SA's longest strike is inching towards a close. But in Rustenburg, Amcu is the name trending on shop floor lips as a game changer on the labour front.
The media has made the mistake of underestimating the distance that still exists between the big three platinum producers and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu)in the ongoing platinum strike, says Gavin Capps, a senior researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand-based Society, Work and Developmental Institute.
The strike, which is expected to be drawing to a close as parties shuffle back and forth with conditions and mandates, has seen thousands of mineworkers at Implats, Amplats and Lonmin down tools for an unprecedented five months, beginning on January 23.
The final outcome, though, insiders say, could alter the labour landscape beyond the mining sector.
Some of the conditions workers have put forward as prerequisites for signing the deal include making the offer a three-year deal, as opposed to the proposed five years; a moratorium on retrenchments for the duration of the deal; and the reinstatement of essential services workers who were fired during the strike for not turning up for work.
“The shock waves of this thing could be huge,” says Capps, who has studied the political economy of the platinum industry for years. “What’s been different with this process is that it is worker-driven, with workers wanting sums of money as opposed to percentages. It has de-professionalised the [negotiations] process.
“The current system, with grades of employment, needed a specialised negotiation team that can work within the parameters of that model. With this demand of R12 500, everybody understands it and can adjudicate whether it has been reached or not. Workers in other sectors will look at this and say: ‘Yes, that’s how we want to do it too.’ So Amcu has broken a paradigm and laid the groundwork for another.”
Working for the people
Bheki Buthelezi, a Democratic Left Front (DLF) co-ordinator who has been based in Rustenburg since the Marikana massacre, says, as a result of the strike, the perception on various shop floors in Rustenburg is that Amcu is the union that is working for people and can be trusted.
“Now, even people outside the mining sector in Rustenburg and Marikana, people working at Pick n Pay, Shoprite or Boxer stores, are interested in joining Amcu. The culture of mass meetings and getting your mandate directly from the workers is something that was [for the most part] last seen in the Eighties, when people were battling apartheid.”
Buthelezi says there was a point not so long ago during the strike when mineworkers were being offered an R800 monthly increase. “Workers were literally crying when they heard that offer, saying the shafts should rather close and the companies go back home.”
Buthelezi says the momentum of the strike, in terms of winning the increased offer, was shifted by mine bosses keeping their ears on the ground to hear what workers were really saying about the offer.
Tholakele Dlunga, an Amcu shop steward at Lonmin, reiterates Buthelezi’s observation, saying: “At some point, our rallying cry was: ‘Rather we starve as unemployed men than starve at work.’ We had to maintain unity despite our colleagues being provoked by SMSes and all sorts of tricks.”
An urgent Labour Court application by Amcu to prevent the mining houses from sending SMSes was struck off the roll earlier this month and deemed not urgent.
Although the Labour Court recently reserved judgment in the court case about Amcu’s planned strike in the gold sector (Amcu issued strike notices in January but was interdicted from going ahead), independent labour analyst Albert de Beer says he won’t be surprised if the strike shifts towards the gold mines.
“Their [Amcu’s] strength there is in the mines around Carletonville,” says De Beer. “For a junior blue-collar guy looking at what people are walking away with at Impala (18%) and he’s looking at what they got in the gold sector from the previous agreement (10%), this could bury the National Union of Mineworkers [NUM] even further.”
Luke Sinwell, a senior researcher at the University of Johannesburg who has spent time looking at Amcu’s internal dynamics, said the impact of the strike on Amcu is likely to be a double-edged sword.
“It didn’t get R12 500 or get near it. But people inside Amcu feel it’s a victory,” he said. “So it won’t dismantle Amcu, meaning that an independent trade union [at least in the sense of not being affiliated to Cosatu] will remain strong.”
Sinwell believes that the aftermath of the strike will fail to transform Amcu progressively. “In Amcu, the workers’ committees were driven out. The national executive committee [NEC] still doesn’t have programmes to empower the workers.”
Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa also tends to shy away from the solidarity being extended from other unions or political formations. “When Joseph spoke at Olympia Park Stadium [in a speech that preceded the strike], he wouldn’t let the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa [president Andrew Chirwa] speak,” says Sinwell.
“He seemed afraid that they would recruit from his members. On occasion, he has also tried to prevent the DLF and the Democratic Socialist Movement from speaking to his members. But [what the strike shows is that] people have been united behind this wage demand.”
Sinwell says of the Amcu NEC’s resistance to developing workers who are independent-minded: “Workers, through their own know-ledge, are trying to find ways to have more control of things. They are doing it organically, because even if you take away the strike committees, the ideas of the individuals don’t necessarily die.”
Capps says that “when Numsa went on strike in the refineries, relations between leaders on the shop floor from Amcu and Numsa were warmer, even though the top leadership was colder”.
As to how these recent events might affect a realignment of the labour movement, Capps says that some Amcu members may feel better served as part of a bigger, or more vigorous, confederation.
The National Council of Trade Unions, to which Amcu is affiliated, folded its arms as Amcu slugged it out in Rustenburg. Capps says Amcu is preoccupied with Numsa going after its members.
“What the strike shows us is that it is possible to win a lot and break into a higher wage category, but you can’t do it alone,” says Capps. “[A wage of] R12 500 was still a way off, but it could have been won with co-ordinated action from another sector. If there had been co-ordination with refinery workers, for example, and with transport workers who would have simply refused to transport the stockpiles, there would have been a tighter squeeze on production.”
Platinum workers are awaiting a response from management through their union within the next few days.