Friday, 4 July 2014

Lessons from the 2014 strike on the platinum belt

(It's too early to determine the full significance and impact of the 2014 platinum belt strike. This article, which appeared in the media on 4 July 2014, explores some of the issues and should be read alongside other assessments, especially those that seek to grapple with the root causes of the rise in militant industrial action.)

The strike on the platinum belt has ended and it’s time to extract some lessons for broader society.
A key question that arises is whether the mine owners believe they could have handled things better. At least one mine executive was asked in a radio interview why they did not offer the R1000 a month basic minimum wage earlier, instead of refusing to budge from R800 over many months. The response was that that was now “water under the bridge” and that looking ahead was all that mattered.
Last week Implats spokesperson Johan Theron conceded that the settlement was good for workers and “not unworkable for us”, quelling fears that it was unaffordable for companies.
The lengthy strike confirms the wider problems with regard to labour relations in South Africa. Compared to the early nineties, today there is arguably less labour relations expertise in corporations. Labour relations professionals have generally been replaced by so-called ‘talent managers’.  Furthermore, virtually no business schools provides specialist labour relations programmes in the mould of those presented by Loet Douwes Dekker, an academic who challenged business professionals to think out of the box when engaging with labour.
The AMCU strike also underscores the grim assessment of two labour relations experts. Sakhela Buhlungu last year called for a commission of inquiry into the labour relations system. He noted that employers and unions more frequently used force rather than persuasion to get their way. And Eddie Webster remarked that the labour market in many ways resembled the situation that existed in the mid-seventies. Key features, he says, are high unemployment, a low-wage economy and heightened adversarialism.

The strike brought suffering to affected communities, eroding social capital. At the same time, it rekindled solidarity between civil society organisation and labour. The Gift of the Givers and stepped in to provide relief in the communities impoverished by the long strike. Other organisations also organised solidarity activities. The question for the future is: what if service delivery protestors unite with strikers in one of the South Africa’s key production nodes. The result would be a “perfect storm,” no doubt fuelled by inequality and extreme poverty.
The strike became a dilemma to some role-players: The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and COSATU struggled to formulate a response. In the end, COSATU remained largely silent even though champions of free enterprise used the strike to demonise demands for meaningful wage increases and to call for a reduction of union rights. NUM missed the opportunity to support fellow mineworkers by, for example, contributing to the strike support fund. In the end, NUM broke its silence to join government in calling for an end to the strike.

The ANC had a two-sided response. Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramathlodi did very well to intervene, forcing parties to get back to the table to discuss solutions. On the other hand, the ANC's Gwede Mantashe stirred a hornet’s nest when, incredibly, he blamed the strike on “foreign forces” who were intent on weakening South Africa’s economy.
With the strike ended, where do we as a society go from here? What will be the ripple effect in the labour relations system?

There is talk of measures to restrict the space for trade unions to embark on strike action. Spokespersons for big business favour changes to the labour relations act to control strike action. And some in government agree, although indications are that trying to putting a lid on union activism at a time of heightened inequality may exacerbate rather than diminish conflict.
In the wake of the strike, government is also applying pressure to the two bodies aimed at encouraging co-operation between social partners. Through Ramatlhodi, government has suggested that the National Economic Development and Labour Council as well as the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration should share the blame for the length of the strike. The accusation does not seem fair, but a review of these bodies may lead to new powers that allow them to investigate the split over time between wages and profits in key sectors.
Unions are emboldened for the period ahead. AMCU believes the strike has effectively highlighted the dismal wages and living conditions in the mining sector. It is confident about playing a key role in securing more fundamental changes in the years ahead. Learning from the strike, more trade unions are now starting to refer to actual rand values rather than simply percentage points in framing their wage demands. By doing so, they get the public to understand how wages have stagnated and that, in many cases, a ‘double digit’ increase translates into little more than R200 a month.
It is not clear what lessons the captains of industry have learnt from the strike. So far one concession is that, as specialist lawyer Johan Olivier put it, companies should “show sensitivity when financially rewarding executives while refusing double digit increases to workers”.
For their part, the police forces will need to continue to build on their capacity to deal with violence and crowd management issues that flow from strikes. They need to maintain a fine balance – prevent violence while respecting workers right to organise. Apart from equipment and relevant policing skills, the police service also need highly skilled interlocutors who can interpret the workers responses, concerns and perceptions in times of crisis. 
If we can address fundamental issues raised by the strike – poor labour relations and the need to increase wages and share wealth at a faster rate – we may yet come to see the 2014 miners’ strike as beneficial rather than damaging to South Africa.

Frank Meintjies

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