South Africa

Op-Ed: AMCU victory is more than just about the figures

By Peter Alexander 29 June 2014

Gilad Isaacs underestimates the scale of AMCU's victory (Who won the Platinum strike? The figures speak, Daily Maverick, 27 June 2014). His analysis offers an indicator of winner/loser based on contrasting the final settlement with the initial demand and initial offer. But this is arbitrary. Workers’ demands are based on various considerations, including views about what is just and assessments about what constitutes a good mobilising and/or bargaining position. By PETER ALEXANDER.

They never (or rarely) expect to get everything they demand. The demand is a means to an end. What matters is the end, and the new balance of forces associated with that end.

In this instance, R12,500 was the obvious demand. Thirty four comrades had been massacred in the course of fighting for the sum. It had enormous emotional significance and was undoubtedly important in maintaining the unity of the strike. But, as in 2012, there was no expectation that the full sum could be won immediately.

For workers, the main – though not the only – calculation is the difference between what they were paid before the strike and what they receive after the strike. Before, the strike, back in January, low-paid mining workers typically received about R5000. From July they will receive both the 2013 and the 2014 increases, amounting to an extra R2000. This is a massive 40% improvement!

Many commentators have based their assessment of the strike using the amount of pay that workers ‘lost’ during the strike. This business model – weighing profit and loss – is inappropriate. Many workers will have new debts, but it was difficult for them to borrow during the strike, and ‘lost pay’ cannot be equated with debts.

Further, there are important gains for workers not captured in quantitative data.

First, the increase was a fixed amount for all workers. It broke with the principle, which the bosses insisted upon, of a percentage adjustment. The settlement benefits the low-paid in particular, and it helps close the apartheid pay gap. Although some higher-paid AMCU members grumbled, all but a few remained solid. They accepted that lower-paid workers should get a higher percentage increase, and, as a consequence, they were also successful, with a large number of them breaching the R12,500 figure immediately.

Secondly, workers returned to their jobs with added loyalty to their union and to each other. They are in a stronger position to respond to daily danger, overwork and indignity.

Isaacs argues that, in financial terms, the companies will not suffer greatly from the settlement, and, on this, I largely agree. A big percentage increase in the pay of low paid workers is not the same as a big percentage increase in labour costs. Moreover, and this is a point that should have been emphasised during the strike, profitability is greatly enhanced by the low value of the rand against the dollar.

But, for employers, as for workers, strikes are not just about a balance sheet. The companies began the strike with great confidence (they had huge stockpiles of platinum and probably assumed the strike would last a month, maybe two). They were forced – yes, forced – to retreat. They suffered a loss of prestige, and they lost public sympathy, and they will have difficulty winning these back.

In contrast to the workers, the companies began to fight among themselves. It seems that while Angloplat eventually recognised the need to reach a settlement, Lonmin executives were in the bittereinder camp.

The politics of this strike are also important. The companies generally had the support of government; NUM encouraged workers to break the strike; and other COSATU unions stood on the sidelines. For workers, overcoming the informal alliance between business and government meant that victory was an even bigger achievement,

Without understanding this fuller picture, it is impossible to appreciate why workers were jubilant. While AMCU could claim a victory (though they did so modestly), the employers did not, and could not, make the same assertion.

Why is the issue of victory important? Because it will effect whether other workers have the confidence to challenge the massive inequality and injustice that exists in South Africa.

Our media missed the second massacre site at Marikana, where half the 34 victims were killed. This failure was a result of unwillingness to talk to workers, and this was a consequence of lack for sympathy for the workers plight. Now a similar mistake is being made. The outcome of the strike is being measured by the standards of business, using purely economic indicators. Workers have different standards and different indicators.

On balance, the platinum strike ended with a historically important victory for workers. DM

Peter Alexander is South African Research Chair in Social Change and Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg. He co-authored Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer.

Photo: A Lonmine mineworker makes his way to the Rowland shaft in Rustenburg, South Africa, 25 June 2014, on their first day of work after the end of a five-month long wage strike in the platinum sector. EPA/STR

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