South Africa’s miners have been forced to threaten strikes following an announcement that thousands of workers would be laid off. The mining industry, one of the most important sectors of South Africa’s economy, has been the scene of protracted struggles since mid-2012, when a series of wildcat and protected work stoppages slowed down or stopped production throughout the country.
The National Union of Mineworkers, an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), on May 17 raised to the Chamber of Mines a demand for a 60 percent pay increase. The bosses have reacted with hostility to this demand, and their financial consultants have claimed that this escalating tension between the mining unions and the owners has sharpened the already unstable situation involving the South African economy.
A press release issued by NUM states, “The union demands that surface workers should receive a minimum amount of R7000 ($750) and underground and opencast workers minimum should be set at R8000 ($850) per month.” For all other categories, the NUM has demanded 15-percent raises and also wants to increase the job categories at which workers are rated. (May 17)
“These demands are informed by many studies which have revealed that cash wages received over time has indeed been growing but, the disposable wage has been under severe strain due to the effects of inflation and other expense incurred to maintain a worker’s modest lifestyle,” says Frans Baleni, the NUM General Secretary.
NUM has also placed other demands involving housing, transportation and insurance before the mine owners. The union is currently awaiting a response prior to the beginning of negotiations in June.
Lonmin workers’ struggle
In the platinum industry, in which 34 died at the hands of provincial police during the Marikana massacre, and 16 other workers died in other incidents before and after the massacre, resistance is continuing. The African National Congress government established the Farlam Commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding last Aug. 16’s police killings.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union is seeking recognition as the principal bargaining unit for the Lonmin Mines at Marikana. This is a major challenge to the NUM’s leading role in the platinum mines in the area. At present NUM is still the official representative of the workers.
The AMCU claims that it has more worker members than NUM at the Marikana mines. The NUM it saying that even if this is true, it should still be allowed to represent its supporters within the mines as a minority unit.
Up to now, a union that represents 50 percent of the workers plus one is officially recognized as the representative of the workers at a mine. The AMCU says the NUM should leave the Lonmin mines around Marikana and allow the AMCU to lead.
“We admit that for many years on the issue of threshold, it was 50 plus one,” said NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka.
“As a union we have lost the majority at Lonmin,” he said. “We are prepared to give Amcu the opportunity to lead. But they must give us the space to exist, as we did when they were a minority.”
This situation is complicated due to the fact that NUM, through COSATU, maintains its alliance with the ruling ANC government. National elections are scheduled for 2014 and traditionally the ANC has relied on its majority support from the trade unions in order to secure large margins of victory.
With problems continuing in the mining industry, the ruling party is concerned that the loss of support from workers in the platinum industry around Rustenburg could weaken its political base.
With the overall decline in prices and earnings within the gold and platinum sectors in South Africa, the bosses will continue to pressure the workers through threats of downsizing and the closing of production facilities. Until the mining industry is taken over by the workers through a process of nationalization under employee control, the bosses will remain obstinate in their responses to the demands for higher wages and better living conditions.