Union in dire financial position after constitutional court dismisses appeal

The Constitutional Court dismissed the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural & Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU)’s plea to overturn a cost order by the Labour Court amounting to R600,000 in legal fees.

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court dismissed CSAAWU’s application as “it bears no prospects of success”. CSAAWU applied to the Constitutional Court for leave to appeal against the costs orders on 19 June to avoid bankruptcy. CSAAWU represented farm workers in the Western Cape strikes in 2012/13. Most of these strikes for increased wages were unprotected and many workers lost their jobs. CSAAWU fought and lost two dismissal cases in 2014 in the Labour Court, one against Steytler Boerdery and a second against La Maison. The court ruled that the union must pay the legal fees of La Maison and Steytler Boerdery farms, on the grounds that CSAAWU and the workers displayed “intransigent” and reckless attitudes in participating in an unprotected strike. Despite fundraising efforts such as “Keep CSAAWU Doors Open” raising R150,000, the union nor the workers can afford to pay the fees.

Steytler Boerdery owner David Steytler said CSAAWU knew the application to appeal the cost order would be dismissed. “The union … instituted three more applications to appeal the cost orders knowing full well that their case had absolutely no merit whatsoever and had no prospects of success,” Steytler said. “The employer [Steytler] stresses that it had complied with all relevant labour laws and had made every effort to resolve the dispute amicably, but had been thwarted by the persistent unlawful conduct of the staff in question and their union, who have acted throughout in flagrant disregard of the Labour Relations Act well knowing what the consequences might be,” said Steytler.

CSAAWU’s representative Socio-Economic Right Institute (SERI) attorney Bhavna Ramji said it was rare for the Constitutional Court to consider an appeal against costs orders alone. CSAAWU’s case was based on the labour law principle that states the court must consider fairness when deciding whether to order the losing side to pay legal fees. They approached the Constitutional Court as the cost orders will “end CSAAWU’s ability to assist thousands of South Africa’s most vulnerable farm workers,” Ramji said. “The Constitutional Court disagreed. We respect its decision,” she said. SERI stated that the Constitutional Court’s dismissal will likely lead to the closure of CSAAWU. “An important space within which poor and vulnerable workers can assert their rights will close down with [the union].

This is particularly disappointing given the fact that the Constitution and the Labour Relations Act were designed to open up legal spaces for poor people,” Ramji said. CSAAWU’s executive members met on Saturday to discuss the Constitutional Court judgment and the future of the union. According to Deputy General Secretary Karel Swart, CSAAWU had instructed their lawyers to “make a financial offer and to negotiate an off payment arrangement”. “This judgment is not only a setback for CSAAWU … and for the rural working class, but for all other unions and civil society. But, this judgment will strengthen our determination … CSAAWU is the first union to stand steadfast with the most vulnerable poor farmers to the highest court. We lose this battle, but not the war. The struggle will continue,” Swart said. The Union will be meeting again on Sunday 23 August to inform members of the Constitutional Court judgment.

17 August 2015 – Mariska Morris, GroundUp