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2014-05-18 15:00

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Mines’ strikebreaking campaign goes round in circles as union stands firm

As Lonmin’s attempt to reopen its operations in Marikana seemingly failed this week, court papers show how the united front of the strike-hit platinum mines has collapsed.

Lonmin, Impala Platinum and Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) are not only divided on how, but if, they should break the 16-week strike.

Although Lonmin has been at the centre of the storm, Amplats has taken the most radical departure from normal collective bargaining by dispatching a “personal wage offer letter” to each of its employees. And unlike its peers, it explicitly offered back pay as an incentive.

According to SMSes sent out to employees, which have been reproduced in court papers filed by mine workers’ union Amcu, Amplats advises employees to pick up the letters at offices of The Employment Bureau of Africa or at its mines.

The company has also promised that strikebreakers will receive their back pay “after 10 consecutive shifts”.

Unlike Lonmin, Amplats did not qualify the offer by saying it first needs a critical mass of returnees.

Amcu has applied to the Labour Court for an urgent interdict to stop the three companies’ campaigns to allegedly unlawfully bypass negotiations with the recognised majority union.

Included in the court papers are letters between Amcu and lawyers representing the mines. Lonmin lawyers wrote to Amcu saying it “has not negotiated with striking employees”.

According to them, all the mine did was “convey its final offer with a view to unilaterally implement such a final offer should sufficient striking employees return to work”.

On Wednesday, a large Amcu rally near Lonmin’s operations in effect thwarted the return to work.

That same afternoon, Lonmin rushed to the Labour Court in an attempt to expedite the finalisation of the interim interdict it received against Amcu at the beginning of the strike.

Lonmin, Impala and Amplats all received similar interim orders in February that make Amcu and its members stick to the picketing rules that had been set at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.

Among other things, strikers are not allowed to block workers trying to enter the mines.

Confirming the court application, Lonmin spokesperson Sue Vey said: “We are hoping to get them to manage their members and prevent violence.”

The application was briefly heard on Thursday morning but according to Amcu’s lawyer Larry Dave, it only achieved a slight rescheduling of the hearing to late next month.

On the same day, Lonmin told a press conference it is considering further court applications against the strike. This follows Amplats’ earlier attempts to sue Amcu for damages and fine its leaders for contempt of court for allegedly disregarding the interim orders from February.

Impala on the other hand disavows any intention to restart operations or implement its offer without Amcu being on board. According to its spokesperson Johan Theron, there is a “profound difference” between Impala’s strategy and that of its peers.

Impala has not made individual wage offers and is not accepting individual returnees or reopening any mining operations.

It has polled workers, also via SMS, about the standing wage offer, but these SMSes then plead with workers to get Amcu to accept the offer.

Impala is “not at all” asking employees to accept the offer themselves, according to Theron.

The mine accepts that it is practically impossible to guarantee the safety of strikebreakers. “We can only manage security at work,” Theron told City Press.

But Amcu is not buying the distinction.

In its court application, it says Impala is, “by implication”, asking workers if they accept the offer, which still undermines Amcu’s role as the recognised union.

In its Labour Court application, Amcu’s basic argument is that the mines’ tactics breach the collective agreements Amcu has with all three of them.

These agreements stipulate bargaining procedures and designate Amcu as the bargaining agent.

In a letter addressed to the CEOs of all three mining companies on April 29, Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa called the campaigns “tantamount to

union bashing?...?the results of which will be dire”.

The letter continued: “We place upon you that any quarrel which may erupt among our members as a result of your unholy tactics, Amcu should not be blamed but yourselves.”

This warning has turned out to be prescient after three Lonmin workers and one security guard were killed last weekend, with reports of intimidation at Marikana rife.

Last Saturday, Amcu’s lawyers wrote to the companies’ lawyers demanding that the SMS campaigns stop – and asking for face-to-face meetings with the companies on Thursday.

Reuters reported this week that after Wednesday’s false start, Lonmin announced it would temporarily stop sending the SMSes for “security reasons”.

It is impossible to estimate the reach and effect of the strikebreaking campaign.

The companies are not making public the results of their polls or individual offers, except to vaguely indicate there is “overwhelming” support.

Lonmin’s Vey said it would be “counterproductive” to publicise the numbers and the real test of the campaign will be how many people show up at the mine.

But based on the scant worker attendances this week, Lonmin’s threat that it would soon need to consider “restructuring” might be put to the test.

According to Impala’s Theron, making SMS voting results public would only “pour fuel on the fire”.

Approximately 60% of Impala’s roughly 28?000 employees were registered to participate in the company’s poll, he said.

But he admitted that a “much lower number” voted after Amcu’s fierce campaigning against the process.

Lonmin aims for June

In an interim results report to shareholders on Monday, Lonmin emphasised it wants to be up and running by June after time is spent ramping up.

The plan now is to restart the company’s concentrators this month and start processing the pipeline of material that was left when operations shut

down on January 23.

By next month, mining could resume - if the current campaign to break the strike works and the ramping-up process begins.

But Lonmin also tried to assure investors that, should the strike continue, it has another plan, which would involve “restructuring” to save cash.

In its results, Lonmin estimates the cost of the strike up to the end of March at $164?million (R1.7?billion), mostly due to the fixed costs incurred while there is no production.

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