The humiliation suffered by the National Union of Mineworkers because of their unsuccessful strike action at Rustenburg platinum mines, Aquarius and Impala was long overdue and couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of people. The bloody nose they received may bring sanity back to the workplace. The strikes, like the other strikes and service delivery protests we had to endure over the past months is largely because of expectations created by the governing ANC and it’s partners in the run-up to the election. In most of the strikes to date unions and their members embarked on strike action, despite receiving wage offers well in excess of the inflation rate. In most cases, the strike action was rewarded with additional small, token, yields by the employer, which inevitably amounted to less than the ultimate losses in earnings suffered by the happy, dancing strikers. NUM, propagators of the construction industry strike and the Crocodile River hostage debacle, have been cock-a-hoop about their successes in holding the country hostage and their successes, which amounted to very little more than victory for the union leaders.
The Aquarius and Impala strikes were however different and can prove a turning point. In both cases, the union representative created expectations of a high increase—reflected in the extreme nature of the demands—with members. In both instances, union leaders eventually agreed to management’s final offer only to find they could not convince their members to accept the offer. Members embarked on strikes at both the mines and NUM leaders found they had no control over the members. A matter of concern to the mining companies because of the threats to life and property.
At Aquarius, fourth biggest platinum producer in the world, the 2700 strikers were dismissed and a process of re-engagement commenced. This created the opportunity to streamline the workforce, still slightly bloated by the feeding frenzy during the last platinum boon. As a result, the union action will probably be 300 -350 job losses. NUM leaders at Aquarius suffered a total loss of credibility with some beaten up and others having to go into hiding. The dismissed workers who are lucky enough to be re-engaged, will probably lose some of their benefits whilst the less lucky ones will go home without so much as handshake, never mind a severance package.
The strike at Impala involved 25 000 people and the situation was slightly more complex. When the Union, after agreeing to management’s final offer, failed to convince the workers to accept the 10% offer, they embarked on a strike. Impala wanting to box to Queensberry rules, applied for a court order to force the workers back to work. The attempt failed, the strike went ahead accompanied by the obligatory intimidation and associated violence. A minority of workers never went on strike, a fact denied by NUM, in a vain attempt to convince the world that solidarity was unaffected. After a few days, it became clear that deep divisions had developed within NUM, acknowledged by an insider after the strike ended. The divisions manifested itself when it culminated in a vicious attack on the deputy president of the union by members, resulting in him losing his eye whilst trying to convince them to go back to work. A branch leader was badly beaten in the same incident. Again, NUM tried to white wash the incident by blaming criminal elements for the attack. They were of course correct in their assertion, the attackers are criminals but they are also members. The divisions became deeper and the disillusionment with NUM grew, so much so that on Monday, a regional representative was held hostage at one of the Impala mines, his clothes were torn from his body before he managed to escape and go into hiding. Following the incident, the entire branch committee was kicked out and a new committee was elected. The new committee went to the rest of the mine and convinced workers, supporting the strike action, to go back to work.
The miners returned to work on Tuesday and the CEO of Impala issued a statement outlining the cost and losses suffered because of the two week strike. He made it clear that attempts will be made to recover cost by cost cutting which will inevitably lead to the closure of marginal shafts and the commensurate job losses. Fortunately, for Impala workers, now facing the prospect of retrenchment they will, unlike the Aquarius workers, receive severance packages, not that they deserve it. Despite this, NUM having to save face declared that the strike action was a worthwhile exercise and a victory for the union.
The divisions, so clearly illustrated in these two cases, mirrors the state in which the Broad church of the ANC in North West and other parts of the country finds itself. Divisions, between the executive, the branches, the regions, left, centre, right and ordinary members, run deep. People are becoming disillusioned by the empty promises and mindless rhetoric. The events in Rustenburg, was a heavy blow to NUM, especially when they hoped the wounds, left by the rift between Mantashe and Palane had healed This time however, the divisions go beyond NUM and extends into the heart of the ANC.
Unfortunately, because of this shortsighted action, the innocent will suffer but that has never a consideration with unions and its members. Because of job cuts to be implemented to compensate for losses suffered and to maintain profitability, some NUM members, who refrained from participation in the strike will lose their jobs. Some loyal workers, middle management and senior management, employees who never strike and have already agreed to zero increases, because of the low commodity prices and thin margins, will be retrenched because of the action of the NUM members. Many of the retrenched managers and senior officials facing retrenchment employ domestic workers who will now lose their jobs swelling the ranks of the unemployed.
Despite the facts staring us in the face, NUM claimed the strike was a positive action. The truth is, there are no winners here. We can only hope those, who selfishly caused this tragedy, learned from their folly. I doubt that though. Subsequent to these strikes, COSATU defiantly defended absurdities such as soldier mutinies and threats by the desperate textile industry to strike, despite being closed down by cheaper and better Chinese imports.
Given our past, this lesson will be forgotten by the time we enter the next election when the next generation of madmen will subject us to new lies and empty promises.