Amcu fights for recognition
The new kid on the mining block, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), has discovered how lonely it can be out there in the real world with no political power.
As a union that is essentially still under construction, but one that has encroached massively on the terrain of the established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) by eating into the latter's membership base, Amcu has had its resolve to make a peace plan work in the industry tested in recent weeks.
The framework for peace and stability, as the plan is known, is supposed to bring the volatile mining industry, especially on the platinum belt, back to normality after a number of violent strikes last year, including the Marikana massacre, in which 34 people were shot dead by the police in August.
On Tuesday, about 6 000 Amcu-aligned workers at Lonmin's Newman and Saffy shafts downed tools, demanding the closure of a NUM office. Amcu has been battling to finalise a recognition agreement at Lonmin's mines, despite the fact that more than 50% of its workers now belong to the union.
Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa said this week's work stoppages would "offer stakeholders involved in the framework for peace and stability a chance to reflect on the credibility of the process when parties resume" talks next week.
Workers were demanding the closure of an NUM office barely two weeks after the Siphumelele 1 shaft incident, in which more than 13 people were injured after being dispersed following a confrontation with NUM shop stewards over the closure issue.
'Credibility on the line'
At Amplats' Amandelbult, where workers also rejected the NUM in last year's strike wave, tools were downed in a demand for the release of workers held for public violence charges.
Last month, Amcu would not sign the framework for peace and stability at first, demanding amnesty for workers facing criminal charges as a result of last year's strikes.
On Tuesday, Lonmin spokesperson Sue Vey said that the work stoppage, which took place during a media day at the company, probably "had to do with Amcu wanting majority recognition agreements to be settled".
A unionist close to the peace plan talks told the Mail & Guardian: "This is the test to determine whether there is any value in the framework agreement and the peace accord. We eagerly await a response from the chamber, mining houses and the department of mineral resources. This puts [Amcu's] credibility on the line."
However, Mathunjwa suggested that the process still needed the required buy-in from those "perceived to be violent" and affected by workplace issues.
"No boardroom meeting can deal with workplace challenges," he said. "You need to engage workers [and say] that 'this is the framework and these are the issues'. It has been suggested that workers sporadically erupt in violence, but socioeconomic challenges and salary disparities are the source of this. Also, we are saying it can't be a free-for-all. It's not any union that can just enter a mine and start talking to members, not if thresholds have been set in place."
Unions talk peace
The Chamber of Mines' Vusi Mabena told the M&G it was encouraging that both parties [NUM and Amcu] were talking peace.
"When you sign things like this, you don't expect peace overnight," he said.
Mabena said it was a question of managing workers' impatience and making sure that law enforcement agencies were engaged where violence was being perpetrated.
Amcu is understood to have failed to arrive at the platinum industry collective bargaining forum this week, a forum that hopes to sign off on a new bargaining dispensation at the end of May.
Insiders, however, believe that Amcu's tactics are to be understood within the context of its political and industrial isolation, where it is up against the NUM's supposed state-assisted machinery and mining companies hesitant to hand it its rightful dues. It is a situation that could result in the union being unable to effect some of the structural adjustment it needs to make to serve its multiplying members.
In an interview with the M&G, a politician familiar with the dynamics of the platinum belt said: "The growth of Amcu was not so much a product of definitive effort and programmatic action, it was because of a realisation from the workers that the NUM had lost its potency. Because of the NUM being the big link to Cosatu and Cosatu being a big part of the ANC, the NUM is going to fight back, and not alone, but using the ANC, the South African Communist Party, Cosatu, everybody. This thing of 'we don't [get] involved in politics' will be [Amcu's] Achilles' heel."
Although Amcu has been perceived as the leading cause of instability in the mining sector, a close look at the trajectory of violence in Marikana, Kusasalethu and elsewhere suggests that no one party should shoulder the blame.
A picture of cash-strapped union
Some of the hospitalised employees seen by the M&G following the Amplats Siphumelele shaft confrontation with security guards bore extensive, closely concentrated upper-body injuries, in some cases to the face and neck, suggesting something more zealous than an ordered dispersal of workers was involved.
The employees interviewed also scoffed at the suggestion that they had been armed with pangas (as reported in the media) as they emerged from their shift.
A labour consultant who has facilitated negotiations in which Amcu was involved said: "It is a good negotiator, but running a union is not about delivery in negotiations, it is about the niggly everyday things."
Insiders paint a picture of a cash-strapped union that cannot operate effectively because its subscriptions in mines where it has gained the majority are being held in escrow until agreements are finalised.
"The reason they sometimes don't pitch is that they don't have a lot of skilled senior people so they are going from one meeting to the next. They're stretched, basically," the consultant said.
"But then again, if they don't pitch, they could be playing for time as well. They want to first formally establish recognition agreements and then negotiate as a recognised party, because at the moment they are simply regarded as an important role player."
Recovering lost membership
Amcu's national leadership consists of four people and a clutch of organisers. It is presumably on this basis that NUM general secretary Frans Baleni has been making his often repeated remark that the NUM will recover its lost membership once "people realise they have been lied to". Others believe the NUM to be mortally wounded.
Despite structural weaknesses, labour consultants tracking the development of Amcu insist that the union's heart is in the right place.
A consultant with industrial relations experience said that in about 2 000, before it was the norm, Mathunjwa pioneered a prototypical social-labour plan at BHP Billiton, when thousands were facing retrenchment at Douglas Colliery (Amcu's first stronghold) and Koornfontein.