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The impact of the precedent-setting Constitutional Court judgment which holds unions responsible for property damage when strikes turn violent is enormous.
The immediate reaction has been predictable – the city and businesses have welcomed it; the ANC and Cosatu have warned of a souring of relationships between Cape Town workers and management, saying the city had implied that all members of the union were at fault.
Curiously, the Freedom of Expression Institute expressed disappointment at the judgment, but said it was “encouraged that the judgment recognises the importance of the right to assemble”.
Wednesday’s judgment holds the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) liable for about R1.5 million in damage to property during a 2006 security guard strike in the Cape Town CBD, which turned into a riot. The court found the Regulation of Gatherings Act afforded victims recourse when a gathering became destructive and resulted in injury, loss of property, or life.
It would be disingenuous to suggest the ruling is prejudicial to unions or strikers, because it does not affect the right to strike or to assemble.
However, as has been pointed out, these rights must be balanced against the rights of others – in the case of the 2006 strike, the more than 250 people who came forward with injury or damage claims arising from the march.
Satawu says the police should also shoulder the blame for marches which turn violent, saying criminal elements, not union members, are to blame, and that unions do not have the resources to protect the public.
That is quite correct, but as planners and organisers of marches, unions are responsible for everyone who participates. Subsequent to this ruling, greater care must be taken in the planning and supervision of marches, and union members must be vigilant in identifying troublemakers in their midst, to prevent violence and damage.