ANALYSIS-Implats strike unearths big S.Africa labour rift

Tue Feb 28, 2012 8:00am GMT

Quotes

   

* AMCU: NUM too political, too close to management

* NUM: AMCU makes promises it can't keep, workers come back

* Analyst: strikes could signal splintering of trade unions

By Sherilee Lakmidas and Ed Stoddard

JOHANNESBURG/RUSTENBURG, South Africa, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Behind a violent strike at the world's largest platinum mine a battle is taking shape: union ties forged in the fight against apartheid are fraying, and a breed of labour leader is emerging who could destabilise industrial relations across South Africa.

The new kid on the block at Impala Platinum's (IMPJ.J) giant Rustenburg mine near Johannesburg is the little-known Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

In the nearly six-week strike by more than 17,000 workers, the AMCU has been testing the waters against the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), South Africa's largest union with 320,000 members and roots buried deep in the struggle against white-minority rule.

Several workers interviewed by Reuters during a riot at the Rustenburg site this month accused NUM leaders of losing touch with the union rank and file and spending more time playing politics than fighting for workers' rights.

"We don't need NUM any more because they don't help us. They don't talk to the people," said one shabbily dressed, older worker who identified himself as an 'assistant instructor'.

Another miner, well-dressed in a collared blue shirt, said the miners wanted AMCU, not NUM, to resolve their issues.

"The workers want AMCU to speak to the management. I think they will resolve the problem," he said, as others standing on the edge of the conversation muttered their agreement.

The stakes for all sides are high.

A Zimbabwean contract worker was beaten to death last week for trying to go to work, the third man to die in more than two weeks of heightened tensions that have seen 59 others needing hospital treatment.

Implats says it has already lost 80,000 ounces of platinum output to the stoppage, and world prices of the white metal have gained around 14 percent since the trouble started on Jan. 12.

The NUM, a key backer of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) through its parent organization, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), has said it does not feel threatened by the AMCU.

OUT OF CONTROL

One thing is certain: events on the ground in Rustenburg have spun beyond the control of NUM or the police.

What started as a protest by drill operators, after they were excluded from a pay increase granted to other skilled workers, turned into a mass stayaway that resulted in more than 17,000 workers being dismissed.

Implats admits that the emergence of AMCU lies at the heart of the dispute.

“This situation has been aggravated by the rejection of the NUM by a large constituency of its membership, specifically the rock drill operators,” Implats said.

“In our opinion, the socio-economic realities of this group have been exploited and much misinformation used to influence their action.”

AMCU accuses NUM leaders of being too political and growing too close to management in the 18 years that it has dominated mine labour since the end of apartheid. NUM shop stewards are also accused of corruption and being unfair to migrant workers.

“The lines between labour and politics have been blurred,” AMCU national organiser Dumisani Nkalitshana told Reuters.

Such bad blood is not unique to Rustenburg, with the NUM in particular struggling because of its huge size, said Karl von Holdt, a labour relations expert at Johannesburg's Wits University.

"If that workforce is militant and mobilised, it is not necessarily that easy to manage or control. It has always been a volatile situation prone to outbreaks of violence," he said.

CONTAGION?

NUM says it does not fear AMCU, which has links to the Pan Africanist Congress, a rival to the ANC in the anti-apartheid struggle, but acknowledged that the smaller union was trying to recruit in some of the coal fields east of Johannesburg.

AMCU was also involved at a strike last year at a mine belonging to Lonmin (LMI.L), the world's third-largest platinum producer, and is recruiting at other platinum operations.

NUM says AMCU has made promises it cannot keep on issues such as the wages it could negotiate for workers and that members lost to it have come back.

"The NUM is not threatened by AMCU ... They are telling lies. At one stage they took the entire membership of NUM in Limpopo province, and then the members discovered they are not telling the truth and we got back 75 percent of that membership," said NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni.

Mining executives do not share NUM's sangfroid and cite reasons that AMCU's influence could spread.

Unlike the gold mining industry, where miners live in hostels, the bulk of those employed by the platinum industry live in communities next the mines, making it easier for new ideas and movements to spread from mine to mine.

“The Impala workforce are with our people and interact with our people," Neville Nicolau, chief executive of top producer Anglo American Platinum (AMSJ.J), told Reuters.

"We have had to be very careful to make sure that when our people come back to work that we don’t get the start of something.”

The platinum sector is also a tempting target for an upstart union, because unlike the gold and coal industries it does not negotiate industry-wide agreements with unions.

So if workers are disgruntled with their union at one company, a new one can come in and say it can try and get them a better deal. This is a tougher sell when the entire industry has struck a wage deal.

Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said the protracted illegal strike suggests the NUM may be losing its grip.

"The strikes could signal an erosion of the legitimacy of established mine workers' unions and an increased splintering of trade unions," said Africa researcher Anne Frühauf.

"Illegal strikes will likely become more common, especially if workers believe that the NUM failed to represent them adequately at Implats' Rustenburg mine while AMCU's presence - though covert - has brought them gains."

(Writing by Sherilee Lakmidas, editing by Ed Cropley and Jane Baird)

((sherilee.lakmidas@thomsonresuters.com)(+27 11 775 3158)(Reuters Messaging: sherilee.lakmidas.thomsonresuters.com@reuters.net)) Keywords: SAFRICA LABOUR/

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