Mines yearn to be rid of unions

Why have unprotected strikes taken off? (Oupa Nkosi)

Why have unprotected strikes taken off? (Oupa Nkosi)

One plausible alternative to the established story on the current strikes is that this wave of protests constitutes a plan by the mine owners to get rid of unions in the industry.

In media coverage of the strikes, no effort has been spared to demonise the National Union of Mineworkers. Virtually every article written about events in the mining industry over the past three months has contained ritualistic abuse of the NUM, usually without substantiating evidence. Who is sponsoring this? Union-bashing is universal in the media and among our corporate stooge "thought leaders", but this seemed unsavoury behaviour and a distraction from the real issues.

The market for mineral commodities is down because of the global depression, so much so that there is the usual talk of closing down less profitable mines. Unemployment is high because of the local depression. The share of corporate profit has surged ahead of the share of wages, so corporations are flush. The best off are the mining companies, which have massive foreign investments unaffected by local strikes. These are the worst possible conditions in which workers should undertake a strike in which management can fire workers at any moment.

So why have unprotected strikes taken off? Obviously, the socio-political climate is favourable. The collapse of political leadership in the tripartite alliance and the lack of trustworthiness of the leadership breeds distrust at rank-and-file level. In an organisation with leadership that is unrepresentative of membership, such as the ANC or Cosatu, the sense of powerlessness and frustration becomes intense. The depression, along with the government's failure to address economic inequality (while continually promising to do so), breeds uncertainty and desperation. It is a truly explosive mixture, apparent also in the violent strike in the transport industry.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) certainly sparked the petrol tank, but what is Amcu? Its leadership is elusive; it is beloved by the mining industry, which (before Marikana) praised it to the skies. Oddly enough, mine management allowed it to arm its supporters, which led to intimidatory violence. Amcu's demands sounded reasonable to outsiders, but were actually all but meaningless, whereas its other campaign - for the wholesale elimination of the NUM from any mine where Amcu worked – was all too meaningful. This is perhaps simply brutal opportunism, but it looks suspiciously like agent provocateur activity.

The consequence was a mass-based strike against both management (who suffered not at all) and the NUM (who were driven out or butchered), whereas Amcu largely withdrew, leaving the strike to local workers' committees. The mining industry could have ended the strike at any time through such dismissals.

Why did they delay? Could it be that the longer the strike goes on, the more conflict is stoked among workers and the more the NUM, the only powerful union in the industry, is disrupted? Not that the NUM is a great organisation. But it is at least an experienced organisation that, before the strike, commanded majority support and could (in principle) fight back. Now it is weak and lacks credibility. The path is open for delegitimisation. Mines will be riven by conflict that owners can exploit and union representation may collapse, making workers powerless against layoffs, closures or pay freezes. The government, the NUM or Julius Malema become the scapegoats.

It is a potentially brilliant game changer for the mine owners – and almost everybody has played along with them, perhaps because anti-union, anti-collective and anti-solidarity ideology is so rampant among the South African elite today.

Can anything be done? We should at least have a debate about the issues, because increasing the already overweening power of the mining industry could have devastating consequences for our spineless government's socioeconomic policies. – Mathew Blatchford, University of Fort Hare

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