Platinum firms rally?strike breakers

2014-05-04 15:00

Unions condemn actions of employers and claim they not only seek to undermine the values of Amcu, but violate trade union rights

Platinum companies are hoping to rally enough strike breakers to restart production in at least parts of their mines?–?a move that is almost guaranteed to escalate tensions in the industry.

Lonmin and Impala Platinum have confirmed they are, in effect, running an SMS-based referendum among their employees this week.

Lonmin sent out SMSes on Wednesday asking employees to vote “yes” to the offer before Thursday.

Impala is planning to roll out its campaign this weekend or at the latest tomorrow, according to spokesperson Johan Theron.

The mines are trying to figure out if there are enough workers, covering all the necessary skills, who are willing to accept the standing offer and go back to work.

This could allow them to resume mining in some parts of their mining complexes even as the strike, which started on January 23, continues.

The plan is premised on the idea that the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) is misleading its members about the offer that is on the table.

For Impala, the campaign seems limited to SMSes, media advertisements and using the rural offices of The Employment Bureau of Africa (Teba) as information centres.

City Press understands representatives of Lonmin have called miners to Teba offices asking them to indicate whether they want to accept the offer by a show of hands.

Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) has announced a campaign that includes door-to-door visits and mass meetings. This follows the three companies’ announcement more than a week ago that they would “take the offer directly to employees”.

The SMS sent out by Lonmin tells employees that, depending on the outcome of the vote, the return to work can start as soon as May 14.

Lonmin spokesperson Sue Vey told City Press the attempt to get some production restarted is more urgent for Lonmin than for Impala or Amplats.

Impala still has operations in Zimbabwe and Amplats still has its most valuable South African mine up and running.

Impala and Lonmin admit that organising a return to work for a portion of the workforce in defiance of the strike could be dangerous.

“Safety is our number-one priority,” said Vey.

Theron said the move could be “risky”.

But the companies claim their primary aim is not to draw out strike breakers, but to convince Amcu or its members to end the strike formally.

Impala said the results of the voting would first be shown to Amcu to hopefully convince them the strike was losing support.

“We will share that with Amcu although they might not believe it,” said Theron.

The company is hoping for a deluge of “yes” votes that might challenge the union’s repeated insistence that its members have mandated it not to accept the offer.

According to Theron, Amcu’s mass meetings in Rustenburg are attracting a fraction of the workforce and could be misrepresenting the views of the majority.

A large part of the platinum labour force has returned to Eastern Cape and neighbouring countries to wait out the strike.

Theron said about 85% of employees could be reached by SMS and about half the employees?–?15?000?–?have “opted in” to the system enabling them to cast votes.

Amcu is planning a media conference tomorrow to respond to the new developments.

On Thursday, Joseph Maqhekeni, the president of the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), the union federation Amcu belongs to, accused the companies of pursuing “antistrike tactics instead of negotiating with Amcu in good faith”.

“They have now turned themselves into trade union officials and are reporting back to the workers. It is unheard of that the employers do a report-back to workers after wage negotiations are deadlocked.

“Nactu condemns the actions of the mining employers as they do not only seek to undermine Amcu, but to violate trade union rights,” he said.

This turn by the companies makes explicit the allegation that most of the 70?000 strikers are somehow being fooled or intimidated into continuing the strike.

The move also shows how fundamentally the mining industry’s labour relations system has crumbled.

When the wildcat strikes broke out in 2012, companies like Impala and Lonmin flatly refused to talk directly to workers’ committees because that would have undermined their recognition agreements with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

This arguably dragged out the strikes for months because the grievances were directed as much against the NUM as against the companies.

The fact that strikers have not moved an inch from the demand of a R12?500 salary also shows how the routinised wage rounds the NUM used to have with companies are, for now, a thing of the past.

While massive pay hikes have almost always been demanded before wage talks, they almost always were moderated to one or two percentage points above what the companies were offering.

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