One of the lesser-known aspects of gold industry recognition agreements signed with the Association of Mineworkers & Construction Union (Amcu) last year was that they committed the union to centralised bargaining when wage negotiations rolled around.
That’s an important obligation for Amcu to meet because the union has won members in the past by staying outside the status quo.
By f latly refusing to sit down with its rival, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Amcu has been able to publicly demonstrate its distaste for a government, which it contends has sold out to big business. “It has acknowledged that centralised bargaining will take place at the chamber [of Mines],” said Johan Olivier, an associate at attorneys Webber Wentzel. “Amcu will be forced to participate in the group.”
The other theory is that Amcu may yet attempt to extract itself from central bargaining if it becomes large enough in the gold sector to challenge the recognition agreements, a view that is considered a possibility by Olivier.
The extent of Amcu support among gold miners is something of a thumbsuck at the moment. According to a report by Standard Bank Group Securities analyst Adrian Hammond in January, Amcu could control as much as 30% in the gold sector.
“We think that the rise in Amcu’s membership for the next round of wage negotiations is likely to make it difficult for the courts to extend a collective agreement between rival unions and producers as was done last year,” said Hammond.
Officially, Amcu’s gold industry membership is estimated to be about 24% from 13% two years ago, with Neal Froneman, CEO of Sibanye Gold, and Graham Briggs, his opposite number at Harmony Gold, believing that the union will increase its presence.
“Amcu has definitely been growing, particularly in the West Rand in the Carletonville area,” said Briggs on the sidelines of the Mining Indaba. “I don’t know all the numbers from Sibanye Gold, but at Kusasalethu Amcu is def initely dominating,” he said of t he company’s West Rand operation.
Said Froneman i n an i nter v iew with Finweek: “I wouldn’t say NUM’s members have l ost f a it h, but it ’s more a case of they don’t think Num represents t heir i nterests as Amcu does which doesn’t have politica l connections.”
Num is certainly feeling the pressure. It is thought that the handing of minority recognition to Amcu at Sibanye Gold’s Beatrix mine was the primary cause of inter-union rivalry which resulted in clashes and injuries to nine employees earlier this month.
Froneman commended both unions for the relatively quick resolution to the violence (although the mine was shut down for t wo days at a cost of R23m to revenue), say i ng t hat it boded well for future dealings.
But a dominant Amcu in a gold industry that cannot support extended strikes in the manner of the platinum sector last year is a potential risk.
“The gold i ndustr y can’t afford lengthy drawn-out strikes. There need to be mechanisms to resolve f uture disputes early,” said Olivier.
The wor r y h a s e x t e n d e d to government and demonstrated i n t he somewhat strange obser vation by the minister of mineral resources Ngoako Ramatlhodi earlier this week that powers to foist so-called ‘ interest arbitration’ on a wage dispute should fall to the labour minister.
“That wasn’t made part of t he amended Labour Relations Act but it is being talked about,” said Olivier.
Joseph Mathunjwa, Amcu leader