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22 September 2014 18:01 (South Africa)
South Africa

NUM’s terminally ill year at Implats

  • Greg Nicolson
  • South Africa
GREG-NUM-SUBBEDM.jpg

You might not realise it, but there’s a quiet war raging in South Africa. Cosatu and the National Union of Mineworkers have declared war on Impala Platinum, and with good reason. Where once the company was an oasis for the red shirts, it’s now the site of decline, where things fell apart. By GREG NICOLSON.

It wasn’t always this bad. The NUM won a sweetheart deal at Implats in 2007 when the company agreed to only recognise and officially deal with a union that could count over 50% of the workforce as members of that union. With NUM having a clear majority, it effectively gained full control of organised labour at the platinum behemoth. The agreement meant that smaller rivals practically had no rights at the mine. Those were the days when 70% of Impala’s workforce was with the NUM and strikes started and finished when the union said they would.

That was until a year ago, when the NUM’s stronghold publicly crumbled. This time in 2012, 17,200 Impala workers had been dismissed after embarking on strikes that were marred by violence. The industrial action was led by rock drill operators (RDOs), aggrieved at a selective wage offer to miners, who inspect the workface and prepare it for explosives. Miners are skilled and reportedly filled the ranks of NUM leadership. RDOs saw the selective increase and figured NUM was looking out for its own in a cozy alliance with mine management. So when the workers were eventually rehired, most became members of rival the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

That started the NUM’s year of decline. Since the Impala strike, which served as prologue to the industry-wide strikes that erupted in August, the NUM’s almost absolute legitimacy from its anti-Apartheid days has unravelled into a series of embarrassing mistakes that made them even more vulnerable.

In Cape Town, where the who’s who of mining has descended for the 2013 Mining Indaba this week, NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni indicated just how distant the labour organisation is from the centre of power. Speaking to SAfm, the leader of what is supposed to be South Africa’s most powerful union said he was at the Mining Indaba but had not been invited. The NUM had raised the issue with the Department of Mineral Resources, to no avail, and Baleni said the organisers did not take labour seriously. Nevertheless, he supported the conference that was happy to exclude him.

Meanwhile, in Rustenburg, NUM president Senzeni Zokwana has been doing his best to defend his union from criticism that its link to Lonmin management was a primary cause of what led to the massacre of Marikana. Zokwana refused to agree with that line of argument, but said he was proud of the NUM members who threw rocks and fired shots at their fellow workers.

The union was further embarrassed when Implats, accused of promoting violent strikes by giving in to protestors’ demands in early 2012, announced this week that the NUM indeed had divided workers at their platinum mine. According to Implats, the NUM blocked a proposed pay rise for rock drill operators before accepting the offer for miners. The discrepancy caused the RDOs to strike.

No doubt the biggest hit to NUM, however, came last week. After it failed to increase its membership and achieve a majority at Implats, management welded shut its offices. The union is suggesting the company colluded with Amcu in a conspiracy against Cosatu and the ANC ahead of the 2014 national elections. “It must be very clear,” said Cosatu North West Provincial Secretary Solly Phetoe on Monday, “that we are at war with Impala and that we will make sure that we mobilise members of the communities and our government against Impala if it continues with its union-bashing.”

Phetoe continued: “For us as Cosatu this is a confirmation that the company has gone on a total onslaught against the union and wants to kill the NUM.”

The recognition issue has been taken to court, but speaking to Daily Maverick on Tuesday, Implats spokesman Bob Gilmore was confident the company had followed correct procedure. “Having been given the appropriate notice, the NUM have failed to restore their membership to the 50% plus one level. The recognition agreement was terminated at the end of January and we are preparing a new labour dispensation,” he said.

A former NUM leader at Implats told Daily Maverick the company was pressuring former shop stewards to take severance packages and were being intimidated by management. Gilmore refuted this, saying all shop NUM stewards had been offered their former jobs back. The mineworker also said rumours were abounding that Implats would follow Anglo American Platinum’s lead to downscale. He said five unproductive shafts could close.

If that occurs, NUM will have little say in what happens to the employees. After a disastrous year, they lost almost 60% of the workforce at Implats, and the once-illustrious champion of miners is literally outside the fence. The union can take the employer to court. It can bang the drums of war. But the fact is that in the last year it ultimately lost members and relevance across the mining industry, because workers did not like the way they were represented. DM

Read more:

  • NUM: the incredible, vanishing union; Cosatu in the danger zone in Daily Maverick 

Photo: Miners, who are on strike, wait for suspended ANC Youth League President Julius Malema to address them outside the Impala platinum mine in Rustenburg, 120 km (75 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, February 28 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

  • Greg Nicolson
  • South Africa


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