CCMA could have ended platinum strike sooner

[] – THE platinum strike will be analysed in depth for a long time to come.

In these analyses arbitration of interests is a concept that will be heard more and more. And if you read only slightly between the lines, it is clear that legislation is on the way that will make provision for this.

When the existing system of collective bargaining with dispute procedures was created in 1996 by the Labour Relations Act, it was expected that the constitutionally entrenched right to strike would be an exception and would be exercised as a last resort – only when the dispute procedures and mediation process had failed.

When the workers had followed the processes, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) would issue a certificate to the parties stating that the dispute could not be resolved. This entitled the workers to strike and entitled the employers to lock workers out after a notice period of 48 hours.

Until five to seven years ago, such disputes resulted in relatively few nationwide strikes. But in the past three years, this picture changed dramatically. Strikes became longer and increasingly violent. Lately it looks as if employers are more likely to grant larger increases if a strike becomes violent.

The platinum strike brought a new dimension: no one thought that a strike could continue indefinitely, up to five months in one of the country’s most strategic sectors.

This strike reduced the country’s growth prospects from 2.7% early in the year to less than 1.5% now.

That’s an unacceptably high price for the country as a whole to pay for the right of 70,000 workers to go on strike against three large employers.

The worst is, it could have been prevented. If our labour legislation had made provision for the arbitration of interests.

The strike started on 23 January. The CCMA has no authority to become involved in such a strike, unless the parties agree to it. But the CCMA did become involved early on.

In late February and early March, the CCMA made a proposal to the three platinum companies and AMCU which the CCMA thought could bring the strike to an end quickly.

The present writer saw a copy of this proposal recently. It’s remarkably similar to the agreements reached between the three platinum companies a whole four months later.

Four months in which no platinum was produced, famine and economic distress like a medieval black plague ravished Rustenburg’s platinum belt and even the sales of basic protein such as chicken and canned fish in the Eastern Cape, where the families of thousands of platinum workers live, dried up.

And in which several people died following violence when the mines tried using an SMS campaign to lure workers back to the shafts and smelter plants in late April.

The CCMA’s proposal was for a three-year wage agreement in which the basic wage at the end of the three years would be R8,500 per month for underground workers and R7,500 per month for surface workers.

The CCMA proposed that a basic adjustment of R1,500 per month should be made for underground workers, and R1,000 per month for surface workers.

The final increases granted at the end of June were R1,000 per month for underground workers, but increases for the second and third years are higher than in the CCMA proposal, so that the final wage in the third year is virtually the same as in the CCMA proposal.

Jimmy Gama, AMCU negotiator, didn’t hesitate for a moment when he was asked about this. “If the employers had accepted the CCMA’s proposal, the strike would’ve been over in a few days, a week at the most. We would only have needed to settle the finer details,” said Gama.

However, the CCMA proposal provoked an outcry from the employer side – so much so that a tirade erupted over a media interview that Elize Strydom, the Chamber’s chief negotiator, had with a reporter.

Strydom apparently said the CCMA proposal was based on absolute ignorance and lack of understanding of conditions in the platinum industry, and a lack of economic knowledge by CCMA commissioners.

Nerine Kahn, director of the CCMA, objected to the Chamber, but Bheki Sibiya, CEO of the Chamber, defended Strydom and said she is an expert on labour relations and a fearless negotiator who always acts in the interest of the giver of the mandate.

According to Sibiya, the interview she gave was not meant for publication.

The fact is that the CCMA’s proposal that was entirely unaffordable and ignorant in late February and early March was accepted by all three mining companies four months later with minor changes. So the enormous damage to the entire economy could have been avoided if it had been accepted in March.

Of course it’s easy to be wise after the event. At the end of June, it was a negotiated settlement that all parties agreed to after the pain of the country’s longest strike. In March it was already clear that strike was causing an economic disaster.

The CCMA’s settlement proposal was what the commissioners, probably Kahn herself and one or two of her most experienced fellow commissioners, had considered to be the best chance of a settlement that employers could afford and that the platinum workers and their union would find acceptable. It’s also the most likely award that an arbitrator would make.

And the final agreement reached four months later proved they were very close to the mark.

This article appeared first in Rapport.