant for that where they were already denied the right to bargain collectively on their own behalf in the preceding process.”
The minority took a more restrictive view of the rights of strikers and is more closely aligned with the interests of employers than with those of employees. Focusing on the objects of the Labour Relations Act (instead of on the relevant section in the Bill of Rights which guarantees for employees the right to strike), the minority found that employers would be negatively affected if employees were not all required (either individually or through their representatives) to give notice to employers that would embark on a strike.
In contrast to the majority view, which focused on the imbalances in power between striking workers and their employers, the minority seemed to assume that employers were pretty powerless in the face of a strike. Accordingly, they claimed:
“if a notice gives an employer no indication of which of its employees might strike, it is nigh impossible to conceive how the employer will prepare properly for the impending power play. How will it make an informed decision as to whether or not to yield to the employees’ demands? And, if it resists, how will it take proper steps to protect its business, the employees and the public and engage meaningfully in pre-strike regulatory discussions regarding issues such as picketing rules?”
The minority would therefore have re-interpreted the relevant section of the Labour Relations Act so as to require that employees provide an employer with a notice “that makes it possible for the employer to reasonably identify the employees that may strike. And whilst this requirement may well place a burden on the exercise of the right to strike, the constitutionality of the provisions is not in the balance and it is therefore unnecessary to resolve the question.”
The two judgments therefore seem to reflect rather stark ideological differences between the judges on the Constitutional Court as well as differences in how to view the relationship between the provisions of the Bill of Rights, on the one hand, and provisions of legislation giving effect to those rights on the other.
The majority seem to be decidedly more progressive by assuming that the right to strike contained in the Bill of Rights should be limited as little as possible in order to ensure the levelling of the playing field between employers and employees. They would therefore oppose an interpretation of the legislation that would impose limitations on this right unless such limitations are expressly stated in the Labour Relations Act itself.
The minority seems to be rather more sympathetic to employers and big business and less enthusiastic about protecting the rights of striking workers. They are also more eager to interfere in the work of the democratically elected Parliament by re-interpreting legislation passed by that Parliament in such a manner that it would limit the rights of workers – even if that was perhaps not what the democratically elected Parliament intended to do.
I wonder whether the Cosatu representative on the Judicial Service Commission is regretting his support for the appointment of some of the Constitutional Court justices who joined this minority decision. But I guess that is what you get when you remain loyal to an Alliance in which your own class interests will ultimately almost always be trumped by the class interests of those pro-business and pro-tender elites who currently dominate the leadership of the ANC. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine