A strike could flip the switch on Eskom's successful run in keeping the lights on

Labour unions are seeking a CCMA verdict on who among Eskom employees should be regarded as essential workers, as they feel it cannot be a blanket classification. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Labour unions are seeking a CCMA verdict on who among Eskom employees should be regarded as essential workers, as they feel it cannot be a blanket classification. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is prepared to take its fight for the right to strike all the way to the Constitutional Court.

The union hinted at this on the back of its plan for about 15 000 members in the employ of Eskom to down tools on Monday.

NUM is seeking a revised wage offer from Eskom by the end of Thursday, otherwise it will serve the power utility with a strike notice.

This is likely to trigger court action, with Eskom seeking a possible urgent interdict because its employees are classified as essential workers, said Paris Mashego, the union’s energy sector co-ordinator.

Wage talks involving the NUM, Solidarity and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) have hit the skids and were deadlocked at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) last Monday.

The next day the NUM, the first to act, served Eskom bosses with a certificate of deadlock, demanding a revised offer within 48 hours or face a strike.

Mashego said its members, employed at Eskom power stations, distribution and transmission centres around the country, have given it a mandate to take their fight all to the way to the Constitutional Court if necessary. They want their classification as essential workers reviewed.

“Eskom has come off a profit of R4-billion and they want to offer our members 7%,” Mashego said.

The union’s members, he said, believed that, if they are to be validly classed as essential service personnel, their pay should reflect this. “If the only way we are going to get a review of this status for our members is through the courts, then we are going to do that.”

The NUM is seeking a wage increase of 12% for the highest-paid employees and a 13% increase for the lowest-paid employees.

It has also demanded an increase to the staff housing allowance, from R2 600 to R5 000 a month, for its members.
The union’s lowest-paid Eskom workers earn about R9 000 a month.

Should NUM resort to a strike, it is likely to affect Eskom’s recent winning streak in avoiding load-shedding. And its effect economically will add to the growing costs of the petrol strike, which has affected fuel delivery to filling stations in some parts of the country. About 15 000 members of the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union stopped work last week after employers refused to budge on their demand for a 9% wage hike.

Mashego said, although the union is aware of the crippling effects a long-term strike could have on Eskom and the country, it is important that the public should know employees have been waging the battle about their classification as essential services personnel for 10 years.

The only legal alternative is for the union to subject itself to an interest arbitration – a new process before an independent third party – but this is skewed heavily in favour of employers so members are not willing to explore it, Mashego says.

Solidarity’s deputy general secretary, Deon Reyneke, said they hope Eskom will come to the party with a revised offer to avert industrial action. But Solidarity does not have the same mandate from its members and will probably be covered by the final offer agreed to by the majority of Eskom employees.

Vuyo Bikitsha, the national energy sector co-ordinator for Numsa, said a strike is a real possibility for its roughly 11 000 members at Eskom.

“We are on the record [as] saying we have not ruled out industrial action although we have not formally made a decision about a strike as yet,” Bikitsha said.

He said the union shares the same gripe as the NUM about their members being classified as essential workers, which barred them from going on strike.

Numsa is seeking a rescission of this classification and has a matter pending at the CCMA, he said.

“We do not agree that Eskom employees are essential workers because there is no health or safety risk to the public should our members go on strike.

“Eskom regularly has supply problems, either because of the weather, wet coal or equipment failure. And, traditionally, it has contingency plans in place. A strike by Eskom employees should not necessarily make this worse,” Bikitsha said.

In addition, the CCMA will hopefully provide clarity on who among Eskom employees should be regarded as essential workers because it cannot be a blanket classification, he said.

Property boom time
Eskom can take some comfort in knowing that it is reaching towards its target of selling property worth R250-million by March next year.

As part of a strategic plan to sell off some of its noncore assets, Eskom is selling homes no longer required for business purposes or to staff to “encourage ownership”.

It has R1.4-billion in land, commercial and residential properties on its books, but Eskom said it has sold 48 homes since January. It has about another 30 homes on the market by open tender, including a three-bedroom Sasolburg property, which is in need of a bit of spit and polish.

A four-bedroom facebrick home in Duvha Park, Witbank, is also listed, although it warns that part of it, such as the distribution board, has been vandalised, which requires the property to be rewired.

Eskom’s spokesperson, Khulu Pasiwe, said 65% Eskom homes are occupied by staff, adding that they are given first right of refusal when a decision is made to sell.

The rationale for disposing of these assets is in line with the government’s policy to sell off noncore and nonstrategic assets, he said.

Pasiwe said the proposed sale of the Eskom Finance Company, through which it makes home loans available to staff, has not been concluded yet. “Eskom is currently in consultation with labour unions on the matter,” Pasiwe said.

Eskom responds

Eskom spokesperson, Khulu Phasiwe, confirmed that its employees are not allowed to go on strike due to their essential service status. However, he said Eskom was not of the view that wage talks had collapsed. “The last meeting was last Monday, 25 July. We’re expecting the CCMA to convene another meeting soon. The outcome of this meeting will be binding since the matter is now up for arbitration,” he said.

And, Eskom has upped its offer since wage talks first started even though the unions have stuck to their double-digit demand. ” We started the negotiations with an offer of 5%, which we later increased to 5.5%, and then 5.75% and then lately we’ve offered an increase on a sliding scale of between 7% and 9%. The unions have basically remained within their initial stance demand of about 13%.”

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