Events at Marikana and the rise of Amcu have upset the cosy relationship enjoyed by the National Union of Mineworkers.
Violence at the Anglo American Platinum mine in Rustenburg on Monday afternoon, during which more than 12 employees were injured, has highlighted the need to establish a centralised bargaining structure for the platinum sector.
The trouble, believed to be related to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union's (Amcu's)impending recognition agreement with Amplats, started at the Siphumelele 1 shaft apparently after a confrontation between National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) shop stewards and workers returning to the surface after their shift.
Until the killings at Marikana last year, agreements between unions and mining companies meant that only majority unions had bargaining powers. This favoured the NUM, but the arrangement has been upset by the rise of Amcu. Discussions with the Chamber of Mines, unions and mining houses are being facilitated by the department of mineral resources and labour representatives, and have been in progress for the better part of a year.
The spokesperson for the department, Zingaphi Jakuja, said restoring stability to the platinum sector had now taken precedence over attempts to address "structural issues", among them centralised bargaining.
Johan Theron, an executive of Impala Platinum, said many unresolved operational level issues were making the establishment of a centralised bargaining council more difficult.
"Some companies, based on membership, might decide to recognise Amcu under the same dispensation they had with the NUM. In our case, we cancelled the recognition agreement we had with NUM and negotiated a new dispensation that takes into account the lessons we have learned over the years," he said.
"In the agreement we had with NUM, all employees were in the same bargaining forum but now we have proposed dividing it into two groups, with lower level workers in one group and supervisors in another group. So it's not a closed-shop situation and you're not trying to protect a particular union.
"In the past, organisational rights were given to unions that had already achieved a threshold above 50%, but now, we're working on lower thresholds and, as the memberships rise, they get more rights, which minimises the risk of violence.
"We needed to have a frank conversation about what we have learnt because we will live with the new dispensation for the next couple of years," Theron said.
Amcu was officially recognised as the majority union at Impala after a contentious process that involved legal threats by the NUM. Theron said that the finalisation of these issues would make it easier on the unions to get a mandate to put forward at future bargaining chamber discussions.
"I don't think that majority union scenario will go away because this is the will of the people," NUM spokesperson, Lesiba Seshoka, said.
"If we were to say the current dispensation must go away, people would say we are saying so because it doesn't favour us, because we have lost our majority. It is up to the leadership of the companies to decide what kind of dispensation they want but that would have to be in negotiation with the unions to see the reasons behind them wanting a particular dispensation.
"The talks are continuing but negotiating a dispensation is a big job. I would not want to attach a deadline to it, but we need to conclude it because the companies need to start negotiating," he said.
But the indications are that mining companies are divided over the issue because of the political implications accompanying the rise of Amcu.
Workers at Siphumelele 1 said this week that the incident had been an attempt by the NUM to derail the signing of the recognition agreement with Amcu, which is understood to have overtaken the NUM.
"We were supposed to be signing the recognition agreement on Tuesday but we failed to do so because of this situation," Amcu's national organiser, Dumisani Nkalitshana, said. "But, as the majority union, we believe that we'll have another day to sit with management."
Workers interviewed on Tuesday said there was no way they could have been armed with pangas and machetes, as reported in the media, because they had just come to the surface after their shift.
Amplats management would not answer questions about the verification process, the union talks or the alleged conduct of the mine security personnel.