As the country begins to unpack the Lonmin shootings, Cosatu should be taking the events of the last week as a sign that it needs to think seriously about its own future. This was a significant display of weakness by its biggest affiliate trade union, NUM, and we should all be worried.
On Saturday, Greg Marinovich and I spent several hours talking to the miners who work at the Marikana shaft of Lonmin Plc., to get a sense of what their daily lives are like. When we asked if the type of illegal strike that we saw at Marikana could spread to other mines, the answer was emphatic: yes. Some men even suggested that it would happen elsewhere soon, because they knew that the discontent felt at this particular mine was shared in other places.
This whole disaster is not just about anger at low pay or inequality. It is about the destruction of clear practices that have been used to meet the needs of workers along with those of employers, and the deprecation of the guardians of those practices. The culture of bargaining is under threat.
At Lonmin, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has bargaining rights, since it has 50% plus one representivity. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has less than 30% and therefore does not enjoy that right. It is recognised by the company as a right representative of its members.
In January 2011, NUM successfully negotiated a wage pact with Lonmin. The workers got an 8% wage increment as well as a once-off bonus of R850. The deal put formal wage negotiations away till 2013.
The 8% increase in wages would have put the earnings of workers such as rock drill operators somewhere between R4,500 and R7,500, depending on individual employment terms.
At some point, AMCU came around to the drill operators and said that it could manage to negotiate their wages up to R12,500 a month. Whether this was nothing more than a cynical ploy to steal NUM’s members and their monthly fees away, or whether they thought Lonmin would be spooked by the violent protests at Impala Platinum (which eventually saw drill operators there earning R9,000 a month) is a question that has yet to be answered. Certainly, AMCU couldn’t open negotiations under bargaining process rules without that majority that would make it a certified bargaining partner.
The drill operators then took matters into their own hands when Lonmin balked at negotiating (after the company allegedly entertained discussion with AMCU) and embarked on an illegal strike. By Thursday last week, it was clear that AMCU could no longer catch the snowball that it had pushed down the hill.
The men who sat on the koppie near the miner’s squatter camp did not do so under the flag of NUM or AMCU, even though they thought that the latter was at least acting as a messenger to the company on their behalf. Having whispered R12,500 into the ears of those who would listen, AMCU now found itself stuck as that figure became a rallying point. It couldn’t now try to wrestle for a more palatable figure with the men – they had been promised a certain amount, and that’s what they wanted.
This was where NUM was caught as well. They hadn’t promised a 300% increase to the miners, but found themselves at the receiving end of fury when it was clear that Lonmin wasn’t going to negotiate. The perception that the bigger pay could be reached (again, the Implats lesson would be that there are ways to force the employer’s hand in such negotiations) rubbished NUM’s 2011 wage deal to the workers.
NUM’s position is shaky. For negotiating furiously and after getting an increase percentage that its members could accept in 2011, it now looks like a stooge for Lonmin. After all, if a union could get a 300% increase within the bargaining council but only gets an 8% increase in practice, it is acting in the interests of the employer rather than the workers it represents. Extricating itself from this mess and going back to normal bargaining practices is going to be extremely difficult. No wonder general secretary Frans Baleni complained on Thursday morning that this strike would severely disrupt bargaining procedures.
NUM’s predicament will be made even worse should Lonmin cave in and decide to pay drill operators the much-publicised R12,500. Bargaining may eventually normalise within council at Lonmin’s mines, but what about the workers it represents at other platinum mining companies? What will the union do if those men decide to go down the Implats and Marikana route as well?
The massive wage inequality between miners and management at Lonmin is not the union’s fault, but it will pay dearly for failing to turn the fury of its workers into satisfactory percentage increases. Lonmin obviously faces questions of its own about the wages, as well as the conditions in which miners are expected to work and live.
Violence is increasingly becoming a component of strikes in the platinum sector. In the Mail & Guardian, PhD candidate at the University of Witwatersrand’s school of social science Crispen Chinguno (who researched patterns of violence in the North West platinum mines) said, “At Implats, where workers were also demanding a salary adjustment outside of a bargaining agreement (R9,000), they ended up getting more than R8,000. The strike was illegal, some were dismissed, but most of them got their jobs back. From that perspective, the workers feel the use of violence is working for them.”
As violence becomes a key component of making sure that the employer caves in to worker demands every time, NUM will have to distance itself from these workers. If the reasons to join such illegal strikes are good enough (fear of reprisals from colleagues also counts) at some mines, the union could find itself having to disown most of the workers.
NUM is in danger of no longer keeping pace with the discontent among platinum miners.
The horrible conditions of too many people have not changed with democracy, and the space for NUM to play the kind of role it played in the late 1980s as Apartheid ended is shrinking. The latter days of Apartheid were an extremely volatile time ,and the view that violent overthrow was the way to do it was popular, largely thanks to extreme poverty and the brutality of the Apartheid police and defence force in putting down protests and demonstrations. The unions, led by Cosatu, were instrumental in convincing the people that a negotiated settlement was the best option. We can never underplay the importance of Cosatu in the process that led to democracy. Yet the Lonmin shootings suggest that we may be headed to a future when the unions can no longer stop people from organising violently.
The discontent can spread out from the platinum mines. It started there because working conditions were the worst there, but the world’s grim economic outlook could curdle the mood in the gold mines, farms, factories and shops.
The price of food is set to rise dramatically over the coming years as commodity prices rise. This will drive inflation up, while at the same time many companies will struggle as a slow global economy dampens demand for goods. This is not a set of circumstances that will see wages rise sharply. If other poor workers haven’t felt the pinch as acutely as Lonmin’s workers do, they may, and soon enough.
This is not an easy time for Cosatu, and the future does not promise to be much better. It needs to ensure that it does not get locked out as acute anger spreads. Our country needs this federation more than we perhaps understand.
In South Africa, the buck must inevitably end with the government of the day. In a country that is often ranked as the most unequal in the world, where the youth population has up to 50% unemployment and where there is plenty of residual anger, the right policies and actions are not something politicians have the luxury to dither on.
Even so, we must all be fearful when the largest affiliate union of Cosatu has such a moment of weakness. It makes the whole federation look shaky. Hopefully Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secterary, and the entire central executive committee will think seriously about this over the coming months. The federation’s congress in September will tell us if the Marikana incident wounded it badly.
We need Cosatu to be strong for the less obvious role it plays in calming broad social unrest. DM
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.
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