The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union' has gathered thousands of members, but lacks political leverage with mining firms.
With the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union's (Amcu's) membership having grown by about 1000% over the past two years, questions are emerging about the union's capacity to retain and adequately represent its members.
Whereas the recent National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) announcement that workers who had defected to Amcu were marching back to join the union is widely seen as a gimmick – with bribery having been reported in some media outlets – the capacity of Amcu to continually improve the wages and employment conditions of its members is questionable.
In September, while Amcu was embroiled in a verification battle for recognition at Impala Platinum, several committee members met with management for negotiations about additional salary increases. The agreement they gave to employees, could, in effect, be considered a non-agreement.
Although the workers had pushed for a further 8% to 10% increase, they fell far from the mark. Furthermore, the fine print showed that the increases would be effected on an "individual basis" with "qualifying employees". Committee member Khaya Mzimeli said at the workers' meeting, however, that "we have not settled with management and will continue to demand satisfactory increases".
At the time Implats dismissed the episode as an attempt at a show of force. Amcu has since gained recognition rights at the mine, where it is now the majority union.
Having inherited a large (and still growing), disaffected workforce, estimated to be more than 100 000 of NUM's peak number of 320 000, Amcu has to be seen to be showing a brave face while mine bosses threaten retrenchment, which the union sees as an attempt to thwart its growth. The recent Harmony Gold lockout at the Kusasalethu mine near Carletonville is a case in point.
Although the campaign for a spoliation order to allow workers back into their hostels at Kusasalethu has legal merit, it is being viewed by the mine's management as a membership drive and a mere show of force to strengthen Amcu's reputation.
The company, which had filed a Section 189a notice in terms of the Labour Relations Act, argued that it had put up notices before the miners' holiday break (a fact that is disputed by the parties) and saw no reason why the miners who came back to locked accommodation would not go home, because it had offered transport and was paying the workers' salaries for the 60-day discussion period.
The company was arguing the case as a mine health and safety issue as the situation at the mine remained tense, especially after an incident in November in which two workers were killed following a shooting allegedly emanating from the direction of an NUM office.
At Amplats, where Amcu is understood to have about 26 000 members – around half of the mine's workforce – it threatened the possibility of more strikes should the mine not retract its threats to retrench.
"The talk of more strikes is because Amcu doesn't have the political leverage of a Cosatu [to be able to force a political solution]," said Crispen Chinguno, a PhD candidate at the University of Witwatersrand, who has conducted research at Implats. "Amcu has always claimed to be apolitical, and they are talking nationalisation now because they are facing retrenchments. But nationalisation is off the table as far as the ANC is concerned."
With Amcu now calling for a political solution, Chinguno said the union may have a problem conscientising a workforce whose primary preoccupation is the appropriation of the production surplus. "For [the workers], this is not a class struggle to challenge the capitalist system."
About how Amcu gained prominence in the platinum belt, Chinguno said this stemmed from the NUM's aversion to organising subcontracted workers in the coal and platinum sectors. "Amcu closed that gap, but remember subcontractors move from one mine to the other. When shaft sinkers in Limpopo moved to the North West, in mines around Brits and Rustenburg around 2008, the NUM still had Anglo, Impala, Lonmin and surrounding mines."
A high ranking Amcu official said that the true measure of a union was its grass-roots strength and the carrying out of its mandate, offices and structures were mainly for administration.