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BY   Ivan Israelstam, Chief Executive of Labour Law Management Consulting. He may be contacted on (011) 888-7944 or 0828522973 or on e-mail address: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Go to: www.labourlawadvice.co.za. This article first appeared in The Star.

The Labour Relations Act (LRA) does not use the term ‘shop steward’ at all. Instead the term “trade union representative” (TUR) is used. A shop steward or TUR is an employee elected by the trade union members employed at the workplace. That is, the TUR is an ordinary employee chosen by his/her fellow workers to represent them in their dealings with management.

‘Shop steward’ is merely another name for a TUR and anyone elected to such a post can have both substantial influence over the workers. A TUR may, for example, be mandated by the union members to negotiate annual wage increases with the employer. If the elected TUR does not understand business economics and has a militant attitude he/she could ferment work stoppages, go-slows, work-to-rule, protests, premises blockades, sit-ins or even industrial sabotage. This can be disastrous for the employer and employees.

A less militant and more insightful shop steward will be able to represent employee interests effectively without unduly risking the viability of the business and the job security of the employees.

Even when employees belong to trade unions it is not always compulsory for the employer to recognise shop stewards. That is, the employer does not always have to agree to accept the election of and to interact with shop stewards. Before the trade union can legally force the employer to recognise shop stewards as worker representatives the trade union first has to:

  1. Gain recognition itself from the employer; and
  2. Show that the trade union on its own (or in conjunction with other trade unions) has as members the majority of the employees at the workplace; and
  3. Have, at the workplace, at least ten trade union members on its own or jointly with other unions.

Shop stewards differ from trade union officials in that union officials are not normally elected from amongst the workers. That is, trade union officials are normally appointed by, employed by and paid by the trade union. On the other hand, shop stewards are elected by the union members and are not paid by the union for acting as shop stewards. The significance of this for the employer is that it has to pay the shop steward as an employee of the company/organisation. When the worker puts aside his duties as an employee and carries out his/her shop steward duties the employer must still pay him/her!

This is a key reason for the fact that it is vital for the employer to enter into an agreement with the union before recognising the union and the shop steward. The purpose of this Recognition Agreement is to enable the employer to keep a tight control over the activities of the union and of the shop stewards. Without such an agreement the shop stewards can run riot. That is, they can stir up trouble and squander valuable production time dealing with union issues instead of earning the money they are paid.

Shop stewards have a number of trade union duties that can take them away from their normal production work. These shop steward duties include:

  • Wage negotiations. This may involve the shop steward in leading or assisting with the negotiations and in numerous preparatory and feedback meetings
  • Hearing employees’ grievances and negotiating in this regard with the employer
  • Representing employees at disciplinary hearings. This does not only use up time at the hearing itself. It can necessitate the shop steward spending  protracted periods of time preparing for the hearing and dealing with appeals brought against the discipline meted out
  • Attending training courses and conferences arranged by the trade union for purposes of developing the shop stewards’ knowledge and skills
  • Holding meetings with members regarding union issues
  • Representing members at the CCMA or bargaining council.
  • Refuse recognition of the shop steward until a properly drafted union recognition agreement has been signed
  • Impose, via the recognition agreement, strict controls on the activities of the shop steward
  • Make the shop steward fully aware of the consequences of breach of the terms of the recognition agreement and of the employer’s code of conduct
  • Take swift yet legally correct action where shop stewards flout the rules
  • Join a reputable employers organisation such as the GDPEO in order to gain access to expert legal advice and representation.

Where the trade union has complied with the three requirements mentioned earlier the employer cannot stop the shop steward from doing his/her union duties. However, the employer can and should:

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