Strike season looms large in coal and gold

Coal sector already in the thick of industrial action, while the gold sector will be at the mercy of AMCU.

While some of the gold sector mining companies reached an agreement with most of the unions, the coal sector could not and, on Sunday, 30 000 coal sector workers belonging to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) went on strike. According to NUM spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu, the picketing will continue until the Chamber of Mines of South Africa (COMSA) contacts the union to revisit negotiations.

“We obtained a certificate of non-resolution from the CCMA and that means we will be able to strike indefinitely,” said Mammburu on Monday. ”It’s not our intention to prolong the strike, but if the chamber does not contact us, that is what will happen. At this point, the chamber has not contacted us, but our negotiators are on standby.”

The sticking point in the coal sector negotiations is that companies – Anglo Coal, Delmas, Exxaro, Kangra, Msobo and Glencore – have refused to pay workers’ demands of an increase in wages of R1 000 for the lowest paid coal sector workers, and 14% for miners, artisans and officials. Instead the companies have offered increases ranging between R300 and R600 for the lowest paid group.

“R1 000 is simply not affordable,” said COMSA chief coal negotiator Motsamai Motlhamme.

“The offers tabled by the major producers in a CCMA-led process on September 21 range from 7 to 8.5% for the lower category employees, and between 6% and 7.5% for upper category employees.”

Motlhamme added that the impact of the strike has been significant with only pockets of employees coming to work, with little or no production happening at operations.

Another concern will be whether the strike action turns violent as has been the case in recent years, but Mammburu said the NUM is not worried about that happening in the coal sector because, “we have peaceful strikes”.

Legally, AMCU can only strike at Sibanye

The Associated Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has a reputation for being militant in its approach to industrial action. It is the only union that has refused to sign the wage agreements with the gold mining companies.

It appears that the chamber’s plan to have the validity of an agreement hinging on all unions agreeing to the same offer has failed rather dismally, and its initial fears of having one union going on strike while other workers return to work may soon become a reality.

AMCU, which roughly represents 30% of mine workers in the industry, is till deciding to go on strike. And, if it does, it will do so while other unions’ members have returned to work

“If AMCU decides to go on strike and any of our members gets intimidated, or killed, we will hold the mining companies responsible, because it is their responsibility to keep their employees safe. All we are asking is that they protect our members,” said Mammburu.

This could be the reason Sibanye Gold, where AMCU represents 42% of the workforce, has not opted to reach an agreement unless all unions are involved.

“From Sibanye’s perspective it would be less responsible to conclude an agreement which could not be extended to all employees, as this could give rise to workplace friction. For this reason, the company made the offer conditional on all unions accepting it,” said the COMSA’s chief gold negotiator Dr Elize Strydom.

AMCU is yet to announce whether it will be going on strike at Sibanye, AngloGold, or Harmony, where it has 42%, 31% and 16% representation respectively. But, according to Strydom, a strike would only be legal at Sibanye, where a certificate of non-resolution allows the union to proceed on protected strike action if it gives 48 hours’ notice of its intention to strike

The wage agreement concluded with AngloGold Ashanti and Harmony and the three other unions has been extended to all employees and, in terms of the law, this would make any strike unlawful.

“Should AMCU decide to proceed with industrial action on this matter, such action will be unprotected in terms of the law because AMCU and its members are covered by the wage agreement and the companies would seek to interdict such action,” said Strydom.

Centralised collective bargaining did not work

The whole central bargaining process, which started with Village Main Reef (VMR), Evander Gold Mines, AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony Gold and Sibanye Gold negotiating with Solidarity, AMCU, NUM and the United Associations of South Africa (UASA), has seen separate agreements being reached at almost every level. VMR broke away from the negotiations early with an agreement that was promptly signed on terms that were far higher than what the other companies could afford. Then, a final offer was taken off the table because not all the unions agreed, but now a three-year agreement has been reached between three of the four unions – NUM, Solidarity and UASA – with only two of the remaining four companies, AngloGold Ashanti and Harmony.

“The problem with Pan African Resources is that it gave its employees a R1 000 increase at its Barberton mines, but at Evander they are only offering R600. So we are questioning that,” said Mammburu, referring to the stalemate that will see negotiations continue independently between the Evander gold mine and the NUM, which represents 90% of the members at that operation.

Strydom said it was always the producers’ intention and desire to reach one agreement (with company-specific variations) at one time because it would have been untenable for the producers to reach different agreements with different employees in one workplace.

Said Strydom: “It would not be fair or practical. And, in our view, would have led to further rivalry. The producers persisted with negotiations for more than four months in an effort to reach a resolution with all unions. It became evident, however, that this was not going to be immediately possible.

“Because of the specific levels of union representation at each of the companies, it became clear that unions representing the majority of employees had accepted the offer at AngloGold Ashanti and Harmony, and that the deal could be extended to all employees. While this was not the preferred situation, the companies recognised that it had become necessary to finalise a deal in the interests of the companies and employees, and that the possibility of reaching a settlement with AMCU had become slim.”

Despite Moneyweb’s efforts, AMCU general secretary Joseph Mathunjwa could not be reached for comment.

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