On money the union and the employers virtually agree. But on matters that could define future strikes the differences appear nearly unbridgeable.
As of this week, the difference between the wage increase offered by employers in the engineering sector and that demanded by the striking National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) is, for the lowest-paid workers, as little as 17c an hour.
Yet the strike seems set to go into its fourth week on Tuesday, with a promise of intensifying action from Numsa, fears of a greater impact on the broader economy, and new promises of government mediation because negotiations are stuck on the future of strike action itself rather than money.
The department of labour this week said it would renew efforts to help employers and workers resolve their differences, after its previous involvement led to what had seemed to be a workable compromise, only to be rejected by workers and then taken off the table entirely by employers.
But those party to negotiations said meetings were only being scheduled for next week, and that even a breakthrough would not translate into an immediate return to work, making for what is very likely to be a full month of production lost.
“I am not a sangoma, I can’t predict,” said Numsa spokesperson Castro Ngobese. “The employers could call us today and say they want to talk.”
Ngobese confirmed that it could take Numsa up to four days to canvass members fully on any agreement its negotiators considered acceptable. For workers at the top end of the wage scale, the difference between offer and demand stood at around R1.20 per hour, with far less than that at stake for entry-level earners.
Defining future strikes
On matters that could well define future strikes, however, the differences between the sides appeared nearly unbridgeable.
Although neither party was willing to discuss the failed talks in detail, employers were keen on the stability that a three-year deal would bring, while Numsa preferred to talk about only a one-year agreement.
Numsa also demanded concessions that would allow it to more easily and effectively organise its members, such as more paid time off work for shop stewards on union business.
The impact of the changes Numsa wanted would amount to a handful of days off work for a small subset of employees, but some employers said that subsidising a union perceived to be organising against them was both unpalatable and would send the wrong signal to workers.
But the biggest obstacle to agreement, despite protestations from both sides that it is about money, appeared to be an arcane section of an agreement with few immediate cost implications.
In terms of a current master agreement between the parties, anything agreed in central bargaining cannot be renegotiated at factories. That makes wage agreements universally applicable, and makes it impossible for individual employers to offer either better or worse terms to their workers, regardless of productivity or the circumstances of the company.
Numsa has previously argued that the clause should be clarified to explicitly allow for the negotiation, at factory level, of any issues not covered by a central agreement.
Employers want the clause altered so that anything with cost implications, whether covered by a central agreement or not, would not be open to discussion at factory level.
The rather important issue of whether the engineering sector could see an eruption of legally-protected miniature strikes in future, could therefore hinge on just how indefinite the indefinite strike turns out to be.