Socio-Economic Protest Action

Bradley Workman-Davies

Bradley Workman-Davies

The country has recently experienced nationwide protest action organised by Cosatu to demonstrate its dissatisfaction with rising fuel and electricity prices and the high cost of living.

This protest action is scheduled to continue and will include work stoppages, lunch hour demonstrations and rallies.

To ensure that workers do not suffer from being away from work and not getting paid for shifts not worked, some of this protest action does not require any worker to be away from work, but some of the protest action has required employees to take time away from work to address their concerns effectively.

This means that employers can now expect that at least a part of its workforce will take part in this protest action, and that it will have to make plans to provide for continued operations while some of its employees are taking part.

What is important for an employer, as well as employees, to understand is that protest action is allowed in terms of the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 (LRA), but also that it is fundamentally different from strike action. A strike is defined in the LRA as "the partial or complete concerted refusal to work, or the retardation or obstruction of work, by persons who are or have been employed by the same employer or by different employers, for the purpose of remedying a grievance or resolving a dispute in respect of any matter of mutual interest between employer and employee."

On the other hand, protest action is defined as "the partial or complete concerted refusal to work, or the retardation or obstruction of work, for the purpose of promoting or defending the socio-economic interests of workers, but not for a purpose referred to in the definition of strike".

In the case of protest action such as that undertaken by Cosatu, what is required for the protest action to be protected, so that employees who take part cannot be disciplined for their mere participation, is that the union or federation of trade unions has served a notice on the National Economic Development and Labour Council at least 14 days before the protest action is supposed to start. This is a requirement of section 77 of the LRA.

Once this notice has been served, the members of the unions who wish to participate in the protest action can inform their members of the dates on which the planned protest action will take place.

Since protest action is generally not aimed at any one particular employer, there does not need to be any notification to any individual employer, although a union wishing to have its members participate in the protest action should at least inform the employer of these employees of the dates on which the workforce will be participating in the protest action.

On the other hand, when a strike takes place, the aim is to exert pressure on a particular employer or group of employers to concede a matter of mutual interest between the parties.

The strike procedure differs from that of the procedure for protest action, and is regulated by section 64 of the LRA. What is required in the case of a strike is that the parties refer a dispute to the CCMA.