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18 October 2017 07:33 (South Africa)
South Africa

The NUM/AMCU Cold War moves to bargaining councils

  • Sipho Hlongwane
    sipho hlongwane BW
    Sipho Hlongwane

    Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

    He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

  • South Africa
sipho om num vs amcu.jpg

The tension between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) may have subsided of late, but the two unions are locked in a battle for the control of bargaining councils. The NUM is now for a sector-wide, statutory council, while AMCU is dead set against it in its current form, believing it to be a veiled attempt to claw back the victories it has made in winning bargaining rights at operational level at the big platinum mining companies. Frighteningly, the negotiators seem to have forgotten to invite the workers to the negotiating table. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The wildcat strike at Marikana in August 2012 had its roots in a similar set of incidents that happened at Impala Platinum from 2011 onward. Rock-drill operators at the company went on an unprotected and violent strike to demand a R9,000 per month wage. After the company initially reacted by sacking 17,000 workers, it chose to rehire most of them and give them certain wage increases. The success of that unprotected strike would go on to inspire the rock-drill operators at Lonmin to launch their own, which eventually led to the 16 August massacre when the police opened fire on the crowd, killing 34 and wounding 78 more. This is the version of events that the NUM has put forward in the aftermath of the shooting, most notably by the union's secretary for health and safety Eric Gcilitshana before the Marikana commission of inquiry.

AMCU has a different interpretation. Its president Joseph Mathunjwa has denied involvement in the unprotected strikes that threatened to bring the platinum mining industry to its knees last year before the Marikana commission. He put forward a picture of an NUM that had abandoned its workers and could not abide competition.

It was not surprising that the two unions decided to take contradictory (and self-serving) positions at the hearing, given the potential ramifications for anyone found to have stoked the flames that led to death at Marikana. There is more at stake, and the prize is immense: AMCU and NUM are locked in a struggle for membership numbers, which brings with it membership fees.

The initiative after Marikana has been left to AMCU. From a worker-relations perspective, the period has been a disaster for NUM, which has lost tens of thousands of members to its rival since the massacre. The union, its parent federation Cosatu and the ruling African National Congress party have all held rallies and meetings in the Rustenburg area to try to stem the bleeding.

On Sunday it was the turn of ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who invited workers to shun AMCU for NUM. He accused the new union of not serving the interests of workers in a political lecture delivered in Rustenburg, and also said that mining companies had an interest in weakening NUM.

"The attack on the NUM is an attack on us. We know the attack is on us. They want to hijack and steal our revolution. They see the mineworkers as a vehicle to hijack the revolution," Mantashe said.

"You are not being victims because of your membership to NUM but because you are a loyal member of the revolution."

The heated words are not a mistake - ANC Bojanala regional chairperson Louis Diremelo told the same meeting that the NUM had already lost 35,000 members to AMCU.

Unlike other industries, there is no sector-wide bargaining council in the platinum mines. Negotiations happen at operational level, and are haphazard and scattered. This is how Impala's rock drillers suddenly found themselves handsomely outstripping their Lonmin colleagues in wages. There is a move to end that: the department of labour pushed through a plan to establish a bargaining council under the auspices of the chamber of mines, and got companies and unions to sign an interim document to create a temporary structure for bargaining. It would replace the recurrent relationship of the majority union negotiating on behalf of all workers at a certain company, and would also institute sector-wide limitations on wage.

The NUM is in favour of this because the plan would grant it some rights at the table, even as a minor player. This did not previously happen under the negotiating rules it was instrumental in setting up.

AMCU does not want the interim bargaining council and does not approve of the negotiations currently taking place.

"We are not in favour of what is happening [at the chamber of mines] because it does not address our concerns with the industry," AMCU treasurer Jimmy Gama said in an interview. He complained that the deal would still allow for differences in salary between individual companies.

"We cannot move wage negotiations from the operations to a central system. What is happening is between government, labour and the companies. Where are the workers? They only hear in the media that something is happening but they are not a part of the process. It is extremely dangerous to try and change negotiating rights without consulting workers closely," Gama said.

AMCU recommends that everyone should wait until the situation in the sector has normalised, and workers can be brought into the chamber of mines negotiations. It also wants a statutory-backed council with powers to set minimum wages for all companies.

In the meantime the union has chosen to ignore the negotiations for a sectoral council and focus on negotiating and signing recognition agreements at Lonmin, Impala and Anglo American Platinum. According to Gama, AMCU now has a 70% membership at Lonmin, 50% plus one at Impala (the threshold set by NUM for majority bargaining rights) and 42% at Anglo. Recognition deals at Lonmin and Impala are set to be signed soon, while Anglo signed one at the beginning of last month. 

The NUM did not have any concrete reason to be concerned about AMCU aside from professional jealousy, Gama said. "Their frustration is based on the fact that employers are no longer recognising them. That's why they are going around telling workers that we are colluding with the employer."

Tebogo Mauwane, an AMCU shop steward at Anglo, said to Daily Maverick that NUM was almost gone at that company.

"The NUM is silent at Anglo," she said. "They tried to fight and toyi-toyi previously but they are quiet now. Most of the workers have joined AMCU."

The NUM regional secretary for the Rustenburg area, Richard Mohoa, said that while the tempers between AMCU and NUM supporters were not flaring like they used to, violence could yet return. He said that NUM-affiliated workers welcomed Mantashe's lecture.

"We understand that some carry the agenda of the employer. We workers are working to educate ourselves," he said.

Last year the wildcat strike at Lonmin ended after a deal was brokered. Crucially, workers were not represented by unions, but by their own chosen representatives. AMCU smartly distanced itself from any other type of deal, and that decision continues to pay dividends as more workers join. The mood may be less anxious this time, but the mistake of leaving out worker representatives could see new unprotected strikes spring up. Someone has apparently not learned last year's painful lesson. DM

Photo by Reuters.

  • Sipho Hlongwane
    sipho hlongwane BW
    Sipho Hlongwane

    Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

    He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

  • South Africa

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