Post Judgment Media Summary  

The following explanatory note is provided to assist the media in reporting this case and is not binding on the Constitutional Court or any member of the Court.

On 23 August 2018 at 10h00 the Constitutional Court handed down judgment in an application instituted by Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU), a majority wherein it trade union of employees in the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), sought leave to appeal against the whole of a judgment of the Labour Appeal Court.

The Labour Appeal Court found that the DCS was entitled to enter into an agreement granting organisational rights in terms of sections 12, 13 and 15 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA) to South African Correctional Services Workers’ Union (SACOSWU), a minority trade union (the first respondent). These rights were the subject of a section 18(1) collective bargaining agreement that set a membership threshold for the acquisition of these rights; SACOSWU’s membership fell short of this threshold.

On 8 November 2001, POPCRU entered into a collective bargaining agreement with DCS in terms of which the threshold for admission to the DCS’s Bargaining Council for a single registered union, or for two or more registered unions acting jointly, was agreed to be 9 000 members, which amounts to approximately 22,5% of employees (threshold agreement). The threshold agreement also regulates the representation of employees at disciplinary and grievance proceedings. A second collective bargaining agreement regulates relations between all employees and DCS, and provides that only unions admitted to the Bargaining Council or any sector of the Bargaining Council will have the following rights: (1) union access to the workplace; (2) access to stop-order facilities for union subscriptions; (3) leave for union activities; (4) use of facilities; and (5) the right to elect shop stewards.

SACOSWU, a minority trade union with about 1 500 members entered into the collective bargaining agreement in question with DCS as per section 20 of the LRA around 5 November 2010. This collective agreement gave SACOSWU rights to organise union activities outside working hours; represent its members at disciplinary hearings and to assist members in grievance procedures; and to deduct subscriptions from its members.

POPCRU took issue with the collective bargaining agreement entered into between DCS and SACOSWU, arguing that it was unlawful since DCS was bound by the threshold agreement not to grant organisational rights to minority trade unions. On this basis, POPCRU referred the matter to the General Public Service Sector Bargaining Council(GPSSBC) for conciliation, but the dispute was not resolved. The dispute was then referred for arbitration. The arbitrator found that the collective bargaining agreement entered into by SACOSWU and DCS was valid. POPCRU appealed to the Labour Court which found in its favour, holding that a collective bargaining agreement regulating the issue of organisational rights would have preference over any other provision in statute relating to organisational rights. SACOSWU then successfully appealed to the Labour Appeal Court (LAC). The LAC held that a section 18 threshold agreement sets a minimum threshold for automatic acquisition of rights and is not a barrier to minority trade unions obtaining the same through their own collective bargaining.

In the Constitutional Court, the central dispute between the parties concerned the proper interpretation of sections 18 and 20 of the LRA. POPCRU argued that a section 18 collective bargaining agreement is binding, in terms of section 23 of the LRA, on all parties and other employees and trade unions not party to the threshold agreement. Consequently, an employer cannot enter into another collective bargaining agreement with a minority trade union granting that trade union rights regulated in a section 18 collective bargaining agreement. SACOSWU, on the other hand, contends that a section 20 collective bargaining agreement trumps a section 18 collective bargaining agreement as section 20 states that “nothing” in that Part of the LRA prevents a minority trade union from entering into a collective bargaining agreement with the employer. Section 23, which POPCRU argues gives the threshold agreement its binding effect, falls into a different Part of the LRA. SACOSWU further argued that this matter is moot, because the threshold agreement on which POPCRU’s case rests has been superseded by a subsequent agreement.

In a majority judgment penned by Jafta J (Zondo DCJ, Dlodlo AJ, Goliath AJ, Khampepe J, Madlanga J, and Petse AJ concurring) this Court found that the matter between the parties is moot, since the threshold agreement in contention ceased to exist in 2015. The merits of the matter were nevertheless decided on the basis that it was in the interests of justice to interpret the meaning of sections 18 and 20 since such interpretation may still have effect on disputes arising on the same legal question but between different parties. The LAC judgment also made certain errors of law which needed rectification, despite the outcome of the matter remaining the same. The minority judgment found, in addition, that the matter was moot based on the fact that section 21(8C), an amendment made after the present dispute arose, allowed a minority union to go to arbitration to get organisational rights provided for in sections 12, 13 and 15. The majority held that section 21(8C) provided but one avenue for acquiring organisational rights and as such did not resolve the interpretative question, raised by sections 18 and 20, in how these rights were acquired.

It found that POPCRU’s interpretation of section 18 was incorrect as it would effectively deny minority unions the right to engage in collective bargaining. This right is conferred on every trade union by the Constitution, regardless of whether the union is a minority or majority union. It is not surprising, the Court said, that section 18 does not prohibit collective bargaining between an employer and a minority union where there is a collective agreement between that employer and the majority trade union. Such a prohibition would be inconsistent with the Constitution and international law.

Although the outcome reached by the LAC may not be altered, the pillars on which that outcome rests cannot be left intact. One of the errors made by the LAC was that the collective agreement between the employer and a majority union may be construed as prohibiting agreements with minority unions. An agreement that seeks to limit the right to collective bargaining would be inconsistent with the Constitution and invalid where it was not a limitation that meets the requirements of section 36 of the Constitution.

The other error, that a union’s right to represent employees in grievance and disciplinary proceedings is sourced from section 12 of the LRA, was resolved by pointing to section 14(4) of the LRA which expressly conferred this right on unions. Importantly, that right does not fall within the scope of a section 18 collective agreement. Therefore, acquisition of the right to represent members at disciplinary proceedings may not depend on meeting a threshold of representativeness. Whereas all rights conferred by section 12 are subject to such thresholds.

In the result, the Court granted leave to appeal but dismissed the appeal with no order as to costs.

In the minority judgment, Cachalia AJ (Froneman J concurring) agreed that the matter is moot but did not think that it was in the interests of justice to hear the matter. The dispute between the parties had not been live since February 2013. POPCRU must have become aware of the mootness of the matter in 2013 when this dispute was being considered by the Labour Court. SACOSWU says it became aware in 2015 and failed to inform the CCMA during a dispute with POPCRU concerning the applicability of section 21(8C) of the LRA. Both parties had a duty to inform the Labour Court and the CCMA respectively and they failed in that duty and hearing the matter would condone the parties’ conduct. The interpretation of section 18 would have no residual impact on the parties. The interpretation of section 18 will further have broader impact as should the dispute regarding the reach of threshold agreements concluded in terms of section 18 arise in the future, as it no doubt will, the new statutory regime governing threshold agreements, which now includes section 21(8), and particularly sections 21(8A) and 21(8C), will apply. Cachalia AJ would have dismissed the application for leave to appeal.

In a separate judgment Zondo DCJ agreed with both the first and the second judgments that the matter was moot. He also agreed with the second judgment that it was in the interests of justice that this Court entertain the matter and decide it on the merits.

The Deputy Chief Justice also agreed that the appeal should be dismissed. However, his reasons differed from those given in the second judgement. Zondo DCJ took the view that in our law organisational rights can be acquired contractually or statutorily. He said that the LRA makes provision for statutory organisational rights and section 20 of the LRA constituted an acknowledgement that a trade union may acquire contractual organisational rights by concluding a collective agreement with an employer.

Zondo DCJ pointed out that to acquire statutory organisational rights a trade union does not need the consent of the employer but simply needs to meet the requirements of the LRA that it must be sufficiently representative of the employees of the employer in a particular workplace whereas, to acquire contractual organisational rights, a trade union does not need to meet the levels of representativeness prescribed by the LRA but needs to reach an agreement with the employer in terms of which the employer confers those organisational rights on the union.

The Deputy Chief Justice pointed out that an important distinction between statutory organisational rights and contractual organisational rights is that in the case of statutory organisational rights an employer has no right in law to terminate them as long as the union concerned continues to meet the statutory requirement that it must be sufficiently representative of the employer’s employees in the relevant workplace whereas, in the case of contractual organisational rights, an employer does have a right to terminate contractual rights by simply giving a lawful notice of termination of the collective agreement.

The Deputy Chief Justice held that the organisational rights that the DCS granted SACOSWU were contractual organisational rights whereas the threshold fixed in the collective agreement between the DCS and POPCRU related to statutory organisational rights. Zondo DCJ, therefore, concluded that the DCS was not precluded by the LRA from concluding a collective agreement conferring contractual organisational rights on SACOSWU while its collective agreement with POPCRU was still operational even though SACOSWU did not meet the threshold fixed in that collective agreement between the Department and POPCRU.

Zondo DCJ then concluded that the appeal by POPCRU fell to be dismissed but that there should be no order as to costs.

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