Industry takes hard look at mining agreements
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) has signed up more members than the National Union Mineworkers (NUM) at the top three platinum mines. As agreements currently stand, this gives it the right to bargain on behalf of more than 100 000 mineworkers in the sector.
Although the NUM says it will use every avenue possible to dispute the numbers, negotiations about recognition agreements are under way, which could sideline the NUM completely. But these negotiations could also lead to further strikes should Amcu and the platinum companies not see eye to eye.
The fierce rivalry between Amcu and the NUM was widely reported as a root cause of unrest in the sector in August and September last year. The resulting disruption, including the Marikana massacre in which 34 people were killed on the day, forced platinum companies to look twice at their recognition agreements with the NUM, which has had the support of the majority of workers for the past 17 years.
Based on how the system has worked until now, Amcu's majority means it could bargain on behalf of all the companies' employees, even those who don't belong to Amcu. But discussions are under way to change this winner-takes-all format, which has been blamed for lulling the NUM into a sense of complacency. It is generally agreed that a more inclusive approach and greater competition between the unions could prevent another spate of strikes like those experienced last year.
Amcu going strong
The recount of membership has shown that Amcu is very strong. At Impala Platinum, according to its group executive of people, Johan Theron, Amcu enjoyed the support of 50% of the miners and the NUM had less than 10%. Although the NUM disputes the numbers (see "NUM kicks against counts"), a recognition agreement between Impala and Amcu is imminent.
Another agreement that recognises that Amcu has the support of the majority, with 40%, has been signed at Anglo Platinum, and a third is being negotiated at Lonmin that, although it is still counting union membership, has found that Amcu is the more representative union.
Although last year's events show that more unions need to be given space in this industry, Amcu is in a position to demand the benefits that the NUM has enjoyed as the majority union and industry experts say companies will have to navigate the situation skilfully to avoid strikes breaking out again.
When the NUM entered into recognition agreements with the large platinum mining companies in 1995, high thresholds were set. A 30% representation minimum was required for organisational rights (to have access to workers and recruit) and a 50% plus one threshold was set for any union to have majority recognition and collective bargaining rights.
But these agreements did allow Solidarity and the United Association of South Africa (Uasa), which never had widespread support, to be recognised too.
These agreements prevented the platinum companies from consulting Amcu last year, even when it was critical that they should be doing so.
Threshold "too high"
John Brand, the director of and an alternative dispute resolution specialist at Bowman Gilfillan, said that the threshold for recognition had to be low so that all unions could recruit members and look after their members in grievance and disciplinary disputes. It should also enable them to compete for the status of bargaining agent.
"What has gone awry is that the threshold for the granting of organisational rights has been set too high by the Labour Relations Act, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and agreements between employers and some incumbent unions," Brand said.
"This has had the result of excluding unions who represent significant numbers of employees from workplaces, thereby subverting industrial democracy. The turmoil in the platinum mining industry is a manifestation of the problems caused by the confusion, but it also serves as an opportunity to remedy the situation," he said.
Lonmin spokesperson Sue Vey said the company was looking for a more inclusive approach to labour representation. "We are looking at a different dispensation to the majority-takes-all dispensation … We have seen that it has not worked well and there needs to be more of a democratic process."
Questioning the motives
Although industrial democracy might demand lower thresholds, Amcu has questioned the motives behind the move.
Joseph Matunjwa, its president, said the thresholds proposals suggested that there were external factors at play.
"Impala and Lonmin want to dictate a 10% threshold for access," he said. "You can see they are just wanting to save the NUM's skin."
Matunjwa said that Amcu wanted to accommodate other unions and was not opposed to a more inclusionary threshold for organisational rights.
Concerning the bargaining rights threshold, he said Amcu had never planned on setting the threshold at 50% plus one. The union also had reservations about the 40% recognition agreement signed with Anglo Platinum and it planned to introduce some amendments.
NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said the union environment had been a multiparty dispensation for many years and the NUM had worked side by side with unions such as Uasa and Solidarity.
He said the NUM did not have a problem with Amcu signing agreements that maintained the 50% plus one bargaining rights threshold.
"If parties sit down and agree to bring it down, we are flexible … We are not going to be fighting to move it to favour us; we would never do that. We are comfortable with whatever the outcome of threshold issue is."
Vey said the outcome of the negotiations was imminent and Lonmin was optimistic the issue would be resolved in the next few weeks.
NUM kicks against counts
The membership count that found that the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) was the most representative union at the big three platinum mines is the primary bone of contention for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
Lesiba Seshoka, the NUM spokesperson, said the union was taking the issue of the count at Impala further because it had evidence of collusion between the company and Amcu.
"There have been people who have taken names and details of workers and given them to those people recruiting for Amcu … It is then easy to target members and force them to belong.
"We are quite aware this may have happened at Anglo or Lonmin but we don't have facts."
Seshoka said the union had anecdotal evidence from workers at Lonmin who claimed people were visited where they lived, doused in petrol and threatened with their lives if they refused to join Amcu. "[But] we need to dispute based on concrete evidence."
But Impala Platinum group executive of people Johan Theron said Impala was confident it could formally recognise Amcu as the majority union.
"We've done numerous independent verifications through a third-party auditing firm, and we continue doing it on a three-weekly or monthly basis."
Seshoka said the NUM would take the matter to court and every other platform available to it.
A standardised procedure to count membership has not been written into law or the agreements signed between the NUM and mining companies.