Do I have to join a Trade Union

Vanessa Pinhero writes : I am a nurse sworn to protect the health of every patient and not to do harm. Every year my colleagues go on strike and spend weeks acting like anything but civilized and dignified nurses. I am constantly under pressure to join their Trade Union. Do I have to?

The short answer Vanessa is no you do not have to join their Union. You have absolute protection under the Constitution and also from both the Labour Relations Act and also the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. You are guaranteed what is called “Freedom of Association”. This means you are absolutely free to associate with whoever you want to, or not to associate with them.

What you must realize are the following realities however. Firstly as we have seen and you have observed, the moment that strike begins, South African Nurses participating become anything other than dignified health practitioners and hence there is the possibility that someone moving in a different direction is going to get physically hurt or even killed. This should not be an incentive for you to join them, but rather to stay out of their way, and indeed to seek your employers protection in the process. Employers have a duty to create a safe and healthy working environment and that includes ensuring your safety. Secondly, if the Union has forced what is referred to as a closed shop on the company, which by the way I am certain can be constitutionally challenged in this day and age but has not yet been, then no other Trade Union (one of your choosing) can operate in that working environment. However we have seen in the mining industry with AMCU and NUM that the days of closed shop agreements are numbered. People are starting to think about the damage done and quite frankly,  the corruption inherent in any monopoly.

Vanessa what I would advise is that you have the option to subscribe to any of the Legal Assistance schemes which operate in South Africa. You will most probably one day need the assistance of a Labour Advisor. Someone who can do the work far more effectively than any untrained and potentially corrupt Union Official could ever, in representing you in an Enquiry or other forum such as the CCMA. What you spend on being a member of such a scheme can be saved on by not having to pay Union fee’s. In this regard what you should do is immediately inform your Employer that you belong to such a scheme and that should you ever need to, you will seek representation from a representative of that Scheme. Employers might refuse that person right of representation but that refusal itself can then always be challenged in a Bargaining Council, the CCMA or the Labour Court should it come to that.

I would advise that your thinking is correct. If you do not wish to be seen as part of a mindless and violent collective of Trade Union members then remain an individual. It can only enhance your chances for advancement and promotion. But at the same time do not be naïve enough not to think you will not be a target for violence and intimidation. Do something about that as well as the fact that you should seek alternative Labour protection as I have alluded to.