The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has welcomed the decision of the Labour Court to dismiss the application by steel producer Arcelormittal South Africa (AMSA) to interdict the ongoing national strike at all its plants.
Numsa members have been on strike since May 11, demanding a 10% across-the-board wage increase.
According to research firm FocusEconomics, the inflation rate was forecast to average at about 5.3% for the current year, making Numsa’s wage increase demands nearly double the current inflation rate.
“We know AMSA can afford our demands, they are just being greedy by refusing to compromise,” Numsa alleged on May 24.
On the first day of the strike, AMSA brought an urgent application to the Labour Court in Johannesburg to interdict the strike by employees at its blast furnaces, coke batteries and steel plants.
AMSA made the application on the basis that it had referred two disputes with the Essential Services Committee (ESC). One of the disputes was for the ESC to investigate whether the operation of coke batteries and blast furnaces used in the production of steel, should be designated an essential service. The second dispute was for certain aspects in the steel production process to be designated as a maintenance service application.
If AMSA had succeeded with these applications, it would have meant that workers in these divisions of AMSA would have been blocked from participating in any legal strike action in the future.
Numsa argued in court that there was a pending investigation on the matter, and that it was well-established that a court would not interdict a strike based on a pending ESC investigation, saying that AMSA was being opportunistic, with the goal of undermining the right to strike and divide workers.
The union opposed the application on the grounds that, because the committee had not yet made a ruling on the matter, the court should not consider it as grounds to interdict the strike, because the right to strike is a constitutional right and should not be interfered with.
Numsa also argued that if AMSA were to be granted an interdict purely on the basis that it referred a case of a maintenance services dispute to the ESC, it would create a bad precedent because then any other employer could simply make an application to the ESC to frustrate the constitutional right to strike.
The right to strike can only be limited when the ESC has already made a determination that the whole or part of the service provided by an employer, is in fact a maintenance service.
On May 11, Labour Court judge Dephny Mahosi interdicted the strike temporarily – but only for workers in the blast furnaces, coke batteries and the steel plant – until a final judgment was made.
A final decision on the matter has now been handed down and it confirmed that all AMSA employees, without exception, have the right to strike. The Labour Court found that the matter of the ESC was still in its infancy, with several determinations still to be made. The court agreed with Numsa that the right to strike was an entrenched right, which should be limited only when absolutely necessary.
“We have been vindicated by the court. All workers at AMSA have the right to strike and as a union, we will always do whatever it takes to defend this right,” Numsa said.
Numsa said it would intensify the strike at all AMSA plants nationwide in response to the company’s actions.
“We are calling on all workers to unite behind their demands to ensure a total shutdown of all production. AMSA seemingly has unlimited funds with which to bash and undermine workers’ rights. They have forced us into this position,” Numsa claimed.
On May 24, Numsa members marched to AMSA’s offices in Vanderbijlark to hand over a memorandum of demands.
AMSA, meanwhile, said it did not permit the march by Numsa members, as the “strike action initiated by Numsa has been marred by numerous acts of violence and intimidation of non-striking employees, despite the strike and picketing rules agreed between the company and the union”.
It said these unlawful acts included the shooting of an employee, who is currently recovering in hospital; multiple cases of assault or attempted assault of non-striking employees; intimidation of employees and their families in the workplace, en route to work and at their homes; multiple instances of stoning and attempted damage to employees’ and contractors’ vehicles; and road blockades and other disruptions intended to prevent access to company premises.
Cases have been opened with the South African Police Service for investigation.
“Given that Numsa has, thus far, not made any reasonable effort to address the unlawful and disruptive conduct of its members and has not demonstrated that it is willing or able to do so, we do not have any confidence that the union will be inclined to or capable of ensuring that the process to hand over a memorandum at our offices will be carried out peacefully,” said AMSA CEO Kobus Verster.
The company did, however, offer to receive the memorandum in writing by email or fax.
“The company respects the rights of employees to embark on industrial action, but this must be in compliance with the law and having regard for the rights of others,” Verster added.
The steel producer further notes that it had, on May 20, tabled two improved alternative final offers for consideration by Numsa and fellow trade union Solidarity. These offers entail a 6% increase on all remuneration elements, including allowances, standby and medical aid, plus a R5 000 one-off cash payment; or a 6.5% increase on all remuneration elements, including allowances, standby and medical aid, but without any cash payment.
“Unfortunately, both Numsa and Solidarity have indicated they would not move from their previously held demands of a 7% increase, with a R5 000 one-off cash payment,” AMSA said.
“We believe the offers we have tabled in an effort to put an end to the wage dispute are fair and more than competitive when compared to recent agreements in similar sectors,” said Verster.