Amcu vs gold mines: Battle lines are drawn

2015-04-27 14:00

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Everything points to yet another dispute about union membership before wage talks get off the ground

The battle lines are being drawn in the run-up to this year’s wage talks in the gold and coal industries.

The deal reached for platinum mines last year after a painful five-month strike set an obvious benchmark for demands in the gold sector.

The platinum and gold mines are nearly identical in terms of their workforces, but the platinum mines have always paid better wages.

To equalise the pay of entry-level underground workers or rock-drill operators employed by gold and platinum mines would require a 24% increase in July.

In cash terms, the pay gap is between 35% and 26%.

The unions are set to make their wage demands known by the end of this month.

Fin24 reported on Thursday that, according to union sources familiar with the matter, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is planning to submit demands for a massive 75% hike in the basic pay of entry-level workers.

“For the basic wage at the entry level, we are planning to demand a raise to R10?000 a month in the first year from R5?700 at present,” said one NUM source, who asked not to be named.

This was confirmed by a second source in the union.

Everything, however, points to yet another dispute about union membership between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and NUM before the talks can even get off the ground.

Amcu claims to represent 40?000 of the 95?000 workers still represented by mines using the Chamber of Mines’ negotiating forum this year. If that is true, Amcu would be, at least, the NUM’s equal in the talks.

However, the chamber insists Amcu represented just more than 27?000 of the 95?000 workers at the end of February.

This might have changed – Amcu has in the past swelled its numbers spectacularly in short periods of time.

Amcu and gold producers met this week to discuss membership figures and are expected to meet again in the next few days, spokesperson for the producers Charmane Russel said on Tuesday.

“The companies and Amcu will meet again to further clarify any areas where there is not a common understanding,” she said.

The chamber’s own statistics on union membership show a sharp increase in Amcu membership after the platinum deal in June last year (see graphic).

Gold Fields has given Amcu a boost by withdrawing its South Deep mine from the forum this year.

South Deep is NUM territory and its withdrawal cost the union numbers at the forum, while Amcu is clearly still gaining them.

The last time the major gold mines struck a wage deal – in 2013 – Amcu walked out. It then tried, unsuccessfully, to improve the deal by launching a strike. That led to a long Labour Court case, which ultimately resulted in any prospective strike being declared unprotected. By then, attention had turned to the platinum mines.

In 2013, Amcu’s main aim was to break the chamber’s informal negotiating forum and instead bargain on a mine-to-mine basis.

The reason was obvious: Amcu completely dominated some major mines, but across the whole sector, it had only 17% of workers as members.

This time, things are different.

Amcu membership in the gold mines surged after the end of last year’s platinum strike led to a settlement that put significantly more cash in mine workers’ hands.

The forum is not a real bargaining council and operates on the basis of a kind of gentleman’s agreement.

In the past, the NUM has allowed the two minority unions Uasa and Solidarity to be part of the talks on behalf of their constituencies higher up in the job grades.

Amcu is known to be less accommodating to the minor unions, which its leader Joseph Mathunjwa has called “apartheid unions” in reference to their historically white membership – and their hold on some higher job categories.

Why gold pays less

According to Johan Theron, Impala Platinum’s spokesperson, the disparity has a number of historical roots.

The much younger platinum industry has traditionally poached workers from gold mines by offering higher wages.

The differential developed at a time when platinum was seen as the more robust “sunrise” sector, while the gold mines were seen as fragile.

This tradition is ripe for a challenge, given how many gold mines are today healthier than the platinum mines.

Until last year, the platinum industry had also never bargained collectively – something the gold sector has done for most of its history.

Collective wage setting is usually blamed for raising wages, but, according to Theron, there is a “school of thought” that it does the opposite because it allows very profitable companies to get wage deals that are also acceptable to less profitable companies.

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