31 July 2017 by and Employment Alert

Shop stewards: “A licence to confront”?

Shop stewards are not special. They may think they are. They also may at times believe that they manage the business. However, similar to CEOs, shop stewards must conduct themselves in an appropriate manner. They are held to the same standards as any other employee.

The recent case of National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) obo Motloba v Johnson Controls Automotive SA (Pty) Ltd and Others [2017] 5 BLLR 483 (LAC), dealt with the question of whether shop stewards are to be held to the same behavioural standard as other employees. 

In this case, the employee had been employed by the employer for a period of nine years and was a shop steward at the workplace. The employee had an altercation with the payroll administrator as he didn’t agree with management’s interpretation of a provision in the MIBCO collective agreement regulating how employees on night shift were to be paid for work performed on a public holiday.

The employer’s evidence was that the employee confronted the payroll administrator and, in an aggressive voice, said: “Don’t lie to my people that I agreed to how they would be paid”. 

Further evidence was led that the employee’s finger moved in the direction of the payroll administrator and that the service centre supervisor thought the employee was going to hit her. The employee was dismissed on the grounds of physical and verbal assault, serious disrespect and threatening and/or intimidating behaviour towards the payroll administrator. The employee challenged his dismissal. 

The Labour Appeal Court held that, “a shop steward should fearlessly pursue the interest of his/her constituency and ought to be protected against any form of victimisation for doing so. However, this is no licence to resort to defiance and needless confrontation. A shop steward remains an employee, from whom his employer is entitled to expect conduct that is appropriate to that relationship.”

The court was robust in its finding that it is unacceptable to reason that when an employee acts in a representative capacity, “anything goes”.

A vociferous shop steward should act in the best interest of his constituency and not in a manner that is unbefitting of the office which he holds.

This case is important as it fortifies the principle that shops stewards, regardless of their representative mandate, are to conduct themselves at the same standard as a CEO. 

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