Strikes rage out of control

With strike season in full play, the unions are rushing to put out fires. Freight truck drivers across the country are into the second week of their strike, affecting crucial nodes of the economy as a result of the non-delivery of fuel and food. Transport workers' unions, led by the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union, are still negotiating with employers, who are represented by the Road Freight Association.

Meanwhile, unprotected strikes are crippling the mining sector. Both Cosatu's Zwelinzima Vavi and Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu have blamed the spate of unprotected mine workers' strikes on the precedent set by mining companies who caved in to the high wage demands of striking workers outside of formal negotiating structures. Shabangu, in particular, referred to Impala Platinum's 10% wage increase in February this year.

Lesiba Seshoka, spokesperson for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), said although most of the striking mine workers belonged to the union, they had chosen to embark on illegal strike action.

"Workers are not on strike under the union banner because, if they followed proper legal procedures, they would not be successful," he said. Seshoka said amendments would be possible only once the existing two-year wage agreement had expired.

The number of striking workers has been estimated at about 75 000, but Seshoka said the NUM represented 320 000 workers.

Professor Karl von Holdt, director of the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of Witwatersrand, said workers' demands reflected a deepseated frustration with the slow pace of year-on-year, inflated-related wage increases.

"The collective bargaining system is being burdened with a set of larger issues around inequality and social development," he said. All too often, wage agreements were abandoned and representative bodies fragmented. "Workers turn against their union and either go independent, or join another union. Suddenly there is a multitude of voices for employers or the state to deal with," he said.  

Von Holdt said that although fingers were often pointed at "union head offices", shop stewards had become alienated from their members since 1994 as more opportunities for promotion presented themselves.      

This week, strikes severely affecting production spread beyond gold and platinum mines. Meanwhile on Thursday Kumba Iron Ore announced that it had suspended production at its Sishen Mine where approximately 300 striking employees are blocking access to the pit. Workers at Samancor Chrome's Rustenburg mine were sent on annual leave on Wednesday as 400 non-unionised workers vowed to continue striking.

With 24 000 workers on strike, the world's largest gold producer, AngloGold Ashanti, was forced to shut down in late September and on Monday AngloGold chief executive Mark Cutifani said the company was considering downsizing operations.

About 5 000 workers at Gold Fields' KDC West and Beatrix mines and at Harmony Gold's Kusasalethu mines have also embarked on a strike.

Smaller mines such as Chinese-owned Gold One suspended 1400 striking workers at its Modder East gold mine on Wednesday, and on the same day Village Main Reef brought a court interdict against 1 700 unprotected striking miners at its Blyvooruitzicht gold mine.

Anglo Platinum has entered its second week of strike action and 21 000 workers are affected.

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