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SHAKY UNION

NUM terminates closed-shop agreement at East Rand’s Gold One as violence continues

NUM terminates closed-shop agreement at East Rand’s Gold One as violence continues
Illustrative image: Gold One International and NUM. (Photos: Felix Dlangamandla | BS Mining | Wikipedia)

The National Union of Mineworkers has terminated its closed-shop agreement – which excludes minority unions from bargaining – at Gold One in the face of fresh violence following the recent hostage drama there. The union says it has done so to calm the situation as relations with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union at the mine remain tense. And there are signs of renewed tensions on the platinum belt.

NUM said late on Monday that it was dissolving the closed-shop agreement it has with the management at Gold One on the East Rand because violence and intimidation have continued. 

“The NUM has taken a responsible decision to safeguard the jobs and save the lives of innocent workers. There is a legitimate concern that if the violent acts continue, some of our members or innocent workers are going to get killed,” the union said.  

“On Sunday night, the car belonging to a former NUM shop steward, comrade Prince Radebe, was burnt. There were three other occupants in the car who escaped and ran for their lives. Members who are not in support of the protest are intimidated and threatened on a daily basis.”

The excrement hit the ventilation fans at Gold One in late October when NUM accused the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) of holding about 500 of its members hostage underground. Amcu maintained it was a “sit-in” but the family members of some of those who returned to the surface after four days said coercion was involved.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Tears and joy as mine workers return safely to the surface after Gold One hostage drama 

NUM says nine of its members were assaulted underground and one was treated in intensive care. 

Amcu, which claims 1,200 of the more than 1,800 workers at Gold One, had launched an urgent court application seeking to have a ballot held on the issue of terminating the closed-shop agreement. 

In its termination notice to Gold One management – which Daily Maverick has seen – NUM says: 

“We believe that this is not the last time we will see unlawful intimidatory tactics by Amcu. We are greatly concerned that the holding of a ballot will result in further friction between AMCU and our loyal members. We wish to avoid injuries and loss of life. Our members’ lives and safety will always be our top priority. In the circumstances, following consultation with the structures, we have decided to take the responsible option and give notice of the termination of the closed-shop agreement.” 

Cracks in the NUM-Amcu partnership are starting to appear beyond Gold One, where the playbook mirrors past Amcu moves to seize turf.

This move may or may not pour cold water on the unrest at Gold One, which has been a flashpoint of inter-union violence before, including more than a decade ago when the Amcu-NUM conflict first flared.

The often violent rivalry between NUM and Amcu was over the course of a decade the most significant development on the labour relations front in the mining sector. It was a key factor that drove a pivot to mechanisation, notably by Gold Fields and Anglo American Platinum, as boardrooms raised red flags over the instability at labour-intensive operations.

Amcu and its tactics, under its charismatic fire-and-brimstone-preaching president Joseph Mathunjwa, at times literally scared the living wits out of capital. 

But in the past two years, NUM and Amcu have buried their enmity and united in a series of wage talks that produced multiyear wage agreements in the gold and platinum group metals (PGM) sectors. 

This has been a win-win for business and labour. For business and investors, it ended a key source of instability and uncertainty – who knew when the next violent wildcat strike would erupt? And for the unions it has meant long-term wage agreements linked to inflation, building on the foundation of more than two decades of above-inflation increases which have dramatically raised real wages for  their members, albeit off an appalling low base.

One consequence of such success was perhaps a cooling of union militancy.  

Earlier this month, diversified metals producer Sibanye-Stillwater reached a five-year wage agreement with Amcu and NUM at its Kroondal PGM mine in North West. This suggested that the flare-up at Gold One was perhaps going to be contained.

But cracks in the NUM-Amcu partnership are starting to appear beyond Gold One, where the playbook mirrors past Amcu moves to seize turf, including allegations of intimidation and a forced sit-in which was effectively a wildcat strike.

Daily Maverick understands that in the current Section 189 process Sibanye is undertaking at its Kroondal, Marikana and Rustenburg PGM mines – which could potentially see more than 4,000 employees laid off – Amcu and NUM have parted ways and are not sitting together at the same table. 

That may not signal anything too serious, but it does point to emerging divisions between two unions who have been presenting a united front recently. And with the PGM sector under pressure as prices and profits collapse, more layoffs may loom on the horizon. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘We can’t be blind to the market’ — Northam CEO paints bleak PGM picture

That in turn will mean a shrinking base of workers for union membership, raising the stakes in the recruitment game. Layoffs in the past have been a trigger for labour unrest. 

This is a space to watch. DM

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  • batting 101 Captain says:

    Amazed by the communist outlook of the unions- certainly not in the interest of the worker/ miner. Dogs at War. The so called “Cracks” is another term of sending these miners into a ZAMA-ZAMA desperado.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    I would like to see an entirely new model developed (by wiser souls than me) in the mining sector, possibly other labour intensive sectors too. Something along the lines of sovereign funds, where money is ring-fenced for a rainy day. Basically, if mineral prices go ballistic, a percentage over a certain level are set aside for when prices drop below profitable levels – this then triggers a safety net for miners to prevent, or at least delay, retrenchments. Surely this can be done without damage to shareholder earnings (hit by every strike) and getting everyone on board would create more predictability and more profitability all round? I know, probably very naive, but the current model of bosses and unions fighting to the death every year isn’t working.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    This is all about the power struggle ahead of elections. We saw in the 90’s when many mines were set on fire. There is a terribly simplistic belief that all mining is about is digging something out of the earth and selling it at a huge profit to become rich. Hardly, and less so on the Witwatersrand where grades are low, mining is deep and costs are high. It’s just another nail in the coffin. All these people will be jobless soon.

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