Amcu workers: We’re striking until we get what we want

Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) workers were still talking tough ahead of the union's march to Impala's headquarters in Sandton on Thursday, despite being on strike at Impala, Lonmin and Amplats for exactly nine weeks.

Workers interviewed by the Mail & Guardian earlier this week appeared positive about their levels of morale, with members of the union saying they would not return to work for any deal that did not include a route towards R12 500.

On Wednesday, platinum companies claimed to be in touch with employees who want to come back to work but fear being killed by protesters if they do.

The firms offered increases of between 7% and 9% over three years, while Amcu initially asked for an entry-level wage of R12 500 – an amount the union has since revised to being phased in over four years. 

Entry-level wages for mineworkers are around R5 000.

"It's just a strike like any other in our minds," said Amcu's Tholakele Dlunga, a shopsteward at Lonmin. "Management just needs to come with a better offer, that's that. We can't settle for 9%. As workers, we are standing firm. There is no use in caving in because of hunger, because if we go back underground with these peanut wages, we will still suffer from hunger. It is better we starve once."

'They made fools of us'
Dlunga said that in 2012, workers were promised increases of up to 22% that did not materialise, and thus had "only wages" to lose. "They made fools of us after the Lonmin strike," said Dlunga of the deal that was struck to end the deadly, unprotected 2012 Lonmin strike at Marikana. "The only option we have as Amcu is to remain united and maintain solidarity. You must know that at our meetings, each and everyone has a chance to say what they're feeling. Our way forward is received from the people."

Figures commonly being cited about the losses the strike has incurred so far are around R4-billion in wages for workers and R8-billion in production for the mining houses. 

It has been a difficult strike for the union. It has been precipitated by a public fallout between Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa and a handful of shop stewards, whom he accused at a Rustenburg mass meeting in January of sowing divisions in the union and being sponsored by the ANC to recruit members for another startup union. The accused shop stewards who are no longer in the ranks of Amcu have continued to criticise the strike on the grounds that it was about Mathunjwa's ego and the not the well-being of the workers.

Independent labour negotiator Albert de Beer said a reason for the impasse between the mining houses and Amcu was that R12 500 remained a symbolic figure in light of the Marikana strike, from where the figure is widely believed to have emanated. "Amcu understands companies cannot afford it so they have said let's do it over a number of years. Amcu believes they have signed similar deals over the years [under different circumstances] with companies outside of the Chamber of Mines … Companies can agree with unions if both parties agree to some productivity and efficiency measures. These can also include the closure of some unproductive shafts, retrenchments, and a change in the remuneration system. Judging from some of the deals Amcu has structured in the past, like at BHP Billiton, I would be surprised if it hadn't come up in this strike," he said.

"We know from past behaviour that it is something they have looked at. Changing the remuneration system would include multi-skilling workers and a better utilisation of labour than is being done at the moment."

Overcompensating mining companies
Independent analyst Nic Borain said that the market moved from oversupply to undersupply, which was not necessarily a problem yet for the platinum producers. "It's hitting their turnover and income but that's it, at the moment. What it does do is feed into increased talk of mechanisation and provides an opportunity for the bosses to clean up their operations and make them more effective.

"Amcu weighed up what they were going to do and it's not difficult for me to imagine that they miscalculated, because it is not difficult for the companies to break the back of the union. I noticed as far back as the State of the Nation Address, when President Jacob Zuma went off script and said, 'We cannot allow strikes in the platinum sector to derail the economy of the country', and then came the R590-million law suit [from Amplats, over a supposed picketing law breach by Amcu]. It's not difficult to guess on which side the government is. The companies are also overcompensating because they feel that in 2012 and last year they capitulated to unprotected strikes."

Borain added that an end result that did not include R12 500 within its sights might not necessarily spell the end for Amcu, as leadership within unions emerges during difficult times. "Sometimes unions emerge stronger from strikes that they lose," he said.

Amcu's march to Impala is due to take place between 11am and 2pm between Rosebank and Illovo.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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