A major struggle between the National Union of Mineworkers and the bosses at Northam Platinum’s Zondereinde facilities is turning out to be a critical test for this important labor organization in South Africa. NUM has been on strike for more than a month, but management has refused to budge on its fundamental demands.
Some 7,000 workers walked off the job on Nov. 3 after months of negotiations failed to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides. South Africa remains the largest known source of platinum in the world.
The union at Northam’s facilities in Zondereinde is demanding a wage increase equivalent to $203 a month and a housing allowance of $368. At present the sleep-out allowance is $213 a month.
These pay hikes would constitute a 42 percent wage increase. Despite platinum being a major industry in South Africa, pay and working conditions remain poor.
The company is offering wage increases of only 8 or 9 percent. It claims that higher salaries will force layoffs due to a decline in earnings.
In order to build public support and to pressure the management at Zondereinde, NUM organized a mass demonstration on Nov. 26 at the company headquarters in Johannesburg. Several women workers who spoke to the media at the demonstration said there was widespread discrimination and nepotism at the mines.
Women union members said that many of them were forced to work on dangerous jobs underground, while less qualified whites held safer positions above ground. The demonstration represented a continuing campaign to shape public opinion toward NUM and its latest industrial action.
Company blames union for profit dip
As early as Nov. 3, NUM complained that the company was deliberately distorting issues surrounding the labor dispute. The corporate media have subsequently sought to focus on the competition between NUM and its rival, the breakaway Association of Miners and Construction Workers Union, which has taken tens of thousands of members away from the parent organization.
NUM, an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, had been the bulwark of the largest labor federation inside the country. COSATU, which claims over 2 million members, is closely allied with the ruling African National Congress.
In a statement issued by NUM Nov. 3 prior to the strike, the union said, “It is irresponsible for Northam Platinum Mine Management to lie to their shareholders and the public in general. We want to state categorically that ever since we served the company with a 48-hour [strike] notice, nothing came out from the company for any meeting. This is despite the commitment we made to the company that we will be on standby for 24 hours a day to make sure that we find a solution to the impasse. We believe that if it was not the attitude displayed by the management the strike could have been avoided.”
Northam spokesperson Memory Johnstone, in an effort to blame the union for the failure to reach an agreement in the strike, issued a public letter in late November claiming that NUM negotiators are not seriously working toward a settlement. The letter was widely circulated in the South African press and was published alongside reports of profit losses incurred since the beginning of the current strike and other labor unrest that has swept the platinum, gold and iron ore sectors over the last year and a half in South Africa.
“A protracted strike will undermine the long-term viability of Northam and could threaten jobs,” the mining corporation stressed in its letter to NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni, reprinted in Business Day newspaper on Nov. 25. Northam produces approximately 1,000 ounces of platinum-group metals per day. The firm said it was losing $1,350,000 every day in revenue, with the strike costing it nearly $20 million over the last month.
Labor, the ANC and national elections
This strike comes at an important time for NUM, COSATU and the ANC. National elections will be held in 2014, and the support of labor has been essential in the ruling party’s efforts to remain in power.
Next year will mark two decades since the ANC came to power in South Africa. Although many reforms have been instituted, poverty, unemployment and underemployment remain major sources of concern and unrest among the majority African population.
Since 1994 no fundamental transfer of wealth has occurred between the white minority and the multinational corporations, which still dominate the national economy, and the African majority. Some elements within COSATU, including the leadership of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, have called for more radical reforms aimed at nationalization of the mining industries and the transfer of arable farm land for the benefit of the people.