Woolworths Dispute

More than five thousand SACCAWU members have been on a protected strike at Woolworths since 17 September 2008. The strike arise out of a protracted organisational rights dispute between SACCAWU and the company that date back to 1999, when Woolworths unilaterally terminated the relationship agreement between the two parties. Throughout this period SACCAWU has tried all available channels provided by our labour legislation to resolve the dispute before members finally decided to embark on this protected strike. Throughout this period the company continuously frustrated our attempts to settle the dispute, always shifting the goal posts, placing unrealistic demands on the table, drew out and abandoned processes for resolution and of course spreading unverified claims that SACCAWU has less than 6% members in the company. Most recently the company outrageously insists to individually verify the membership of SACCAWU members to ascertain whether workers has been coerced to join the union as a condition for the resolution of dispute.

However, the bitter experience of workers at the hands of an extremely hostile management, both in this dispute as well as the general treatment of workers and employment contracts has justifiably created significant distrust of the so-called good faith that the company try to project. At general meetings throughout the country held yesterday, 9 October 2008, striking workers decided to continue with the strike until the company meet with the union, agree to a credible verification process and negotiate a relationship agreement with SACCAWU.

Employment Profile Of The Company

The dispute with Woolworths first arose in 1999 with the unilateral derecognition of the Union, the company then already had extremely high levels of atypical forms of employment and this has worsened since. At the time Woolworths claimed a staff compliment of 12 407 with more than 70% casual employees. By 2007 the staff compliment grew with to 17 838 with the percentage of full time staff shrinking in real terms, while the flexible employee compliment grew to 12 546. If the management are removed from these company figures the percentages will even be higher. While Woolworths claim it has no casual employees its employment categories of Flexi – 8 and Flexi – 28 seriously challenges this claim. Flexi – 8 and Flexi – 28 only has a guaranteed eight and twenty-eight hours of work per week with the majority earning at sectoral determination rates. This translate into a minimum of less than R500-00 per month for Flexi – 8 and R1600-00 per month for Flexi – 28. This we believe has led to high staff turnover and is tantamount to casual labour and fly in the face of the call by labour throughout the world for decent work.

In this same period the company’s turnover grew by more than 110% from R8. 8 billion to R18. 6 billion over the same period. While operating profits for the same period grew by more than 300%. This we believe is not as a result of it’s so-called quality but instead could only be achieved through the high levels of exploitation of workers at Woolworths

History Of Unionisation Within Woolworths

The first recognition agreement between the Union and the Company was signed in June 1983, at the time the Union was known as CCAWUSA. The agreement covered permanent employees only. An amended agreement was signed in November 1990 still only covering permanent employees and excluding casual employees who already constituted a substantial number. In 1999 SACCAWU was derecognised through unilateral inclusion of casual employees in the scope of the agreement. The struggle for recognition was accordingly waged since then. In June 1999 the parties deadlocked at conciliation. The Union then referred the dispute for arbitration over application and/or interpretation of a collective agreement in line with the applicable provisions of the LRA. While this dispute was referred in June 1999 an arbitration date by the CCMA was finally arranged in 2004 as a result of pressure from the Union. At arbitration the Company argued that the CCMA had no jurisdiction to arbitrate the matter. The Union argued that the CCMA does have jurisdiction and the Commissioner ruled in favour of the Union. The Company then decided to review the CCMA ruling but did not ensure that the Labour Court finally decides on the matter as it was obviously not in their interests to do so.

The Struggle For Re-recognition

Due to the delays by the CCMA and Woolworths to to finalise this matter and the negative impact it had on our membership, SACCAWU resolved to start from the beginning and again re-unionise the workers and seek the negotiation of a new relationship agreement which led to the current dispute.

In the current dispute SACCAWU seeks to exercise two basic rights; stop order facilities and access to Company premises outside working hours. These rights are accorded to a sufficiently representative Union in terms of the LRA. The LRA does not specify a specific percentage for sufficient representativity but outlines guidelines that should be considered in deciding on whether a Union is sufficiently representative or not. The LRA specifies the following elements for consideration in deciding whether a union is sufficiently representative:

  • The nature of the workplace;
  • The nature of one or more organisational rights that the registered trade union seeks to exercise;
  • The nature of the sector in which the workplace is situated;
  • The organisational history at the workplace or any other workplace of the employer.

All of these considerations has relevance to this case.

Further, the LRA calls upon unions that seek to exercise one or more organisational rights to specify facts upon which they rely to demonstrate that they are representative.

Issues in the current dispute concerns, the threshold for sufficient representativity and the facts upon which the Union relies to demonstrate that it is a representative union. The Union believes that 15% constitutes sufficient representativity for organisational rights in the retail sector given high levels of atypical forms of employment as well as benchmarks that have been established through engagement with other employers within the sector. The Union also believes that signed stop order forms suffice as proof of membership.

The employer on the other hand insists on 30% as sufficient representativity whilst they only want to consider forms that are not older than three months. This is outrageous given the history of the dispute as well as the sector within in which we organise. We must stress that Woolworths is the only employer which insists on this three months within the sector. Whilst the Union believes that it is above even the 30% that the employer is demanding the company’s rigid adherence to forms that are not older then three months implies that the union will not be recognised even if it can organise all Company employees given the history of engagement since 1999 as well as the high staff turnover within the Company a consequence of the high levels of casualisation at Woolworths.

It is these factors, taken together, as well as the Company’s adherence to the anti-union Walmart philosophy that compelled the Union to embark upon protected industrial action. Whilst the Company claims that it recognises freedom of association it also qualifies this by indicating that it prefers direct one-on-one interaction with workers. Worse still the company has been abusing both the CCMA and the Labour Court in frustrating the workers right to belong to a union of their choice.

At the same time it appear that there is collusion between the Company and Landlords to frustrate the workers right to picket in the current strike. The Union has also noted the CCMA’s reluctance in exercising its powers in disputes against Woolworths. It is for this reason that the Union will also be targeting both the CCMA and the Department of Labour in its programme of mass action.

The union believes that facts and figures contained in this document clearly indicate the type of employer that the Union is dealing with. The Union also believes that the Company’s actions undermine the spirit of the Labour Relations Act and Social Dialogue.

The Current Strike

Throughout the protected industrial action by workers the union have sought through various attempts to protect striking workers right to picket as well as attempting to secure a resolution of the core issue at dispute, Organisational Rights.

In all the attempts to review the picket rules imposed by the CCMA the union was stone-walled by legal tactics by the company until the Labour Court ruled that the CCMA should review these rules. At issue here was that the picketing rules has rendered effective picketing by striking workers ineffective where in terms of the rules striking workers were often five hundred metres away from the store, often completely out of sight of the store and at times placed pickets in the premises of other stores. Further, what appear to be collusion between Woolworths and Mall managements workers were prevented to picket on Mall property. The advisory award by the CCMA are currently challenged by the Union since the only significant change to the rules was to grant the Union the right to have one striking worker with a picket inside the store. This we believe will place undue pressure on such a striking worker and open strikers to intimidation by the company. This matter is to be pursued at the CCMA on Monday 13 October.

On the core issue which was also heard at the CCMA on the same day an advisory award, though with substantial compromises from the Union has been rejected by the company representatives. The core issues in the award covered the threshold for organisational rights, the date from which members should be recognised, what constitute an employee and how verification are to take place.

While the union is concerned of the implications for the workers of the industry in general (high turn-over and large numbers of casual workers) in the interest of resolving the dispute the union were willing to accept the following:

  1. The staff complement to be considered in determining the percentage of Union membership to include management.
  2. the threshold for stop order facilities to be 25%
  3. the threshold for access to the workplace accroding to section 12 of the LRA to be 30%.
  4. the cut of date for stop order/membership forms to be considered to be the beginning of May 2008. (this is despite the fact the union have shifted from a position that all members to be considered, to all members joined in the last three months since the dispute was declared in January, to all members that joined since mid February, to the date stipulated by the Commissioner in the award.)

Since then the company has introduced two new obstacles, that verification should be done by an outside auditor and that workers to be individually approached to confirm that they have voluntarily joined the SACCAWU. Workers fear that even if we concede to these two unreasonable demands by the company they will further frustrate the Union through disagreeing with other details as it has done throughout the history of the dispute.

Our conclusion is that the company has no intention in settling the dispute, but rather that is is set to break the union and keep their establishment union free, for that is the only way in which it will be able to employ workers at such low wage levels. It is for this reason that SACCAWU call on a the progressive forces and the public in general to support the consumer boycott of Woolworths until a resolution of the dispute and workers demands are met.