Coal workers dig in, prepare for 'powerful strike'

Workers in the coal sector will embark on a strike following failed wage negotiations, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said on Wednesday.

“We have deadlocked. We have received a strike certificate and we are going on strike,” spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said.

M&G photographer Oupa Nkosi arrived in the industrial area of Alrode in Alberton to a sea of disgruntled workers. He approached the volatile situation with patience and, several hours later, emerged with the shot.
On Thursday, the union would give employers 48-hours notice of the strike and would discuss the date of the strike with its 150 000 members in the coal sector, he said.

“We will definitely serve notice tomorrow [Thursday], there is no question about it,” said Seshoka.

Seshoka said the talks deadlocked after employers offered a final wage increase of 7%. The union was demanding 14%.

“We cannot accept that. We have totally rejected it because that is not according to our mandate,” he said.

The only way to increase the wage offer was to have a “powerful strike”.

“A powerful strike is a strike that lasts more than a week. It must take many weeks for a strike to work with as much members as possible.”

The NUM, the United Association of South Africa (Uasa) and Solidarity, rejected an offer by the Chamber of Mines last Monday.

It was not known if Uasa and Solidarity also intend striking.

The Chamber represents Anglo Thermal Coal SA, Delmas Coal, Exxaro, Kangra Coal, Optimum Coal and Xstrata Coal.

The negotiations are being mediated by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

In a statement, Chamber spokesperson Jabu Maphalala confirmed the deadlock.

He said the coal mining companies had tabled a final offer of an 8.5% increase for entry-level employees and 7% for other employees.

Delmas Coal had offered 7.5% for entry-level workers and 6% for the rest, he said.

“The wage offer should be seen in conjunction with other offers already made, which include medical incapacity and medical aid contributions as well as the living out allowance,” Maphalala said.

Frans Barker, a negotiator for the coal mining companies, said the unions had jointly submitted more than 50 demands.

“However, they declared a dispute after only two negotiating sessions and deadlocked after a single meeting under the auspices of the CCMA.

“The negotiations were thus not given a fair chance to succeed,” he said.

The companies were “deeply disappointed” at the “untimely declaration” of deadlock.

“The companies have also clearly indicated to the unions that they were more than willing to continue to engage on the many demands in an attempt to reach settlement, however the unions rejected this,” Barker said.

Strike spreads to diamond sector
Meanwhile, workers at diamond giant De Beers said on Wednesday they would go on strike this week.

Unions and employers across South Africa are locked in mid-year wage bargaining, known as “strike season”, and many labour groups are seeking increases well above the country’s 4.6% inflation rate.

NUM wants a 15% rise in wages, while De Beers, 45% owned by mining firm Anglo American, has offered 7.5% and a one-off payment of R2 500.

Unions said they would strike from Friday. 

“The offers are totally unacceptable to us. We totally reject these,” said Peter Bailey, NUM’s chief negotiator at De Beers.

Since 2008, miners, factory workers, and steel workers have won pay rises averaging more than 10% a year, making themselves more expensive than other emerging market workforces.

Dry pumps
State-owned utility Eskom has said it has enough coal in stock to last 41 days.

The African National Congress, in a governing
alliance with the the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, is loathe to put pressure on workers, fearing it could antagonise its long-standing union allies who have supplied it with millions of votes.

In a separate dispute, tens of thousands of fuel sector workers have been striking for 10 days, delaying deliveries to filling stations and sparking panic buying in Johannesburg.

The small but influential Solidarity union, which represents skilled workers at state-owned PetroSA and petrochemicals group Sasol, said it suspended its participation in the fuel strike and its members would return to work by Thursday.

“Everyone’s interests will be best served by ending the strike and resuming negotiations in all earnest,” the union said, adding that Solidarity was likely to return to talks with employers before the weekend to reach a deal. 

Mxolisi Ratsibe, chairperson of the National Petroleum Employers’ Association, an industry body, was hopeful.

“We are optimistic the end is in sight,” he said.

Police escorts are allowing some delivery trucks to get through picket lines, although scores of filling stations around Johannesburg have run out of fuel. - Sapa, Reuters

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