Many losers in Samwu squabbles
Municipalities, communities and members suffered as a result of infighting
The disintegration of the SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) has wreaked havoc in the spaces where it organises, leaving labour relations in shambles and its members victims of the chaos.
For more than five years, the biggest municipal union in SA has been paralysed by infighting and a scramble for resources, as leaders launched lawsuits and counter-suits against each other in a struggle for positions.
Labour relations reached an all-time low in some municipalities, including the City of Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay, with employers withholding union subscriptions as they were unable to discern who the legitimate leaders were. Service delivery came to a standstill in a number of municipalities, as members “abandoned” their posts to engage in the intraunion squabbles.
“Workers would always be in union meetings and fighting among themselves. The energy that was supposed to be dedicated to their own communities was focused on internal squabbles,” said Samwu president Pule Molalenyane.
While the phenomenon is not limited to Samwu, it was the direct impact on service delivery that saw employers get involved in the disputes.
The City of Johannesburg, in particular, was the epicentre of the chaos, resulting in it joining a Constitutional Court appeal application that sought to distinguish who the duly elected leaders of the Samwu were.
The apex court dismissed the application contesting the current leadership elected in 2015. Union leaders admitted that while this would bring the matter to “rest” , damage done over several years would take longer to repair. The matter had previously sat before the labour court, which concluded earlier in 2018 that the faction of the most recently elected leaders was the lawful recognised authority in the union.
“What is clear from this case is that even when an employer is impacted negatively in having to deal with different factions of the same trade union in its bargaining relationship, it will have no legal recourse through the mechanisms of the LRA [Labour Relations Act] to stabilise the relationship and ensure its employees receive effective representation,” wrote Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr labour experts Mohsina Chenia and Reece May after the ruling.
Molalenyane, who is part of the collective appointed at the 2015 congress and was vindicated by the court, said that even municipalities that had invested R1.57bn in the collapsed VBS Mutual Bank would not have done so had the union’s members been focused on their mandates.
The crisis in the union had served “corrupt municipalities”, he said.
About 13 Samwu employees and a former national leader were arrested by the Hawks in 2016 on suspicion of fraud and misappropriation of funds after millions was reported missing from union coffers.
Internally, it was hoped the results of a forensic audit of the union’s finances would bring an end to accusations of corruption and fraud among current and former leaders.
The report by auditing firm EY will be released at the union’s central executive committee in December.
Union disunity: A Samwu leadership struggle ended up in court after municipalities were thrown into chaos.