Emboldened by a marathon strike, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) organisers are now gunning to recruit members on platinum belt mines still under the control of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
Amcu this week settled with platinum producers Lonmin, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) and Impala Platinum to increase wages by up to 20% a year. The union now has a majority in the three mines in the Rustenburg area and the strike has cemented its reputation of militancy among workers.
Labour researchers said Amcu will now have to start systematically targeting smaller mines at which it had not managed to win over workers.
Sphamandla Makhanya, a strike leader from Amcu and a co-ordinator at Amplats, said: “We have membership and are recognised in many mines in Limpopo. We still need to recruit at places like Twickenham, an Anglo mine with thousands of workers. For people who were looking [to join] Amcu, it was just the wrong time because of the strike. During the strike I went there twice, but when you’re recruiting workers you have to be close to them.”
Makhanya said many of those workers had no union and had disassociated themselves from the NUM in 2012. “When they were addressing issues like working conditions, they were using their own lawyers. It’s an open pit mine and many of those workers are in the higher bands, where the minimum salary is, like, R15 000. So if you’re recruiting there, it’s mostly issues surrounding working conditions rather than salary.”
Makhanya said in the Amandebult region in Limpopo, Amcu had, or was on its way to, majority status in Tumela, Dishaba and Mlanji mines, which are owned by Anglo.
A University of Johannesburg academic, Trevor Ngwane, who has been involved in training Amcu shop stewards in labour law, said some Limpopo mines were difficult to organise and some had experienced abortive strikes because they were isolated and workers often had no refuge except the mine premises.
Makhanya predicted that it would take less than a month to break NUM’s hegemony over workers at the Aquarius Kroondal mine in Rustenburg, one of the last NUM enclaves. “I know that many of those workers were waiting for the outcome of [our five-month] strike.”
Aquarius has at least four underground shafts, including Kopaneng, Simunye, Bambanani and Khwezi, also known as K5.
With Amcu signing recognition agreements with three of the major platinum mines in the wake of the post-Marikana strike wave, Aquarius, which at the time subcontracted many of its Rustenburg operations to Murray & Roberts, largely remained an NUM stronghold. In 2009, over 1 000 workers were fired when they embarked on an unprotected strike after mass dissatisfaction with the way in which the union handled their wage demands.
“The first strike in 2012 was the Impala strike and the second one was actually in Aquarius. In Khwezi shaft, mine security shot and killed eight workers and expelled all the 400 who took part in the strike. So I guess the workers were still sensitive – they needed leadership and leaders who were going to handle their fight for higher wages the right way,” said Makhanya.
‘Deep and overall analysis’
The NUM said in a statement this week that it would be making a “deep and overall analysis of the mining sector” at a central committee meeting on July 2. It said that each worker had lost between R42 000 and R52 000, and that to gain only R932 was “not worth celebrating”.
A worker at the Khwezi shaft interviewed by the Mail & Guardian this week said the situation at Aquarius was still “repressive”, with NUM looking after the interests of the company as opposed to the workers. “Right now we’re getting R80 deducted from our salaries for funeral cover, but we had neither signed nor had a verbal agreement for that deduction. It was done unilaterally. If we had a way of getting Amcu to mobilise us, we would.”
Workers dismissed in 2012 were still blacklisted by the company and could therefore not find work through recruiting agency Teba.
The NUM’s national health and safety secretary, Erick Gcilitshana, said: “As a union, we are not an autocratic organisation. We go to mass meetings and collect demands from workers, consolidate those demands, sign them off and then submit them to employers.” Amcu had been “knocking on that door for years”.
Kally Forrest, a labour expert and researcher with the Marikana commission, said: “Aquarius no longer uses subcontractors. At one stage they had contracted out all their operations to Murray & Roberts. Although they opted out of subcontractors they still use labour brokers and they still have a good relationship with NUM.
“Amcu has made no real inroads in small companies, only in big ones. What could happen with the NUM is that they have suffered a shock because of this strike and will hang on to Aquarius and negotiate well to keep [its members at] that mine.”
Thriving market for labour broking
Forrest said the market for labour broking was still thriving in Rustenburg. “Say a worker gets retrenched in a gold mine, he goes back to his home impoverished; he comes back to the platinum belt.
“Both the NUM and Amcu had organised contractors. But in some of the operations where workers had specialised skills, those workers had been organised by Numsa (the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa).
“The NUM does have a branch for contract workers that they keep separate from permanent workers. In that way they can’t build solidarity. They self-consciously organise them separately because they say employers like it and shop stewards don’t like to lose their shop stewardship. Amcu wants to organise them together, but both are still poorly organised by both unions.”
As Amcu signed wage deals with platinum employers, it emerged that 20 contract workers working at Lonmin had been fired, highlighting the vulnerability of the sector, especially with the spectre of retrenchments in the aftermath of the strike.
Gavin Capps, a senior researcher at the Mining and Rural Transformation in Southern Africa unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, said: “Impala has three new shafts coming on stream in Rustenburg and may simply opt to shift workers around that operation. The one place where they can trim is contract labour.”
“The key mine for Amplats is Mogalakwena, its large open-cast operation near Mokopane. It’s notable that they were able to keep this mine running through the strike, which was critical to Amplats weathering the storm.
“The strategy now appears to be to sell off the Rustenburg mines and expand the Mogalakwena operation. It’s crucial that Amcu concentrates on organising Mogalakwena to help fight off any Rustenburg retrenchments. By the same token, Amplats will be doing all it can to keep the union out of Mogalakwena in favour of NUM, so this could prove a critical site.”