Comments attributed to SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, in response to the DA's tabling of a private members bill, reveal the true extent of the unlawful behaviour of union members during strike actions.
Earlier this week I presented a private members bill in Parliament, which would hold unions liable for damages caused by their members during strike action. We believe it is right, on principle, to hold unions accountable in the way that other juristic entities - organisations, companies, co-operatives, even football clubs - are commonly held legally liable for the unlawful actions of persons that fall under their authority.
Just as football clubs are held to account for the unruly conduct of their supporters, so it ought to be the case that an organisation such as a union takes partial responsibility for the errant behaviour of its members during strike actions.
The fact that a recent Cape High Court judgment provides precedent for precisely this, underscores, we believe, the need for such provisions to be codified into our labour law.
In response to our bill, Dr. Nzimande is now being quoted as saying: "This is a sure route to destroy the trade union movement in South Africa."
And Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi says that the bill is an attempt to "weaken" unions.
These remarks are most telling.
Our bill, remember, would only come into effect in instances in which union members act outside the confines of the law. It would make unions partly responsible for illegal actions during strikes; it would ensure unions take steps to prevent, repair and remedy injuries to persons and damage to property caused during strikes; and it would hold unions responsible for such damages, losses and injuries when they occur.
In other words, for the bill to be able to "destroy" or "weaken" a union, one of three conditions would need to be met:
Either the behaviour of union members would need to breach the law so extensively, and on such a regular basis, that a union would deem it financially ruinous for such a bill to come into force. If this is the case, then it merely underscores the urgent need for such a piece of legislation.
Or, secondly, a union would need to believe it had no hope of ever controlling its members' actions, during strikes it had organised. Again, if this is the case, then unions have no business ordering such strikes in the first place, and legislation is patently needed.
Or, finally, union bosses may find that strike actions that degenerate into lawlessness help their cause - by serving as a greater incentive for government to bring the strike to an end, and, thus, for a better offer to be placed on the table. And if this is the case, then it is clearly wrong that unions are using illegal actions as leverage in negotiations, and it again underscores the need for legislation.
Whatever the case, the fact is that our bill would have no effect whatsoever, if in the recent words of a Cosatu spokesperson, strike actions were in the "overwhelming majority" of instances, "peaceful, lawful and orderly", or were limited to "a small minority".
Yet, Dr. Nzimande and Mr. Vavi clearly think otherwise.
In other words, they implicitly admit that unions would be liable for enormous damages, or are completely unable to control their members, or are using lawlessness during strike actions as leverage in the bargaining process.
Our bill is a euphemism for accountability - for its purpose is to hold people who break the law to account - and so one might fairly paraphrase the comments of Mr. Vavi and Dr. Nzimande as follows: "accountability will destroy and weaken the unions".