IN A move that could exacerbate growing tensions within the trade union movement, a bitter battle has broken out between employees and union management of the Cosatu-affiliated SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu).
Workers at the Cape Town headquarters of the union were yesterday declared to be on strike by their own union executive on the basis of “no work, no pay”.
However, the workers affected remained at their desks and claimed they were not on strike and were continuing to work.
Yesterday afternoon Samwu general secretary Walter Theledi flew in from Johannesburg apparently to try to placate the rebellious staff.
According to Johannesburg-based Samwu spokesman Tahir Sema, the dispute between the long-time employees of the union and their bosses will be referred to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.
He could not comment further other than to agree that “head office staff should now relocate to Johannesburg”.
However, former Samwu general secretary Roger Ronnie, who resigned from the union when the sudden notice of relocation was given last month, described what had happened as “totally deplorable and disgusting”.
He added: “To have personally witnessed strangers entering the offices, removing and boxing files and removing peoples’ desktop computers and simply loading them onto courier trucks is a scene I never thought possible in a trade union.”
The “strangers” were acting for Mpamba Solutions, a company apparently registered in May 2010 and contracted to oversee the relocation and the refurbishment of the new Johannesburg headquarters.
This has raised further questions among union staff because there is no website and no telephone listing for a company under that name.
Especially annoying to union workers in Cape Town was the fact that they were informed only weeks before the offices closed for the annual Christmas break, that they would have to relocate to Johannesburg or be declared redundant.
A letter to the staff from the general secretary offers consultation after the event and at a time when most of the staff would be on leave.
“This kind of behaviour would never have been tolerated by the union if a municipal employer had acted in the same way,” Ronnie said.
The former general secretary, who worked for the union for 24 years, also pointed out that the average length of service of the affected staff members was 15 years.
Some had worked “to build the union” for more than 20 years and, in that time, Samwu, unlike many other unions, had “never had a qualified audit”.
The new, eight-storey Johannesburg headquarters has so far cost a reported R20 million, with an estimate of a final cost of nearer R30m.
It is planned to house a ground floor of “income earning shops” and to house offices of the SACP and various so-called solidarity groups, such as the Peoples’ United Democratic Movement of Swaziland.
The centralisation of Samwu’s headquarters has been on the cards since a resolution passed by a union congress in 2009.
But the resolution noted that such a move should only be undertaken after a thorough feasibility study.
No independent or comprehensive study was conducted, but an executive committee did agree that the move was necessary.
“Whatever else, the way this whole thing was handled was barbaric,” one of the affected union workers said.