THE Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and one of its affiliates, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), are scrambling to end the labour unrest in the mining sector, but the mining union is beset by difficulties surrounding its legitimacy.
The NUM held talks with the South African Chamber of Mines last week to begin processes intended to end the wildcat strikes and to protect the collective bargaining system. The industrial relations regime emerged as a key point in discussions. This regime is considered advanced, particularly in the mining sector, so the question of what caused the impasse arises.
On one hand, the NUM has been criticised by workers for failing to represent them adequately. On the other, the union charges that it — and, by extension, Cosatu — is under attack. But from whom? Their biggest headache comes from the very constituency they ought to represent: the workers.
Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini admits there are weaknesses. A report to Cosatu’s national congress last month showed that 60% of members of affiliate unions were not satisfied with the latest pay increase secured for them by their union.
"But we also understand the whole thing to be a real response to the squeeze, the economic squeeze that they are experiencing on a daily basis," he says.
Cosatu took a decision to "go back to basics", focusing on the bread and butter issues of workers at its congress. Afterwards it had to deal with the widening crisis in mining, with Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi saying the federation and the NUM were "obliged" to take worker demands to employers, even though their strike action was illegal.
The NUM’s general secretary, Frans Baleni, says the situation is one in which "anarchy is being rewarded". Wage settlements at Impala Platinum and at Lonmin were negotiated largely in the absence of unions and outside normal bargaining processes.
"If our members were to give us a mandate and say we are demanding R50,000 a month and go on a legal strike, I wouldn’t have a problem," Mr Baleni says.
"So that’s the fear; that’s where the union is seeing its legitimacy being compromised because the first call we should make is to say, ‘No. This is unprotected.’"
Talks between the chamber and unions yielded little results — parties in the gold sector agreed merely to "respect and honour" the existing wage agreement signed in August last year. NUM shop stewards have been murdered at various mines, making it difficult for union leaders to seek mandates and provide feedback to their members on talks with employers.
Mr Dlamini says Cosatu will work with the NUM to "fend off attacks" and it is not true that mines are no-go areas for the NUM leadership. Mr Baleni says the NUM is a victim of its own successes: "The more we do, the more people have more expectations".
Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant says union leaders should not exclude non-unionised workers from report-back discussions during negotiations.
"Immediately when you find that the majority of them are not unionised, that’s where you will find the commotion that’s happening at the present," she says.
She believes setting up a collective bargaining forum in the platinum sector would provide a long-term solution to the current impasse. The situation in platinum is the most worrying, with workers vowing to intensify their unprotected strikes. Anglo Platinum fired 12,000 striking workers for failing to attend disciplinary hearings on Friday.
The NUM’s rival in the sector, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), expressed some reservation about the process. "It’s highly political, these engagements. We cannot run away from that," says its president, Joseph Mathunjwa.
Amcu’s lack of political affiliation and sole focus on worker issues is driving its momentum in the platinum sector and is the reason many workers are opting to leave more established unions, such as the NUM, he says.
More in this section
- Independent unions favoured
- Strike fears as NUM demands 60% increases
- Platinum jitters as turf war flares in Marikana
- Amcu leader says union will ‘bring economy to standstill’
- Business as usual at all operations, says Amplats
- Workers ‘divided’ over how to tackle Amplats’ bid to cut thousands of jobs
- Guptagate report shows manipulation, collusion and illegal blue lights
- SABC presenter Mbuli hailed as patriot and ‘zealous newshound’
- Karabus lawyer says South African nurse behind bars in UAE
- Eskom was ‘on the brink of a power shutdown’
- Iran ‘behind US cyber blitz’
- THICK END OF THE WEDGE: We can already write the NDP off