Recently, the Labour Court found the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) and its general-secretary, Simon Mathe, guilty of contempt of court after it was found that they did not do enough to persuade their members to comply with a court interdict during a wage strike at Pikitup,
Members of Samwu were interdicted by their employer, Pikitup, from participating in an unprotected strike and from intimidating and harassing non-striking employees. The Order went further in that it interdicted and restrained Mathe, or any of its officials, from encouraging or inciting the unprotected strike. Mr Mathe and the union officials were also ordered to take steps to ensure that its members comply with the terms of the order.
Unfortunately, as is common practice in South Africa, the order was ignored and the unprotected strike continued.
When considering the evidence, the court accepted that the strikers openly flouted the court order on "a dramatic scale". The court reiterated the importance of complying with court orders which is necessary for the existence of a properly functioning, democratic legal order. It pointed out that if a court issues an order against a party who is unhappy with it, then that party must take the decision to a higher court and have that order set aside. It is not for the party to simply say that they do not agree with the court order and therefore will not comply with it.
The court accepted that the liability of the union and Mathe would be strictly determined by reference to what the court previously ordered the parties to do, and on the presentation of evidence that they did not do so. On the evidence, the court was satisfied that there was no effort made by the union to try and invoke the statutory dispute mechanisms for resolving underlying disputes, thus rendering the strike unprotected. The court was also satisfied that certain statements made by union officials were made intentionally and wilfully in defiance of the court order, and that Mathe did not take reasonable steps to correct these actions.
Samwu and Mathe have been ordered to pay R80 000.00 and R10 000.00 respectively. The fines are suspended for 24 months on condition the union is not found guilty of contempt of court during that period. The union and Mathe were also ordered to pay the employer's cost jointly and severally.
Some may say that the suspended sentence is too lenient in the circumstances, however, Samwu and Mathe now have a significant fine hanging over their heads for the next two years. It will be interesting to see whether or not this will have any effect during the next round of negotiations.