THE battle over union members at Impala Platinum and Lonmin highlights the need for labour law with a more inclusive approach to smaller unions, say labour experts.
Rivalry between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) in the platinum sector shows how exclusivity agreements with majority unions can muddy the water when a new union wins substantial support.
Under current law, a union with membership of 50% plus one employee in a category of a workforce can ask employers to negotiate with it exclusively.
When representation falls below 50%, management must warn the union and give it three months to increase its membership. If it fails to, the exclusivity agreement lapses and management can recognise other unions.
Such an exclusivity agreement, a product of Cosatu's "one industry, one union" campaign, makes it hard for managements to meet and discuss issues with other unions that might be gaining substantial support within the workforce at their operations.
"The brutal fight we currently observe at Lonmin is the fight for recognition by minority groups, which will probably not come to an end until interventions are made to accommodate smaller trade unions in the workplace again," said André Venter, spokesman of union UASA.
At Lonmin's Karee mine, AMCU is the majority union with 5000 members, but there is an exclusivity agreement with NUM, which traditionally had the most members in the general worker categories at Lonmin. This agreement makes it difficult for management to establish formal structures to negotiate with unions like AMCU, which has substantial membership.
"How can you have peace on earth with such a dispensation?" said Franz Stehring, divisional manager at UASA.
Union recognition should be revised to avert "excessive competition" between unions for members, said Gideon du Plessis, deputy general secretary of Solidarity.
He said the registrar of trade unions should have more authority to deregister trade unions that undermine the good faith of the union process.
At nearby Impala, where NUM membership fell below 50% this year as AMCU gained ground, NUM has delayed attempts to verify membership numbers independently. It even went to the Labour Court in a bid to stop the process.
Impala said it was "hopeful" that verification, expected to take a month, will start "in the next few weeks".
Elize Strydom, industrial relations adviser at the Chamber of Mines, said now was perhaps the time to allow "more freedom of choice and no longer subject unions to the 50% plus one rule".
Cosatu is opposing proposed Labour Relations Act changes, which it says will undermine collective bargaining. Smaller unions like Solidarity and UASA are often included in the process as they typically represent categories not in NUM.
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