NUM needs its thinking cap

2013-06-03 10:00

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Union’s failure to adequately address wage demands could lead to further loss of membership to feisty rivals Amcu

The flurry of reports in the media about the huge 60% wage increase the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is seeking for their members at the bottom end of the industry in its annual wage negotiations, has imparted a sombre and dramatic note to it.

But how informed, wise and realistic are such high wage increases, especially within the context of the financial implications of other high demands the NUM has made, such as the huge living-out allowance increase, and the dire state of the mining industry and the broader economy?

I have a definite sense that if the NUM fails or refuses to adequately reflect on these demands, and review and adjust them, it might well end up, ironically, with a further loss of membership to its feisty rival and rapidly rising Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

Ironically, despite the strenuous attempts by the NUM to deny that these demands are to a large extent meant to stem and even reverse the massive loss of membership to Amcu since the cataclysmic events of Marikana last year, this probably correct interpretation persists in many quarters, including outside the industry.

The fact that the NUM’s 60% increase is more than double Amcu’s 22% wage increase demand in 2012 seems to strongly suggest that it has been influenced by the shocking loss of membership to Amcu.

In fact, it is precisely against this regretful background that the NUM negotiators and leadership might well end up with egg on their faces and a further weakened union, which could lead to its demise.

Now is, therefore, a critical moment for the NUM to very carefully reflect upon. Why is a carefully defined wage-negotiation strategy now imperative and in fact crucial for the union?

One, aware that their union has already been very seriously weakened by the unprecedented growth of Amcu in the industry in less than a year, the NUM’s rank and file membership might think that they could obtain even bigger increases than Amcu did last year, by the sheer force of their militancy and the grudge they probably have towards them.

But unguided militancy can also severely damage and even break a union, especially one already reeling from its decimation in some key mines and in an industry already in serious trouble and in decline. Unbridled militancy behind these demands in an already precariously perched union, broader labour movement and industry is not what the NUM needs now. It is definitely going to prove counterproductive.

Key and critical in this regard is for its leadership to prevent further debilitation and ruin.

Two, to make demands that are unrealistic and unrealisable may itself turn against the official leadership, especially in light of the inevitable resistance from the mining bosses, in an industry already long in decline.

It will lead as inevitably to huge and embarrassing compromises by the NUM when the going gets really tough in the negotiations.

This will hardly inspire miners whose own confidence has been severely dented by the loss of membership and a leadership whose handling of the Marikana tragedy in 2012 was criticised.

Strong leadership does not mean succumbing to unrealistic and unrealisable wage increases, but effectively showing members why a different approach was necessary under the circumstances.

Besides, as an experienced trade union, the NUM should know that even if the mining bosses finally agreed reluctantly to a 30% wage increase, it could lead quite soon to retrenchment notices, especially in the wake of massive job losses already over the past two decades.

This will be yet another big blow to a union already in serious decline.

» Harvey is an independent political writer and a former Cosatu unionist

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