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20 Jul 2014 10:09
Lonmin and Amcu announce the end of the platinum strike at a press conference in June. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)
When a wildcat strike hit Impala Platinum’s Marula mine in
South Africa’s Limpopo province this month, union leaders there
had no idea it was coming.
“We were taken by surprise. We came to work that morning and
everyone was outside saying they were not going to work,” said
Solomon Digoro, deputy chairperson of the National Union of
Mineworkers (NUM) at Marula, 280km north-east of Johannesburg.
He has a better idea of what might come next: a takeover by
arch rival the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union
(Amcu), which looks set to expand after leading a five-month
mine strike in the western half of South Africa’s platinum belt
that pushed the continent’s most advanced economy into reverse
in the first quarter.
The platinum belt, which resembles a pair of half moons
separated by 250km of bush, houses the world’s richest
deposits, so the strife is high on investors’ radar screens.
Amcu emerged as the dominant union on the western “moon”
in 2012 after poaching tens of thousands of NUM members in a
turf war in which dozens of people were killed.
On the eastern arm, a battle for supremacy now in its
infancy appears to be following the same pattern.
Amcu has the momentum, its reputation cemented by the
settlement it reached last month with Implats and rivals Anglo
American Platinum and Lonmin that saw its
members get annual pay hikes of up to 20%.
Pointedly, the 2 000 wildcat strikers who downed tools at
Marula on July 3 said they wanted Amcu’s deal, in place of the 8% hikes NUM secured for them last year.
They returned to work the following week with a commitment
from bosses to talk about their issues.
NUM got the elbow.
“When it started, we went to the strikers, and our members
said they did not want to talk to NUM.
Amcu national treasurer Jimmy Gama said the union had since
met management, who agreed to start deducting Amcu union dues.
For investors and the mining companies, it is worryingly like
history repeating itself.
“What happened at Marula is 100% what happened at
Rustenburg two and a half years ago,” said a senior Implats
The manager, who asked not to be named, was referring to a
wildcat strike by rock drill operators at Implats’ key
Rustenburg mine on the western limb in early 2012. The stoppage
ended with Amcu elbowing NUM out of the shafts.
“Like Marula, when the NUM guys went to address the
Rustenburg strikers, they were chased away. The rock drill
operators at Rustenburg also wanted the same pay as the rock
drill operators at other mines in the area.”
Living in fear
At Marula, the last Implats operation where NUM is in the
majority, Digoro and other shop stewards have also been
threatened and said they lived in fear of their lives.
“We know we have been targeted because people in our
communities have told us we need to watch out. We are all
scared,” said an NUM shop steward who did not want to be named.
Amcu routinely denies allegations it uses violence and
intimidation, but dozens of people have been killed in the union
rivalry, and its rank and file often march, clubs in hand, in
dramatic shows of force.
Virtually all Marula’s workers live in communities outside
the mines, instead of company hostels, a situation Amcu has
exploited before as it is far easier for a new union to recruit
if the workforce is not corralled on mine property.
The communities, many of them informal settlements that have sprung
up from the surrounding bush, lie next to each other, so if the
Marula miners get a pay rise, the news will travel quickly
through the bars and shops the miners use.
Just to the south lies the Modikwa mine, run by African
Rainbow Minerals, where the workforce of 5 000 is 87% NUM - for now. NUM sources say Amcu is making headway
north of Marula at Amplats’ Twickenham mine.
Amcu’s initial drive into the eastern limb was hugely
successful two years ago when it dislodged NUM at the Everest
mine run by Aquarius Platinum, only to see the company
shut the operation - in part because of labour upheaval.
That closure temporarily thwarted Amcu’s push into the area,
but since the Everest shutdown, industry attempts to mothball
mines or cut jobs have been met with fierce resistance from Amcu and the African National
Consequently, any Amcu membership drive in the east is less
likely to be crimped by shaft closures. Indeed, looming
restructuring and job cuts in the industry are widely expected
to be focused on the western limb.
Over 70 000 platinum miners are now Amcu members, while NUM
numbers are close to 30 000, according to Reuters estimates.
Renewed labour strife could affect up to 25% of global
production after the recent Amcu strike halted 40%.
On the western limb, NUM still has majorities at a handful
of operations, including those run by Northam Platinum
and at Royal Bafokeng Platinum.
At the latter, NUM signed a five-year wage deal on Wednesday
for increases of 7% and 10.5% on basic pay, with
housing subsidies thrown into the mix. - Reuters
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