Picture: BUSINESS DAY
Picture: BUSINESS DAY

AS A bruising strike began in the gold mining sector on Tuesday night, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) dramatically cut its wage demand from 60% to 10%.

The surprise move holds out the possibility of a far less bruising industrial action than at first feared, with employer body the Chamber of Mines saying it "significantly closes the gap between employers and the union", and that discussions were continuing.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), a rival to the NUM, has not gone on strike.

The chamber had been offering a 6.5% increase, arguing the industry could not afford more.

The NUM’s move appears to confirm speculation that workers may not have the appetite for the extended industrial action that was being expected of them.

Earlier the NUM brushed aside President Jacob Zuma’s advice to prevent a damaging showdown in the fragile industry.

Unlike in past years, however, when strike action was a relatively straightforward contest between the once-mighty NUM and owners, workers now confront a mining landscape that has been changed beyond recognition.

The most obvious new feature has been the arrival of the militant Amcu. Its unapologetic stance has left the NUM flat-footed, making the strike as much a contest between unions as between capital and labour.

While the NUM had warned on Tuesday of a strike that "will change the gold-mining landscape forever", Amcu kept its powder dry on the strike option, even though it, too, has rejected the chamber’s 6.5% pay rise offer.

The NUM, which represents about two-thirds of the 140,000 employees in the sector, said it would down tools at the start of the night shift last night, while gold producers have adopted a wait-and-see approach before responding, possibly with lockouts.

"It has officially started. There are people who have not gone underground," Charmane Russell, a spokeswoman for gold producers grouped in the Chamber of Mines, told Reuters. The full extent of the strike will only become clear later today.

Amcu leader Joseph Mathunjwa said his union was still consulting with its members.

"We are not part of that strike for now … we have approached CEOs with (the request) that our members should be protected as they turn up for work," he said.

The NUM, an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, said it "dares the state to explain which side it is on".

However, Mr Zuma, in a meeting with political journalists yesterday, played it straight, saying: "We appeal to parties, they must find one another (because) a protracted strike would not be helpful to the country or the industry itself.… Strikes hurt both sides (employers and employees)."

The Chamber of Mines, representing AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Rand Uranium, Harmony, Evander Gold, Sibanye Gold, and Village Main Reef, has insisted that owners will not improve their offer or negotiate individual deals with unions.

Issuing their ultimatum last week, producers warned that strike action would only lead to long-term job losses, while acceding to above-inflation demands would cause further damage to marginal mine shafts in a sector where production is at its lowest since the early 20th century.

Harmony CE Graham Briggs, speaking on behalf of producers last week, said using last year’s figures, a single day of strike action would cost producers R349m in lost revenue, while workers stood to lose R100m per day in wages. The economic cost was close to R579m, he said.

The NUM represents two-thirds of employees in the sector while Solidarity represents 2.4% and Uasa 6.9%, with 8.9% of employees not affiliated to any union. Amcu, which represents 17.2%, and is the biggest union at some mines in the Carletonville area, says it has made "inroads" in the West Rand, including Anglo-Gold Ashanti’s Mponeng mine, Harmony Gold’s Kusasalethu and Sibanye’s Driefontein mine.

Sibanye Gold spokesman James Wellsted said the company was still waiting to assess the effect of the strike. Even though Amcu was a majority at some mines, "there is not a huge appetite for an extended strike in general".

The company had made provisions to limit the damage of any strike action, and while no decisions had been made on how to effect lockouts, with producers seeking to avoid strike action, it was likely to be "fairly flexible" for those able to continue some operations, he said.

Uasa spokesman Franz Stehring said the union’ s members would continue to work as normal, but it was standard operating procedure that no member would perform any duties they were uncertified for.

Uasa said it would assist management where practical, but would act in no way that might raise concerns over safety or raise tensions, he said. Management was aware of this, he said.

Economists.co.za’s Mike Schussler said the effects of the strike could only be determined by its duration. Some effects, such as demand for water and electricity, were felt immediately, while important downstream services such as the financial sector were affected only by a protracted strike.

Solidarity said while consultation with members on the offer continued, the union would not take part in a strike at this stage. General secretary Gideon du Plessis said the union still expected a raised offer this week, and in the event of a lockout had requested members to withhold labour and not perform even essential services.

Solidarity would be further supporting the strike by the NUM by "ensuring that none of our members do any of the striking NUM members’ work", he said.

A strike in the vehicle sector continues in its third week, with about 11,000 National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) members marching in Pretoria on Wednesday, and a similar march expected in KwaZulu-Natal on Thursday.

Numsa’s 30,000 members are still consulting over the multi-year 10% wage increase tabled by employers last week, having requested "improvements". The strike which has halted production at plants owned by global car markers and some truck and bus makers is estimated to be costing R700m a day.

Chief negotiator for the Automobile Manufacturers’ Employers Organisation Thapelo Molapo said there was constant communication with Numsa’s leadership, even as no formal meeting was scheduled pending the outcome of union consultation. Some measure of patience was expected, so that workers fully understood the details of the package before agreeing. "Without full understanding you are just postponing a problem for later," he said.

The NUM also vowed to continue the strike by 90,000 members in the construction sector.