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NUM members down tools at Eskom despite the illegal strike putting their jobs at risk

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has convened its regional officials to plan a full-blown strike at Eskom, but its members are in the firing line as the work stoppage has been declared illegal.

None of Eskom’s employees are allowed to strike because the power utility is legally defined as an essential service.

“The strike has not affected any of our operations so far, but those who are not at work must report to their managers or they will face disciplinary action,” Eskom spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe told the Mail & Guardian.

On Monday, about 15% of the NUM members at Eskom downed tools and a group of about 20 workers attempted to block the road leading into Arnot power station in Mpumalanga. They dispersed after police officers arrived to clear the barricade.

Arbitration talks at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) are scheduled for this week.

NUM announced on Friday that mediation had failed after it rejected a wage hike offer of 7% in response to demands for a 12% increase. The union also rejected the “interest arbitration” proposed by Eskom.

“As talks broke down on Friday, it was leading towards interest arbitration. We rejected that. It’s a process of technocrats, which looks at the economy and not the situation of workers on the ground,” said NUM energy sector co-ordinator Paris Mashego.

The two parties failed to find common ground on a range of demands, which includes plans to address the wage gap. This payment structure, set up by the apartheid regime, has ensured that middle management gets paid significantly higher than entry level or general workers.

But the real dispute centres on the minimum service agreement (MSA). NUM wants a section of the company’s workforce to be given the right to strike. These workers would be declared non-essential to keeping the country’s 27 power stations running.

Eskom said it had previously negotiated an MSA, but all of the unions withdrew from it in 2004.

“The MSA we had at the time wasn’t favourable to workers. Our branch chairpersons would work shifts then call a mass meeting to go on strike, but wouldn’t be allowed to join his comrades. That was unacceptable to us,” said Mashego.

Despite this, the state-owned company said it hoped to renegotiate the MSA.

“At some point, we want to reach an agreement about how to designate certain workers as non-essential, but that should be done in consultation with the department of labour,” said Phasiwe.

NUM represents a third of Eskom’s workforce and has the power to destabilise operations across the country if its work stoppage is backed up by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.

While the NUM acknowledged a partial breakdown in its relationship with the company’s management, it denied planning a prolonged work stoppage.

“Our experience is that Eskom strikes don’t last for more than two days. We wanted something similar, for the right to strike for one or two days,” said Mashego. 

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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