The almost month-old strike by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at Northam Platinum's Zondereinde mine places the union between a rock and a hard place.
The NUM has been forced to drive a bargain competitive to that of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), a union to which it lost tens of thousands of members during last year's strikes.
Northam Platinum in Limpopo is the world's fourth-largest producer of the metal and is now the only mine in the platinum belt where the NUM is the majority union.
Amcu is currently negotiating wage increases – for the first time since it became the majority union – with Lonmin, Implats and Amplats and has deferred the possibility of a strike until next year.
Amcu dropped its demand for an entry level wage of R12 500 at Implats, but is still seeking a R3 100 increase on the current basic wage of R5 500. According to Lonmin insiders, the R12 500 wage demand is no longer on the table at the mine and union demands are becoming more realistic as "Northam is proving that protracted strikes don't work".
Loane Sharp, a labour market analyst at workforce management group Adcorp, said the strike represents a desperate struggle for survival because of the NUM's loss of members, although unions in general are losing their relevance.
"The NUM is a spent force. This is the root cause of the infighting between the NUM and Numsa [National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa] within Cosatu and will likely lead Cosatu to disintegrate into a powerful public sector union and an irrelevant private sector union. We are witnessing the disintegration of the union movement."
Sharp said the unions are losing members and those members who could previously be intimidated into attending rallies often simply do not turn up. He said crowd participation by union members has fallen and only about 4% of branch members turn up at strikes. Union members lose more from the no-work, no-pay principle than what they gain in the additional increases the unions achieve, said Sharp.
He said the strikes are in the interests of union officials and not members. Cosatu, in particular, is in a crisis of relevance and will "disintegrate within three years". For employers, it is a difficult transitional time and much strife lies ahead.
"But ultimately, we're looking at a more benign labour environment as unions lose relevance," he said.
At Zondereinde, the NUM is demanding increases of between R2 000 and R2 100 for above-ground and underground workers, as well as a sleeping-out allowance of R3 781. The current rate is R2 200.
NUM members marched to the company's head offices in Dunkeld West in Johannesburg on Tuesday afternoon. A female striker said there is a lot of nepotism at the mine and that only black women work underground, while less-qualified white counterparts occupy more prestigious above-ground positions.
But Northam said any allegations of impropriety should be drawn to the attention of the company through existing channels.
The NUM refuted claims this week that its demands, which represent wage increases of up to 42%, were born out of competition with Amcu.
"It [Amcu] is not a factor, not even subconsciously," the NUM's chief negotiator, Ecliff Tantsi, said. "If you check Northam history in the last three years of negotiations, it is only in one negotiating round that we settled without a strike. We never settle without a protected strike. The last strike we had lasted for six weeks. It can't be that in all these strikes we are trying to prove a point to somebody," he said, referring to Amcu.
Tantsi said: "The NUM is a mass-based organisation and discussions are bottom-up and not top-down. The demands are formulated by workers at the mass meetings. When feedback is given, it is given to the workers and NUM members take a decision as to what the next step will be."
Gavin Hartford, a labour analyst, said the strike is a test case for the NUM to deliver in the face of Amcu's competition. "It will impact on pending disputes at Implats, Amplats and Lonmin, where Amcu is negotiating for workers in the same category. So it can set a pattern going forward in what is delivered downstream in shops not organised by the NUM."
Hartford said that, after Marikana, the NUM is seeking to be more responsive to its members.
"Competition seeks a situation where all members are behind the union from a mandating point of view, so it's not surprising that the negotiations are being driven by a mandate rather than leadership interests. This creates a situation where employee expectations from a bargaining point of view are significantly different from those of the employer, hence the protracted action," Hartford said.
"After Marikana, workers have felt that their earnings are insignificant compared to their needs, irrespective of where they are situated in relation to the standard living measure of the cost of living. With this major misalignment between employers and employees, it doesn't help to argue whether the consumer price index is appropriate. It helps to argue what the appropriate earnings are in the platinum market."
The NUM's general secretary, Frans Baleni, said this week that Northam had weak leadership and no good human resources staff.
"At every wage negotiation round, we strike. If the board could look into it, it would discover that there is a leadership vacuum," he said.
He sharply criticised the company for publishing an "open letter" in the press.
Northam Platinum's spokesperson, Memory Johnstone, said this week that the first wage negotiation meeting was held at the end of July and the process had been protracted. In fact, the NUM itself had raised two further disputes before negotiations could proceed. "There is nothing to be gained by the company for wage negotiations to continue over such a long period. Any settlement reached will be backdated to July 1."
Referring to the open letter, she said: "The letter was delivered to Mr Baleni prior to publication as a genuine attempt to get the NUM leadership involved in negotiations.
"It is notable that Mr Baleni has, until now, refused any engagement with the company. After a negotiation period of almost four months, the company sought to raise the level of awareness of the serious impact of the strike on the company and on employees. It is nigh impossible to negotiate if only one party ever moves and the other party maintains its position."
The company said earlier this week that it has been losing about R14-million a day since the strike began on November 3.
Workers interviewed by the Mail & Guardian said they are prepared to go home empty-handed and the reason for this year's high demands is that they are tired of percentages and want their increases "in rands".