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The rise and rise of Amcu

Jan de Lange | Thu, 02 Aug 2012 11:32

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[miningmx.com] -- The article was originally part of the Miningmx Mining Yearbook and published online on August 2. We again elevate it to our home page due to the current interest in the subject.

IT HAS to count among any mine manager’s worst nightmares: striking employees who occupy the underground works of a huge coal property.

This is exactly what happened in September 1999 at Douglas Colliery, one of the oldest mines of Ingwe Coal, which later became part of BHP Billiton Energy Coal (Becsa). The 3,000-strong workforce protested against the dismissal of one Joseph Mathunjwa, chair of local branch of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The strike was unprotected and lasted for two weeks, during which the mine’s underground section was occupied for 10 days.

The dispute was only terminated once Mathunjwa got reinstated, but he then faced a second hurdle – a disciplinary hearing by the NUM for bringing the union into disrepute.

These events were the birth pains of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which is currently mopping up members from the platinum mines around Rustenburg and Brits.

Archie Palane, at the time Deputy General Secretary of the NUM, was sent to investigate the charge against Mathunjwa, but found the local chair had done nothing wrong. Another official from Johannesburg was sent for the same reason, but he also found no reason to discipline Mathunjwa.

However, Gwede Mantashe, then the union’s General Secretary, insisted that Mathunjwa appear before a disciplinary hearing chaired by Mantashe himself.

Mathunjwa refused as he had previously clashed with Mantashe over the handling of money paid by employers to a job creation trust. Mathunjwa insisted that an independent person should chair the hearing, not Mantashe.

“My membership of the NUM was subsequently terminated,” says Mathunjwa. “I informed the union that I am not a member anymore, although I retained by job as laboratory assistant at the mine.”

Mathunjwa was, however, very popular among the workforce. Among other notable successes he forced the management of Douglas to implement a bonus system for underground workers. When a worker had died under mysterious circumstances, Mathunjwa forced management to not only deliver the body to the family in Mozambique, but also to accompany the body and explain in person the circumstances surrounding the death.

"Mpumalanga is our strongest region, but I think North West is growing strongly."

Says Mathunjwa: “When the NUM terminated my membership I told them I’m out, but that they should continue on their own and elect a new branch chairperson.

“They immediately called as mass meeting. They were aware of my battles with NUM’s head office. At the meeting the workers decided no ways – an injury to one is an injury to all. And the whole workforce of about 3,000 resigned from the NUM.”

The workers investigated the possibility of joining other unions, but the culture and philosophy didn’t appeal to them. Eventually, the workforce told Mathunjwa to create a new union. He got help from Jeffrey Mphahlele, a local teacher, to register a new union with the Department of Labour. They called it the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). It was officially registered in 2001.

Palane tried to convince Amcu to rejoin the NUM, but Mathunjwa refused. “I told Archie that if he becomes the General Secretary of the NUM, we will come back,” he said – something that failed to materialise when Frans Baleni won the contest to succeed Mantashe.

Amcu gained recognition at Douglas, but in subsequent years it faced an endless struggle to the gain recognition in the face of tactics by seemingly suspicious employers who were colluding with established unions. BHP Billiton, for instance, created bargaining forum at company level with a threshold of 30% membership across the group before it recognised a union.

Still, Amcu is currently the representative of workers at various mines in Mpumalanga, including coal, chrome and platinum mines, as well as coal mines in KwaZulu-Natal. It also has members at chrome and platinum mines in Limpopo – Two Rivers and Modikwa.

The union is especially well represented amongst mining contractor companies, as these employers are usually not bounded by recognition agreements. For the same reason the workers in these establishments are often also more vulnerable.

“Mpumalanga is our strongest region, but I think North West is growing strongly. The numbers [there] may soon overtake the membership in Mpumalanga,” Mathunjwa says. In the Northern Cape it is recruiting among contract workers at the iron ore and manganese mines around Kathu and Hotazel. “We don’t have any recognition agreements in place yet, but we will probably establish an office before year-end.”

Meanwhile, analysts and even the NUM are baffled by die meteoric rise of Amcu at Impala Platinum Rustenburg; a 14-shaft mining complex with a workforce of 30,000, of which some 20,000 are unionised.

Amcu was widely blamed for the devastating strike in February and March and the accompanying violence, but it is virtually impossible for a union with no recognition agreement or even organisational rights to gain access to a particular employer’s premise; especially in a closed, controlled environment like an underground, precious metals mining operation.

It was recruiting members at the gates of some of the Implats shafts prior the strike, on invitation of some workers, only to be removed by security personnel. There was also ample evidence of discontent and even open revolt against the NUM among important pockets of the workforce, particularly the rock-drill operators (RDOs). These RDOs, some 4,300 of them, initiated a strike after they learnt about an 18% bonus increase that was given to selective workers in higher category jobs.

CHANGE IN PROFILE

These events may have ignited the strike, but the stoppage was probably the outcome of problems that had been simmering for some years. One such issue was an agreement signed between the NUM and Implats in 2007, which stipulated a 50% plus one member threshold for recognition – practically making Implats a closed shop where minority unions have no rights. That removed any competition and gave the NUM a monopoly in South Africa’s largest single mining complex.

Secondly, and most importantly, a gradual change had taken place in the profile of the NUM membership over the last 15 years; one that nobody had taken notice of.

The NUM was originally borne out of the lowest job categories of South African mineworkers, mainly from gold mines. More than 60% of its members were foreigners, mostly illiterate migrant labourers who were not interested in a career path.

Nowadays that number has dropped to below 40%. On the other hand, an increasing portion of the NUM’s membership comes from what can be described as white-collar mining staff, who had previously been represented exclusively by Solidarity and Uasa. The local NUM structures in Rustenburg, like the branch office bearers and the shop stewards, are dominated by these skilled, higher level workers. They are literate, well spoken and wealthy compared to the general workers and machine operators underground.

For instance, there are two NUM branches at Implats – North and South. And the chairpersons at both these branches were beneficiaries of the 18% bonus that sparked the strike.

During wage negotiations in September 2011 Implats wanted to give rock-drill operators a higher increase than the rest of the workforce, but a committee of NUM shop stewards demanded the money be split among the whole workforce. Needless to say, there wasn’t a single rock-drill operator on the shop stewards’ committee. The NUM head office moved quickly after the strike to correct the situation, but it was way too late.

It is circumstances like these that become an entry point for a rival union. It is a fairly well-established principle in industrial relations that the interests of different categories of workers are not aligned. They differ vastly, especially in societies where inequality is as extreme as in South Africa.

Although Amcu are making major inroads on the NUM’s dominance in the platinum industry, it doesn’t mean the latter will roll over and disappear. NUM is a highly sophisticated and professional union with coherent leadership, and it is no coincidence that top ANC leaders regularly come from its ranks.

Still, Implats’ neighbours are watching the situation closely and are trying to be pro- active. At Anglo American Platinum, for instance, rock-drill operators were recently given a R750 shift allowance.

But Amcu is here to stay, at least for time being. It has a formidable opponent in the NUM, but Mathunjwa has proven elsewhere that he and his national office bearers are up for the task.

- The article originally appeared in the Miningmx Mining Yearbook. The Yearbook is available for sale at retailers as part of the 2 August edition of Finweek. Electronic copies can be bought at www.mysubs.co.za/Finweek-Eng.

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