[miningmx.com] – DON’T be surprised if the once mighty National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) collapses completely within the next six months in its life-and-death struggle against the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
AMCU is using a well-planned strategy to launch a strike at gold mines that could be just as effective as last year’s debilitating and crippling strike in the platinum mining industry.
The trade union will probably call the strike early next year, but the longer it delays the strike, the better as it will have more time to lure away NUM members.
NUM has fallen on hard times. There has never been as much discord and strife in the union as during the last four months of gold industry wage talks between it and the Chamber of Mines.
The sacking of Frans Baleni, former general secretary, four weeks before the start of the wage negotiations, came as a major surprise to the whole trade-union movement.
His successor, David Sipunzi, didn’t have an opportunity to consolidate his position in the trade union before the negotiations kicked off with the Chamber of Mines. He was clearly uncertain and insecure during the negotiations.
NUM’s caucus eventually took a full three weeks to get a mandate to accept the ‘final’ offer for wage increases made by the Chamber’s gold mining members on 2 October.
TEETERED ON VIOLENCE
“In 20 years, I’ve never been part of such an unpleasant caucus. We almost came to blows,” a prominent member of NUM’s negotiating team said about one of the last meetings before the Chamber’s offer was accepted on 2 October.
The offer includes increases of between R600 and R800 a month at the three largest gold producers – AngloGold Ashanti, Sibanye Gold and Harmony – backdated to 1 July this year, and new increases that will come into effect every year in July for two years thereafter.
It was the first time that the negotiations were not held at the Chamber of Mines, but at the Birchwood Conference Centre in Boksburg – at the insistence of AMCU. While the agreement was being signed with two of the gold mining companies – AngloGold and Harmony – there were great shouts of joy in another room where mediators of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) made desperate attempts to convince AMCU to accept the offer.
It was the CCMA which issued a certificate of non-resolution (better known as a strike certificate) to AMCU. The AMCU caucus was jubilant.
A week later, on Sunday, 11 October, the trade union held a mass gathering in the Sibanye sport stadium at the Driefontein mine near Carletonville. There were many reports that only about 5,000 miners attended the meeting, but AMCU had hired 200 buses, which each transported 65 passengers from other mines to the venue. The buses were all full – about 13,000 people in all.
With a show of hands, they all voted in favour of a strike. This is a contentious way of decision-making and somewhat misleading if you are not familiar with this manner of doing things.
In the week prior to the gathering, meetings were held in the working places and even in the fire safety areas and working faces to decide on a possible strike. This is why the timing and other logistics of the strike were discussed at the mass meeting and why there were hardly any dissenting votes. The speakers at the meetings were also mostly branch or team leaders.
ONLY NEXT YEAR
AMCU president, Joseph Mathunjwa, told the workers at the Driefontein meeting that the strike would not be called immediately, but only when a verdict has been returned on AMCU’s appeal against a court ruling in the previous gold mining negotiations in 2013. The previous wage agreement was also reached with NUM and then extended to AMCU at all the mining companies.
Mathunjwa believes that it will be better to call the strike next year, especially if it turns out to be a drawn-out affair like the strike on the platinum mines. It would in fact be disastrous to be on strike in December.
In 2013, AMCU represented only 19% of the workers on the gold mines, but it was the majority trade union at the industry’s most profitable mines: Sibanye’s Driefontein, Kusasalethu’s Harmony, and AngloGold’s Mponeng.
Despite this, the Chamber of Mines closed a deal with NUM, which at that stage represented more than 60% of the workers on the gold mines, and extended it to AMCU’s members. AMCU challenged the legality of this step and wanted to call a strike, but the chamber obtained a court order that upheld the validity of the extended wage agreement with NUM.
AMCU appealed against this particular court order, and the appeal was heard on 21 August and judgment is expected soon. At the moment, AMCU represents 31% of the approximately 100,000 workers on gold mines and NUM 53%.
AMCU contends that the right to extend a wage agreement limits its right to strike. Should the labour appeal court agree with this, it will affect the cornerstone of collective bargaining in our labour system.
But should AMCU lose, the case will undoubtedly be referred to the Constitutional Court, as Mathunjwa promised at the mass gathering at Driefontein.
“It cannot be right that an agreement with another trade union has precedence over our right to strike,” he said.
But he is not going to expose AMCU members to an unprotected strike. The wage dispute could, therefore, continue until the highest court reaches a verdict in this regard, maybe even in a year’s time.
At Sibanye Gold, the NUM represents 43% of the workforce and AMCU 42%. The NUM accepted Sibanye’s offer, but because the NUM represents less than 50% of the workers, the agreement cannot be extended to minorities. This is why Sibanye made its offer subject to it being accepted by both trade unions.
AMCU could therefore immediately call a protected strike at Sibanye, but is not going to do so, not before it has finality that it can also strike at AngloGold and Harmony.
DIFFERENT WAGES, SAME WORK
Sibanye finds itself in a difficult situation regarding its acquisition of Anglo American Platinum’s Rustenburg mines. The settlement reached after the platinum strike in Rustenburg last year, stipulates that a rock-driller in the future Sibanye Platinum should be earning a basic wage exceeding R12,500 a month by the middle of next year – the so-called Marikana wage.
But at Sibanye Gold in Carletonville a rock-driller will be earning a basic wage of R8,660 a month in July 2016. They do exactly the same work.
AMCU had only about 15,000 members before the Marikana massacre in 2012. Today it has 130,000 paid-up members. This is in line with its growth at the expense of the NUM.
Jeff Mphaphlele, AMCU’s general secretary, reckons that once all the debit orders waiting to be completed at employers have been dealt with, AMCU would have about 190,000 members.
Shortly before the Marikana massacre, the NUM had 290,000 members. According to its latest figures, it now has 230,000 paid-up members. However, AMCU’s growth, which is confirmed by last year’s strike and the Chamber’s own figures at gold mines, shows that the NUM probably has far fewer members.
There is clearly serious dissension in the NUM regarding the wage agreement. For Amcu it’s a perfect opportunity to become the biggest trade union in the gold mining industry.