Numsa pulls a fast one

Union ‘capitulates’ to demands made by employers locking out workers, then gets Labour Court to declare lockouts unlawful

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) believes it has managed to outmanoeuvre the employers that rejected last year’s wage deal and countered with lengthy lockouts of Numsa members.

The factories took part in a lockout called by the National Employers Association of SA (Neasa), a minority employers’ group that refused to sign the wage deal that ended last year’s strike.

Lockouts are companies’ legal tools to pressure workers into concessions, in the same way that workers are entitled to strike.

By December, diehardcompanies were still locking out workers when Numsa “capitulated” to their demands.

Numsa, however, only did this after making sure the capitulation had no practical effect and then successfully proceeded to the Labour Court to have the lockouts declared unlawful.

“It doesn’t mean anything at all,” said Numsa’s coordinator for the sector, Steve Nhlapo.

“It can’t affect anyone. The main agreement supersedes all other agreements. The tactic could only work once the minister had accepted the main agreement,” Nhlapo told City Press.

This is despite Neasa this week claiming that its members were all entitled to the drastic wage-cutting concessions.

This is because Numsa had, in writing, capitulated “unconditionally” to Neasa’s demands to end the lockout.

That is true, but Numsa is arguing that it doesn’t matter when the main wage deal in the sector gets extended to nonparties by the minister of labour.

This was done effective January 5.

The strike in the metals and engineering sector lasted one month and led to a wage deal between Numsa and the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation (Seifsa) at the end of July.

Several dozen employers belonging to Neasa, however, maintained a lockout of workers for months afterwards.

In September, trade federation Cosatu counted 499 locked out employees at 39 “maverick employers”. In December, there were still 19 factories locking out workers, affecting about 350 Numsa members.

These represent a minute fraction of Neasa and an even tinier fraction of the metals industry.

Neasa announced that its members would nevertheless “hold” Numsa to its concessions.

The deal they were holding out for, and which Neasa claims must apply for all its members, would give all workers a 7% raise instead of the 10% many workers are getting under the main deal.

More importantly, Neasa demanded an extreme concession on entry-level wages – a 50% cut in minimum pay for the bottom three job grades for newly hired workers.

For the lowest “general” jobs, this means cutting the minimum wage from about R5?500 down to R2?250 a month – similar to the minimum wage for domestic and farm work imposed through sectoral determinations in South Africa.

This demand for a halving of the lowest minimum wages for new workers is an old one. It is usually also one of the initial demands by Seifsa when negotiations begin – much like Numsa always starts out with a demand for a 20% increase, knowing full well that it will eventually settle for half of that.

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