Cape Town, 16.05.2006: Satawu's march last Tuesday moves through Cape Town. A small group of thugs was to blame for the violence. Picture Andrew Ingram/Story Tony Ehrenreich

A Constitutional Court ruling has set a legal precedent by holding unions responsible for damages when strikes turn into riots, resulting in violence, vandalism and looting.

According to the judgment, it is estimated that the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) faces an estimated bill of R1.5 million for damages to municipal and private property caused during a 2006 security guard strike in the Cape Town city centre.

The City of Cape Town says that, as a result of the ruling, the SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) could be in the firing line because it may sue the union for damages of more than R100 000 as a result of a similar strike in August last year.

While the city welcomed the ruling, unions and the ANC raised a number of concerns.

Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille said: “The implication of the judgment is that organisers will now be obliged, at all times, to take reasonable steps to prevent all conduct that could potentially cause foreseeable damage. The decision will further afford effective legal recourse to victims if a gathering becomes destructive and results in injury, loss of property or life.” She added that the city would evaluate and assess the evidence and start laying charges and claiming for damages.

Satawu said the unions should not be the only ones held accountable because the police were also to blame.

“The question of the liability of Satawu must be considered, together with the fact that the state can and should also be held liable for damages if the SAPS do not adequately protect the public during the course of marches and demonstrations. It must be borne in mind that trade unions do not have the power and resources of the state to protect the public,” Satawu said in a statement.

Samwu pointed out that it was hard to point fingers at specific perpetrators because the violence was sometimes caused by “criminal elements” and not union members.

The ANC and Cosatu have warned that the city’s implication that all union members were guilty would “sour relations” between city workers and management, as it implied that all members of the union were at fault.

Tony Ehrenreich, leader of the ANC in the city council, said: “This will sour relations between employee and employer. They haven’t even proved who are the guilty ones, and she (De Lille) is pre-empting the outcome.”

Wednesday’s ruling was made after eight people, including a trader, flower seller, carpenter, customs officer and business people, were affected by the 2006 march and resulting violence.

Satawu first took the matter to the Western Cape High Court which found the union liable for damages.

The Supreme Court of Appeal later upheld the High Court’s decision, but the union took it further to the Constitutional Court, which resulted in Wednesday’s judgment.

In the judgment, the court found that the Regulation of Gatherings Act afforded victims effective recourse when a gathering became destructive and resulted in injury, loss of property, or life.

“The organisations are intimately involved in the planning, supervision, and execution of the gathering, but the potential victims are not,” Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said. “Because of this, the organisations would be in a better position than innocent victims to identify individuals or institutions which caused the damage,” he said.

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Cape Argus