The year of the historic strike

2014-12-28 16:00

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This year will be remembered for the longest and most expensive strike in SA’s history. Dewald van Rensburg takes a look at the platinum strike and other developments that made waves in the labour sector

THE PLATINUM STRIKE

The longest and biggest strike in South Africa’s 150-year-old mining industry overshadowed virtually all other economic developments this year.

The five-month suspension of production in the heart of the South African mining industry automatically cut the country’s economic growth rate. Also, the R5?billion or so in wages sacrificed by strikers affected consumption in North West and in labour-sending areas.

The strike broke ground on several fronts. Not least was the tough stance of the employers, Anglo American Platinum, Lonmin and Impala Platinum, and workers organised under the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

The platinum industry was forced into a previously unheard-of level of cooperation in wage talks, while some of the most creative attempts at strike-breaking in the democratic era were attempted during the strike.

The mines tried to rally strike-breakers from distant corners of the mining region. Anglo, in particular, tried and failed to pursue Amcu’s leadership in the courts.

The ultimate settlement was historic. Besides an unusually large increase, the deal that was struck also challenged two fundamental features of South Africa’s mine labour system.

It narrowed the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers in the mines. It also marked the beginning of the end for the living-out allowance introduced in 2004. (This was the mining industry’s solution to the infamous hostel system.)

The allowances gave workers who decide not to live in hostels cash in hand. But this was insufficient for a decent living and led to mushrooming shack settlements around platinum mines.

The Amcu deal has frozen the living-out allowance. This means its value will diminish over time and it will pave the way for a new solution to providing housing for workers in the platinum belt. The mines believe government should shoulder some of the cost of housing for mine workers.

In any other year, the subsequent Numsa-led strike in the metal and engineering sector – which lasted throughout July – would have been considered a long standoff.

It also brought a fundamental issue to the fore. The minority employer group, the National Employers’ Association of SA (Neasa), refused to sign the wage offer and went to court in the latest of several attempts to stop the bargaining council system that sets working conditions for much of South Africa.

COSATU IMPLODES

Cosatu has been the centre of gravity of South African labour relations ever since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

This seems to be coming to an end, with the labour federation losing, arguably, its two most important footholds in the private sector and its remaining unions facing potential competition.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had already lost its unquestioned domination in the mining sector to Amcu last year.

This year, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) was expelled from Cosatu, taking sympathetic sister unions and much of Cosatu’s remaining private sector relevance with it.

The schism rearranges the trade union landscape by leaving Cosatu as a mostly public sector-focused organisation with less legitimacy in workers’ struggles throughout the economy.

On the other hand, Numsa and its sympathisers are set on expanding and challenging the spaces where Cosatu is still the only real player.

Smaller union battles are cropping up all over the country as Cosatu’s old “one sector, one union” rule banning competition between its affiliates disintegrates.

Numsa has been fighting for a foothold in Transnet in defiance of Cosatu’s member union, the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union. It has also locked horns with Bidvest foodservice, a part of Brian Joffe’s service sector empire, Bidvest.

The showdown will inevitably be in the public sector, where Numsa and its sympathisers have set up a new public sector union that will compete with strong Cosatu member unions in education and health.

But the challenge comes from both sides. Numsa’s former president, Cedric Gina, who left the union because of his conflict of interest with its increasing anti-ANC stance (his wife is an ANC MP), has started a new metal workers’ union to try to win back Numsa’s turf for Cosatu.

The new Liberated Metalworkers’ Union of SA was registered last month and has filed a constitution with the labour department that seems to be a copy-and-paste of Numsa’s constitution.

BARGAINING COUNCIL WARS

This year also saw rising employer attacks on collective bargaining. The big fight revolved around the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC) and the wage deal signed by its dominant members after a month-long strike in July.

The minority employer group in the MEIBC, Neasa, has been trying to block the extension of the wage deal to the sector – a process that is fundamental to the bargaining council system.

The bid was finally dismissed by the labour court at the beginning of this month and Neasa says it will appeal the decision.

The long platinum strike has also reinvigorated calls, mostly from employer groups, to reintroduce compulsory secret strike ballots. The presumption is that many strikes are not supported by many of the workers involved, but imposed by overbearing unions and by threats of violence.

YOUTH WAGE SUBSIDY

One of the most contentious government labour policies took effect on January 1.

The Employment Tax Incentive (ETI), often still called by its original name of the youth wage subsidy, cost the government R1.12?billion by the end of August. This surpassed the entire annual ETI budget of R1?billion.

According to Treasury, this money is the total in tax breaks claimed by 23?500 employers for 209?000 employees.

The ETI has been vociferously opposed by unions.

It has been argued that minimum wage levels set by unions and union-negotiated wages cause youth unemployment, hence the need to incentivise the employers by its introduction.

While the ETI was delayed by union opposition in the National Economic Development and Labour Council, the fight against it has now shifted to the shop floor. Numsa, in particular, has started trying to negotiate wage deals, including a ban on the use of the ETI. But it has had little success.

Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene will have to make a call on whether to keep the incentive when he makes his budget speech in February.

THE NATIONAL MINIMUM WAGE

The setting of a national minimum wage next year is almost a certainty, but this means next to nothing until the amount is determined.

This year, the government kept to its vague election promise to investigate the “modalities” of introducing the national minimum wage.

A crucial question is whether it will complement or replace the complicated system of sectoral determinations that sets wages and employment conditions in sectors that are poorly unionised.

The lowest of these set wages is at about R2?500 a month, which, in effect, creates a logical base for the national minimum wage.

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