Union bound by own constitution on who its members are, top court rules

26 March 2020 - 17:04
The Constitutional Court in session. The court said Numsa's constitution did not allow it to organise in the paper and packaging sector.
Image: JAMES OATWAY The Constitutional Court in session. The court said Numsa's constitution did not allow it to organise in the paper and packaging sector.

If the National Union of Metalworkers of SA wished to admit people employed in the paper and packaging industry as its members, it ought to have amended its constitution to include those employees.

The Constitutional Court made this finding on Thursday when it dismissed the union's application for leave to appeal against a Labour Appeal Court judgment which held that Numsa was not entitled to organisational rights within Lufil Packaging's workspace.

The Labour Appeal Court held that this was because Lufil's employees fell outside Numsa's scope according to the union's constitution.

Clause 1(2) of Numsa’s constitution provides that “the scope of the union is the metal industry” and also states all workers who are or were working in the metal and related industries are eligible for membership of Numsa.

Though the scope of industries which Numsa represents is wide, the paper and packaging industry is not included in its scope of membership as defined in its constitution.

The dispute began in January 2015, when Numsa approached Lufil Packaging requesting that the company deduct union fees for its members employed by the company.

Lufil refused on the basis that Lufil's operations, being in the paper and packaging industry, did not fall within the permitted scope of Numsa's constitution.

The dispute went to the labour court which found in favour of Numsa. The labour court held that what mattered was that the union was registered and sufficiently representative.

Aggrieved by this, Lufil appealed to the labour appeal court, which held that unions only have powers that are conferred on them by their constitutions.

In an unanimous judgment written by acting justice Margaret Victor, the court said the central issue was whether Numsa could obtain organisational rights in terms of the Labour Relations Act from Lufil, whose employees fall outside Numsa's scope as defined in the union's constitution. Victor said a voluntary union, such as Numsa, was bound by its constitution.

“It has no powers beyond the four corners of that document,” Victor said.

She said having elected to define the eligibility for membership in its scope, it manifestly limited its eligibility for membership.

“When it comes to organisational rights, Numsa is bound to the categories of membership set out in its scope,” Victor said.

Victor said the LRA made provision for a union to amend its constitution by resolution.

She said Numsa's constitution stated that the union's central committee may amend the scope of the union’s membership from time to time.

“When Numsa wished to admit Lufil employees as members, it ought to have amended its constitution. Instead, Numsa chose to proceed to litigate this matter to this court,” Victor said.

She said it was on that basis that it would not be in the interest of justice to grant Numsa leave to appeal.

“Leave to appeal is accordingly dismissed,” Victor said.

Victor ordered each party to pay its own costs.