The strike committees: Organising against all odds | by Amandla! correspondants

by Jan 21, 2013Magazine

amandla-28-committeesWhether the aftermath of Marikana will spell the downright end of the National Union of Mineworkers, the resentment against the traditional structures of bargaining and the union leadership is palpable in the platinum belt, sometimes bordering on murderous anger. The Marikana massacre and the miners’ revolt have raised hard and serious questions on the labor movement’s capacity to represent workers adequately during times of high insecurity. NUM’s position as the traditional vanguard of the mines has fundamentally been challenged, and the crisis that the biggest union of South Africa is going through might signify a real shift in industrial relations. Are we moving away from the hegemonic trade regime, and if so, to what? Amandla! reports on workers’ sentiment and organization at the heart of the strike.

On a quiet Sunday morning, workers’ strike committee leaders from various mines gathered under a tree in a Rustenburg public park to plan a united front on their salary demands. It was early October and mining strikes had ensued for more than a month already. Among them was underground winch operator Evans Ramokga. He started working in January 2011 at one of five Anglo-American Platinum (Amplat) mines around the Rustenburg area in the North-West Province.

Strike leaders agreed that their battle with mine management would be fought without union assistance. Ramokga said that at Amplat, newly elected strike committee leaders, representing workers’ demands, drew up a memorandum that they handed to the mine’s management. The latter wanted to hear nothing of workers’ strikes. ‘The management told the police about the strike. Each and every time we had meetings the police would disperse us,’ alleged Ramokga. ‘But we continued with our meetings. NUM started holding meetings to prevent people from going to our meetings; they were trying to stop them, which had a backfire effect. The workers said you are supposed to support us as our leaders, we are the ones who put you there, you must know from today we are going to represent ourselves. It doesn’t matter which union you are from, we are combined, we are one.’

After the Rustenburg meeting, a drive around Amplat mine with Ramokga revealed police tanks monitoring the area. ‘They want to make sure mine workers don’t vandalise the property,’ said Ramokga. He added: ‘Police have been brought in from other parts of the country. During the day they shoot us with rubber bullets. They use real bullets at night. But workers are not violent.’

Phillip Mntombi, a strike leader from the Samancor mine in Mooinooi, about 25km from Rustenburg, meanwhile detailed how their strike committee planned daily meetings with mine workers. He said strike committees were formed to coordinate action after unions failed to listen to worker’s demands.

‘All the workers go to the meetings, then we talk about the problems of the mine. We are 13 strike leaders for the three different Samancor operations. We were chosen by other workers to represent them and meet with management,’ said Mntombi.

‘It’s not easy. The biggest challenge is the police and security. If they get someone alone, past 7pm, they beat us. They beat a guy a few days ago. He went to the jail for a day. The magistrate released him. I don’t know why he was beaten. He went to buy paraffin to make food at his house.’

Strike leaders who met in Marikana had formed the National Strike Committee (NSC) to shut down platinum, gold, coal, iron and diamond mines countrywide until their salary demands were met. They had journeyed from Gauteng, Limpopo, North West and Free State mines. A range of voices at that meeting aired their demands.

Makhalemele Motaung, representing mineworkers from Harmony Gold Mine in Gauteng, said at that meeting that at least 7,000 miners had taken strike action that would continue until they were paid R18,500 a month.

‘We are tired of the unions. We know our agenda and how to operate,’ said Motaung.

Sole Malejane, a development and construction worker at AngloGold Ashanti mine in Gauteng, said their 24,000 workers were on strike at the ‘deepest mine in the world’.

When asked whether the leaders will remain in those structures and how the strike committees will continue to exist and meet, the responses aren’t unified. Some strike committees would want to become permanent structures, others will possibly entrust a new union. Some leaders say they could individually see themselves as shop stewards or as active members of a different union than NUM. As one woman leader says ” we don’t need unions until management comes to us and gives us the increase, thereafter we will decide which union we want. Personally I don’t want to stay on the leadership committee because the temptations are too big. We’ve seen what happens to union officials once they’re in the structure.”

For now, in most mines, the worker committees continue to meet to discuss worker issues, wage increases and living conditions. Most people belong to neither union, or they have filled up membership forms for AMCU that will only be valid starting 2013. The shafts are run by fluid and self-sufficient worker committees. They sustain themselves because of an ever-present possibility of a crisis, even if people are back at work. The strike leaders’ phones never stop ringing. And even if some of them don’t feel comfortable representing the workers on all cases or don’t see themselves as permanent leaders, they remain steadfast in the absence of another structure, waiting for an eventual process of election after January.

The end of NUM?

Mdoda maintains that Amcu and other unions had to represent workers “because we don’t have a choice. We’ve been oppressed by the unions. We are fighting for our rights. We have selected individuals to represent us. We are going to find ourselves in a trap because the constitution is binding us to unions,” he reiterated.

Mdoda said that workers did not trust NUM because it allegedly threatened those among them who went on strike. “I am a target. I have been receiving calls from others who don’t tell me their names. They say they have seen my picture in NUM offices. If my picture is there then there is something fishy,” he said.”I have received calls from unknown numbers telling me to stop what I am doing. And telling me that I mustn’t tell people to go on strike. I have not done that. People are striking themselves.”

Evans said worker’s mistrust of union leaders was inevitable. He recalled how mine workers struggled to have their demands met and eventually formed strike committees to lead action they hoped would force management into salary negotiations.

“Workers were in the dark when it came to unions. That’s why we chose to go on strike. If we stuck with unions we wouldn’t know what’s going on,” said Ramokga.

“The strike has been coming up for some time now. The situation on the mines has always been prone to this. Mine workers were unhappy but they needed leaders to stand up for them.” Ramokga said at the height of the strike at least 45,000 mine workers at Amplats went on strike.

Ramokga was elected as a strike leader during this period. The difficulties of this postion soon became apparent, “We were chased off the mines to have meeting in the bushes. Union meetings were usually held in a hall or on a playground at the mine. When we called meetings we had much difficulty. Union leaders were laughing at us and said these gatherings were not legal,” said Ramokga. “NUM said we should go to the bush. So we went to the bush. Then different workers from different unions joined us.” Ramokga said NUM wanted to prevent workers from taking action, not controlled or initiated by the union itself.

“They wanted to convince workers to stop coming to our meetings. But workers were not convinced. Workers wanted money. They said that NUM was blocking our way to get money so NUM should no longer represent us. Workers wanted to choose the workers to represent them,” he said. Ramokga explained that Amplats workers handed “memorandums with our demands to NUM for more than a year. NUM is the main union. Each and every time they didn’t come back with good feedback. They made workers believe that management doesn’t take note of the demands,” said Ramokga.

“We are asking for a meal, underground and safety allowances. NUM took this memorandum and said whenever the bargaining forum opens the door they will see what they can do. We found that even the NUM management was confused. Then we decided to go on strike.” Ramokga said workers “don’t want any unions involved in this matter”. We researched about the unions. When you talk about NUM and Cosatu you talk about one thing. We don’t want Cosatu to come in. Cosatu wanted to talk to us. We rejected them. We don’t want anything to do with political leaders,” he said.

Ramokga said workers were aware that unions were competing for power at the mines, this competition according to Ramokga had created divisions among the workers..

“There is a contest. When the strike has ended we are looking for a union that will be controlled by workers. I am aware that some workers are working with Amcu. Maybe Amcu is worse than NUM,” said Ramokga. Phillip Mntombi, a strike leader from the Samancor mine in Mooinooi in North West province, said workers at their mine “don’t like NUM”. “It was a big failure. We want to negotiate direct with management. We don’t want a union,” said Mntombi. He said that unions would be welcome to “observe with the worker’s leadership” talks with mine management but should “not come to make a decision”. Mntombi referred also to the days when Samancor mine workers occupied the underground mine.

“Some of our workers were sleeping underground for two days. There was no food. NUM refused to come to give us food. Management closed the water. Other people outside went to buy food for the workers,” said Mntombi. “The General Manager of the mine even shot at us that one day.”

He too acknowledged that mine workers needed to work with unions to negotiate with mine bosses. He said if they had to choose a union it would be Amcu because “they are not making demands”. “NUM was a dictator and does not listen to workers. Amcu listens to us. We will work together with the mine management and Amcu because we need to work with a union,” he said.

Even if AMCU is present at some of the mines, as Evans says, “we don’t know anything about AMCU, and we’re not really interested at the present moment. If we see that AMCU is sympathetic to our demands then maybe we can talk about collaboration. After the strike is gone we want a union that will be controlled by the workers themselves. As leaders we don’t want to divide the workers but focus on the issues that matter the most and that kill us. As a leader I would say that I’d rather stay without the unions: they’re not consistent. We thought we had the best and then it was the worst. The constitution supports the unions and managers, not us. They don’t represent us. That’s why we had to be in an illegal strike. We wanted Anglo to come address us and tell us, at least, “we can’t pay you”. But they didn’t even do that. They didn’t do anything. Look at all the NUM people, they make decisions without us and they have all the nice houses, they get all the promotions. They even tell you to hide your injuries when you’re hurt. Some guys say life underground is worse than prison.”

It is clear that it is unlikely that all of the current union options will be less than ideal for mineworkers, union membership should be counterposed with direct democracy in the workplace through the extension and retention of the workers committees that have been established in the process of the strike. If unions want to retain their relevance in the mining sector they would do well to invest in direct democracy at the workplace too.

By Yazeed Kamaldian and Jeanne Hefez 

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