The rise and rise of Amcu

2012-08-18 13:26

The role of Gwede Mantashe is revealed in this look at the union at the heart of the trouble

It has to count among any mine manager’s worst nightmares: striking employees who occupy the underground works of a huge coal property.

This happened in September 1999 at Douglas Colliery, one of the oldest mines of Ingwe Coal. The 3 000-strong workforce protested against the dismissal of one Joseph Mathunjwa, chair of the local branch of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The strike was unprotected and lasted for two weeks, during which the mine’s underground section was occupied for 10 days.

The dispute was only terminated once Mathunjwa got reinstated, but he then faced a second hurdle – an NUM disciplinary hearing for bringing the union into disrepute.

These events were the birth pains of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which is mopping up members from the platinum mines around Rustenburg and Brits.

Archie Palane, at the time deputy general secretary of the NUM, was sent to investigate the charge against Mathunjwa, but found the local chair had done nothing wrong. Another official from Johannesburg was sent for the same reason, but he also found no reason to discipline Mathunjwa.

However, Gwede Mantashe, then the union’s general secretary, insisted Mathunjwa appear before a disciplinary hearing he would chair.

Mathunjwa refused, as he had previously clashed with Mantashe over the handling of money paid by employers to a job creation trust. Mathunjwa insisted that an independent person should chair the hearing.

“My membership of the NUM was subsequently terminated,” said Mathunjwa. “I informed the union that I am not a member any more, but retained my mine job as a laboratory assistant.”

Mathunjwa was, however, very popular among the workforce. Among other notable successes, he forced the management of Douglas to implement a bonus system for underground workers. When a worker had died under mysterious circumstances, Mathunjwa forced management to not only deliver the body to the family in Mozambique, but to accompany the body and explain in person the circumstances of his death.

Said Mathunjwa: “When the NUM terminated my membership, I told them that I’m out, but that they should continue on their own and elect a new branch chairperson. They immediately called a mass meeting. They were aware of my battles with the NUM’s head office. At the meeting, the workers decided an injury to one is an injury to all. The whole workforce of about 3 000 resigned from the NUM.”

The workers investigated the possibility of joining other unions, but the culture and philosophy didn’t appeal to them. Eventually, the workforce told Mathunjwa to create a new union. He got help from Jeffrey Mphahlele, a local teacher, to register a new union with the department of labour.

They called it the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. It was officially registered in 2001.

Palane tried to convince Amcu to rejoin the NUM, but Mathunjwa refused.

“I told Archie if he becomes the general secretary of the NUM, we will come back,” he said – something that failed to materialise when Frans Baleni succeeded Mantashe.

Amcu gained recognition at Douglas, but in subsequent years faced an endless struggle to gain recognition in the face of tactics by suspicious employers who were seemingly colluding with established unions to keep them in charge.

Still, Amcu is currently the representative of workers at various mines in Mpumalanga, including coal, chrome and platinum mines, as well as coal mines in KwaZulu-Natal. It also has members at chrome and platinum mines in Limpopo – Two Rivers and Modikwa.

The union is especially well represented among mining contractor companies.

“Mpumalanga is our strongest region, but I think North West is growing strongly. The numbers there may soon overtake the membership in Mpumalanga,” Mathunjwa said.

In the Northern Cape, it is recruiting among contract workers at iron ore and manganese mines.

Meanwhile, analysts and even the NUM are baffled by the rise of Amcu at Impala Platinum Rustenburg, a 14-shaft mining complex with a workforce of 30 000, of which about 20 000 are unionised.

Amcu was widely blamed for the devastating strike in February and March, and the accompanying violence.

It was recruiting members at the gates of some of the Implats shafts prior to the strike only to be removed by security personnel. There was also ample evidence of discontent and even open revolt against the NUM among some workers, such as the rock-drill operators, 4 300 of them who initiated a strike after they learnt about an 18% bonus increase that was given to workers in higher-category jobs.

These events may have ignited the strike, but the stoppage was probably the outcome of problems that had been simmering for years. One such issue was an agreement signed between the NUM and Implats in 2007, which stipulated a 50% plus one member threshold for recognition – practically making Implats a closed shop where minority unions have no rights.

A change had taken place in the profile of the NUM membership over the past 15 years.

The NUM was originally born out of the lowest job categories of South African mine workers, mainly from gold mines. More than 60% of its members were foreigners, mostly illiterate migrant labourers who were not interested in a career path.

Nowadays that number has dropped to below 40%. An increasing portion of the NUM’s membership comes from what can be described as white-collar mining staff. The local NUM structures in Rustenburg, like the branch office bearers and the shop stewards, are dominated by skilled, higher-level workers. They are literate, well spoken and wealthy compared with the general workers and machine operators underground.

During wage negotiations in September 2011, Implats wanted to give rock-drill operators a higher increase than the rest of the workforce, but a committee of shop stewards of the NUM demanded money be split among the whole workforce. Needless to say, there wasn’t a single rock-drill operator on the shop stewards’ committee. The NUM moved quickly after the strike to correct the situation, but it was too late.

It is circumstances like these that become an entry point for a rival union. It is a fairly well-established principle in industrial relations that the interests of different categories of workers differ vastly, especially in extremely unequal societies like ours.

Amcu is here to stay. It has a formidable opponent in the NUM, but Mathunjwa has proven that he and his national office bearers are up for the task.

» This article originally appeared in the Miningmx Mining Yearbook on August 2

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