Attempt to split coal talks raises strike risk
As South Africa's coal miners gear up for crucial wage negotiations, the latest indication by the Chamber of Mines that it is in favour of decentralised bargaining has heightened tensions between companies and unions.
The move could result in strike action early this year as the major unions in the bargaining council, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Solidarity, have declared a dispute over what they say is the coal companies' and chamber's reneging on "a slightly revised centralised bargaining structure to which the unions agreed".
The two unions charged that coal companies and the chamber had unilaterally opted to decentralise negotiations.
"It is now a matter of principle and both unions are prepared to go on strike to express our dissatisfaction and to get the companies to revert to their revised centralised structure," said Solidarity general secretary Gideon du Plessis.
Last week the chamber, on behalf of its members, gave notice that the members want to withdraw from the centralised collective bargaining process. In response, the NUM and Solidarity declared a dispute.
Motsamai Motlhamme, the chamber's head of employee relations, said this week that companies that were in the centralised collective bargaining process were not representative of the chamber's coal membership and covered "just over 17,000 employees, in a sector that employs over 70 000 employees".
Motsamai said the idea of central collective bargaining had changed over the years and "if one looks at the last two rounds of wage negotiations, the companies might as well have been negotiating at company level".
Makwe Masilela, an analyst at BP Bernstein, said there should be delays in the negotiations this season because "commodity prices have improved so unions will try to use that to their advantage. Mining houses will, on the other hand, use it to recoup their losses and those who suspended or reduced their dividend payments will try to reinstate them."
Du Plessis said the delays in wage negotiations would depend on the companies and the chamber.
"If they dig in their heels [about decentralised bargaining], then a strike will follow and the relationship will be broken down and it will merely create a very tense atmosphere," he said.
Motsamai said the chamber had not yet received the official referral notice relating to the dispute unions have declared with coal companies and in the interim it would seek constructive engagement with the unions.