Labour Law in a Nutshell January 2020

POWER HUNGRY UNIONS: How does the Labour Court deal with unions who ignore the rules of orderly labour relations?

We have a problem. The problem is that the rules of engagement are too often simply abandoned when some unions don’t get their way. And anarchy quickly follows.

A tragic example is what happened at Fort England Hospital, a state hospital in Machado (Grahamstown). It’s not a typical hospital. It’s a state psychiatric hospital which takes care of people with serious mental health problems. And its patients aren’t typical either – they include the country’s most difficult and dangerous state patients in its maximum security unit. Think about this…

The employees and their unions were unhappy about a new CEO named Walsh who was appointed in 2013. His task was to fix the hospital after it had fallen into an extreme state of disorder following years of mismanagement and neglect. The unions wanted him gone because it was their turf. As the Labour Court (LC) described it –

“[87]   The facts disclose a relentless campaign to oust the applicant [Walsh], a campaign that commenced almost as soon as the applicant assumed office. The applicant was hounded out of his position on account of the unlawful conduct of union officials and members. He has been subjected to a campaign of vilification, harassment, intimidation and assault

To make matters worse, the unions’ complaint was completely illegitimate. The LC observed –

“Two separate independent investigations concluded there was no substance to claims by employees and unions’ that Walsh was a “dictator”. An advocate during March 2016 found no fault with Mr Walsh’s management style and said there was no merit in the accusation that management had failed to consult with the Unions on relevant issues. Following the report there was a repeat of the violent, unlawful action by Union officials and certain employees.”

The LC was referring to the five recognised unions at the Hospital – NEHAWU, NUPSAW, DENOSA, HOSPERSA and the PSA.

Their unlawful activities included unprotected strikes; refusal to take blood samples, saying this was not part of their job description; an illegal picket causing damage to property and threatening behaviour; blocking access to Walsh’s office and injuring him; a NEHAWU representative stating that Walsh must “leave the hospital in a bakkie – they will make the hospital ungovernable” and “set the administration building alight”;  entering the hospital in July 2016 armed with sticks and threatening employees that their houses would be burnt down if they did not participate in the strike.

The LC was highly critical of the unions’ conduct saying the following: 

[96] In these circumstances, when an employer allows itself to be held hostage to a concerted campaign of violence and intimidation conducted by power-hungry Union officials, the basis for any semblance of a system of industrial relations is compromised.

In the resultant anarchy, for those citizens who are reliant on the services provided by the Department of Health, life will literally and inevitably run the risk of being reduced to the Hobbesian description of life without State structures and controls “ solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

So it was for the hospital’s patients, to whom the constitutional right of access to health care is owed, and who have suffered as a consequence of the conduct of the Unions and their officials and members.”

The LC’s response to this anarchy by unions is clear: it will not be tolerated and unions can expect no sympathy from the courts. 

TIP: If it’s not too late for a new year’s resolution: the resolution should be to put a stop to this madness. [1]We live in a fractured and fragile society with an even more fragile economy. There can be no winners without respect for the rules or for each other. Nor can there willing investors to create the jobs we so desperately need. 

labour lawyer & mediator
Deale Attorneys
Email: [email protected]
Tel:        083 375 8771
Web:     www.deale.co.za 
Skype:  patrick.deale

[1] Walsh v The Superintendent General: Eastern Cape Department of Health and Others (PR242/17) [2019] ZALCPE 1
Source: Worklaw Newsflash November 2019


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