Platinum — a hotbed of unrest

[] — Ever wondered why platinum mines continuously experience strikes and the kind of labour unrest that gets dangerously out of hand?

Take the latest strike by about 25,000 workers from Impala Platinum’s (Impala’s) Rustenburg section and its Marula Mine near Steelpoort in Mpumalanga province where no less a person than the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) vice-president, Piet Matosa, lost an eye on Thursday. He was pelted with stones when he tried to persuade the strikers to accept the Implats wage offer.

The workers have been striking since August 25, and are even causing volatility in the platinum price, since Implats is the source of just over a quarter of the world’s platinum production.

The strikers are demanding 14% increases. The NUM union officials were initially rather aggressive in the loan negotiations and got a strike certificate without delay. But when the Implats management offered a 10% increase on August 23, the officials were persuaded their members would accept it.

But they were seriously mistaken, and never expected the strike to last more than two weeks.

Workers who rise up against their own union and blithely ignore union councillors are a nightmare for employers and a recipe for violence – a regular occurrence in the platinum sector.

Shortly before the Implats strikes, the Aquarius Marikana mine ground to a halt also over wage negotiations. And after a settlement was reached (again for wage increases of 10%) several thousand workers refused to return to work until they were virtually dismissed.

Last month at Platmin’s brand-new Pilanesberg mine, which is being operated by contract workers, there was also an unprotected strike that the NUM was unable to control.

This goes back to the leadership struggle in the NUM during the union’s congress in 2006, which resulted in Frans Baleni being identified as the general-secretary of the country’s biggest and most influential union.

That moment also signalled the end of a struggle between himself and Archie Palane, the union’s eloquent deputy head. At that stage, there was serious friction between Palane and Baleni’s predecessor, Gwede Mantashe. On a technical point Palane was booted out of the leadership struggle.

At the union’s previous congress in 2003 a resolution had been adopted that someone needed to have been a member of the union to become a candidate in the election of the union’s national office-bearers. Palane had been a full-time worker for the union since 1986, but had never been a mineworker and therefore never a member of the union.

He and his supporters, which included Cyril Ramaphosa, the founder of the union, believed he would be able to participate in the election of leaders because he had been a national office bearer before the constitutional amendment that an office-bearer should be a former union member. In a closed session of the congress, he made representations against this, but the delegates rejected them.

By that time it was too late to be nominated for the deputy position again, and this put paid to Palane’s career in the NUM.

Moreover, the North West province where the platinum miners are concentrated represented Palane’s power base in the NUM. In 2003 he had led them in successful strikes against Implats and Anglo Platinum, despite opposition from Mantashe and the rest of the union’s head office.

Sequels to Palane’s departure

The platinum members still believe that their man was booted from the leadership struggle in an underhand way. Feelings were so strong that many thousands of them working at Anglo Platinum’s base-metal plant resigned from the NUM and went over to the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa). The NUM lost its recognition agreement at the plant, and when the plant’s workers went on strike for higher wages last year, that strike was so badly organised that it failed hopelessly.

The plant’s workers have since returned to the NUM and the union again represents all the plant’s workers.

The rebel strike of the past two weeks at Implats and Thursday night’s attack on Matose were also sequels to Palane’s departure from the union. One might justifiably wonder whether Mantashe would be the ANC’s secretary-general today if Palane had become the NUM general secretary. The union’s influence on the ANC is well known.

But Palane’s departure is not the main reason for the continuing labour unrest in the platinum sector.

The sector is not included in the central bargaining negotiations held with the Chamber of Mines every two years. Palane had also been the driving force behind NUM attempts to establish a bargaining council for the mining industry – a statutory arrangement that would replace the negotiations with the chamber for the gold and coal sectors, and would also centralise negotiations in the platinum sector. This would have consolidated his influence within the NUM.

But employers in the mining industry have for years been against this. They say it will push up labour costs and hurt junior mining companies, in particular. It will also make it considerably more difficult to evade labour standards with contractors.

On the other hand, it would standardise service conditions and render wage negotiations more orderly. In a dispensation such as this, the current strike at Implats would probably not have taken place because it would be too difficult for a relatively small group of rebels to hijack wage negotiations in all the platinum mines in this way.

The absence of central bargaining in the platinum industry is the single most important reason why there is so much instability in the sector’s labour relations. Employers in the sector will have to ask themselves whether the cost savings of wage negotiations at company level are worth the trouble.

The creation of a bargaining council for the mining industry is a time-consuming and complex issue, but it cannot be put off much longer. It would make it possible to tackle issues like accommodation, for instance, which becomes an increasing headache every year at a central level.

– Sake24