The Amplats workers’ committee dilemma | by Benjamin Fogel

by Nov 13, 2013Magazine

The Amplats workers’ committee formed during last year’s Marikana wildcat strike on the platinum belt. The Amplats strike did not begin because of the events at Lonmin; it arose out of a long-running dispute between workers, NUM and Amplats. Since June 2012 workers at Amplats were involved in continuous engagement with NUM and management and went on strike on 11 September after deciding that NUM was incapable of taking up their demands with management.

It is important to differentiate between the specific causes of the strike at Amplats and the broader breakdown of relations between workers and NUM on the platinum belt. Last year’s wave of strikes began not in August, but in March, with a strike at the Impala platinum mine, moving on to the events at Lonmin and eventually culminating in the Amplats strike beginning in September.

Like the strike at Lonmin, the Amplats strike was not driven or directed by AMCU; the majority of workers only joined AMCU after the strike due to management’s refusal to engage directly with the workers’ committee. This led to the eventual incorporation of the workers’ committee within AMCU. As one of the members of the committee put it to me, they had a choice between starting a new union and joining AMCU to further their struggle. ‘We go on strike as AMCU but will remain in workers’ committees’, he said. But the organisational power of the workers’ committees has dwindled over time.

The shafts that have been closed down by Amplats were those in which the majority of worker leaders worked. The relationship between AMCU and workers’ committee is not too rosy, while all of the worker leaders are members of AMCU and most are employed as full-time shop stewards, earning quite a bit more than the average worker. Some of the workers’ committee structure remains but as much of it has been incorporated into AMCU, it is unclear to what extent the workers’ committee can continue to function as an independent body.

This fits in with the general pattern in the history of workers’ committees on the platinum belt, which predates that of NUM in the region. Committees fluctuate between patterns of fragmentation and solidarity. During strikes and other direct confrontations with management they function as a unified force leading workers’ struggles. But at other times the committees begin to fracture and dissipate into union structures, or simply stop meeting.

While the committees often don’t disappear entirely and may be reactivated or reformed in times of crisis, during these periods of fragmentation they are weak and divided, often concerning issues relating to unions – as has been the case at Amplats.

According to Amplats 3,300 workers would have been retrenched, down from the 14,000 Amplats was claiming it would have to get rid of back in January. It seem as though the latter figure was part of an Amplats media strategy to spin the true number of workers they thought they could get rid of with significant backlash as a victory of sorts for workers, because it was substantially less than the original figure of 14,000.

Furthermore it is part of the more general attempt to spin the narrative that the crisis in the platinum industry is a result of irrational and greedy demands made by workers who don’t understand the economic reality and are unwilling to play by the established rules, instead resorting to ‘illegal strikes’ and ‘violence’ that seriously threatens the future of the industry and undermines the rule of law in the country as a whole.

This crisis in the industry instead stems from oversupply, a direct result of bad management, and subsequent dysfunctions in the production cycle of platinum. In essence, too much was produced when the platinum price was high without considering the consequences of a drop in price following the collapse of demand in international markets.

In reality, workers, rather than being unwilling or unable to meet management’s productivity demands, have increased productivity year in and year out. In many cases they have offered to take direct responsibility for productivity at several shafts at Lonmin and Amplats, but this has met with a blanket refusal from management.

Like at Lonmin, AMCU generally views independent worker organisation as a threat to its leadership, and is largely hostile to attempts to reorganise AMCU on the basis of a more democratic, participatory structure after the mass influx of members following Marikana. The fear is that this will ‘politicise’ AMCU in the sense that it will make the militancy of workers routine and embedded within the union. This would jeopardise their relations with a hostile mine management.

AMCU itself demonstrates a measure of hostility to political organisations such as the Democratic Left Front (DLF), the Workers and Socialists Party (WASP) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). AMCU doesn’t want these political organisations to gain enough traction among workers to directly politicize them. Political in this sense means for AMCU either institutional militancy on behalf of a union or attempting to channel the energy of its members to wider political projects beyond the confines of a narrow ‘bread and butter’ trade unionism.

Both at Amplats and Lonmin AMCU has had to fight tooth and nail to secure recognition as the majority union. The union’s leadership has prioritised ‘normalising’ relations with management in the sense that they want a constructive working relationship with management both to secure their own position as the dominant union in the platinum belt and to prevent NUM from returning.

What remains of the workers committees are seen by workers as a check on AMCU, and as an independent (but not hostile) force committed to workers’ power that can both ensure that AMCU is truly receptive and representative of workers’ demands and prevent it from degenerating in a similar fashion to NUM. But this appears to have been put aside as the workers’ committees have been almost completely absorbed into AMCU’s structures .

Workers at Amplats largely identify themselves as AMCU members and have faith in the leadership’s ability to take up and fight for their demands. But they are by no means blind followers of Mathunjwa. Instead they are attempting to further their demands, through AMCU, to oppose the shaft closures at Amplats at all costs. As one of the workers’ committee members put it: ‘AMCU is new. We are expecting this, we joined AMCU and will leave if AMCU fails.’

While the primary demand expressed during last year’s strikes was for a greatly improved basic wage, it would be misleading to reduce the strikes purely to a wage dispute. Beneath the surface was the issue of a union (NUM) that was either unwilling or unable (or both) to representing workers’ interests adequately. In this is contained the disturbing fact of the failure of representative institutions across the country and the cooption of workers’ supposed representatives by capital. The collapse of NUM forced workers to bypass the existing labour relations framework by taking their demands directly to management.

The significance of this is contained in the fact it is both a direct challenge to the established labour relations framework post-1994 and an indication of a new militant workers’ consciousness emerging on the platinum belt. Workers are increasingly calling into question not only issues at workplace, but the ruling party’s commitment to the working class as a whole. It is the view of many workers that NUM’s degeneration and its own role in COSATU and the tripartite alliance are not unconnected. NUM’s leaders have devoted more energy to COSATU faction fights and ensuring their own advancement within the ANC than to workers’ struggles.

The central political question on the platinum belt is whether AMCU will respond to pressure from below and take on management through embarking on strike action, as it did at Amplats. If AMCU fails to do so it risks alienating its new members and being regarded in much the same fashion as NUM is.

It has emerged from its first major test somewhat victorious after embarking on an eight-day strike at Amplats.

According to president Mathunjwa, ‘It was agreed that voluntary severance packages would once again be offered to all mine employees, while the company would still employ 1,250 of the 3,300 for six months as permanent employees with full benefit’.

While this ‘victory’ isn’t absolute and it appears jobs will still be lost at Amplats, the reaction of the business media is telling. Economists and analysts have been claiming that Amplats surrendered to AMCU and that this will both put off investors and setting a worrying precedent in the platinum industry, as it will surely encourage future strikes. However, it does show that the most successful course of action is to confront management directly rather than repeating the closed-door negotiations preferred by NUM.

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