Will Eskom call Numsa’s bluff?

2014-06-29 15:00

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Two strikes could undermine power stations

By Wednesday, Eskom will have to call a major bluff after the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) threatened to call out 9?000 “essential services” workers on an unprotected strike this week.

At the same time, Eskom’s Medupi and Kusile power stations might become bargaining chips in a separate strike by the metal and engineering industries, set to begin on Tuesday.

Numsa this week announced that its members at the power utility will hold a protest march.

“The intention is to move towards a full strike,” says Steve Nhlapo, Numsa’s sector coordinator for energy and non-precious metals. “On Tuesday we will see the response,” he told City Press.

Numsa claims 9?000 members across Eskom, including at its head offices.

“The majority are in the power stations,” says Nhlapo.

Eskom’s current wage offer to unions is 5.6% for three years, while the union’s demand is 12%.

Mediation is scheduled for July?16 at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), but Numsa views this as largely futile without the credible threat of strike action.

The National Union of Mineworkers, which also organises at Eskom, has taken a different tack and called on labour federation Cosatu to help because its Eskom members cannot go on strike.

Minority union Solidarity has distanced itself in this regard from both Cosatu affiliates and has instead offered to lower its demand.

According to Nhlapo, the strike it has called for Tuesday in the metals and engineering sectors could also affect the building sites of Eskom’s Medupi and Kusile power stations. A number of mechanical engineering contractors fall under the sector’s bargaining council, he says.

The slightest threat to once again delay the switch-on date for Medupi is a powerful bargaining chip, but employers in the metals industries seem ready to dig in their heels.

Metals bosses shut out workers

The major employer group in the metals and engineering industry has pre-empted the sectorwide strike being called for on Tuesday – by calling a general lockout that could turn unions against each other and non-unionised workers against organised ones.

The Steel and Engineering Federation of Southern Africa (Seifsa) issued the lockout notice, a rarely used right in South Africa, hours after Numsa issued its strike notice on Thursday.

The effect is that the five smaller unions sitting

at the table, as well as the non-unionised workers, will also lose wages irrespective of whether they join the strike.

The move will force the other unions’ hands, either in support of the Numsa strike, or for a settlement undermining it.

By Friday afternoon, two more unions – Ceppwawu and Giwusa – at the private sector’s largest bargaining council, the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC), had issued strike notices.

Seifsa is by far the largest of the seven employer federations at the table, just as Numsa is the largest of the six unions.

According to Nhlapo, sowing division among the workers is “one intention” of the lockout.

“They think they can divide the workers, but that can create problems if one [union] goes and accepts the offer. It can lead to violence against people perceived as scabs,” says Nhlapo.

Solidarity has challenged Seifsa to recall the lockout notice or face legal action.

According to the minority union, the lockout is legally defective because it is not attached to a demand, but seems simply to be a defensive reaction to the strike.

Solidarity is the only union at the MEIBC that has asked for further talks before a deadlock is declared.

The three-month-long talks at the MEIBC deadlocked at the CCMA last week, leading Numsa to call for the strike. It has roughly 220?000 members in the 400?000-strong industry.

While they won’t be joining the strike, the smaller unions like Solidarity have mostly stood alongside Numsa on the major demands.

The employers, led by Seifsa, still have an aggressive proposal on the table to halve wages for new employees.

This mirrors a deal struck in the clothing sector in 2011 that eventually lapsed after failing to result in increased hiring.

In the metals industry it would cut the lowest hourly rate to R15 (R2?600 a month before benefits) and the rate for artisans to R28.

Unions are also demanding a 12% increase while employers are offering between 7% and 8% increases for different job grades.

Unions are also demanding a complete ban on labour brokering as well as using the Employment Tax Incentive – the new version of the youth wage subsidy finally implemented this year by Treasury.

They are also demanding a housing allowance of R1?000 across the industry.

The sector’s previous wage deal was struck in 2011 after a two-week strike.

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