472 Striking Lonmin mineworkers marched to the Kareen shaft in Marikana outside Rustenburg to demand the closure of the shaft.050912 Picture: Boxer Ngwenya

North West - If the Marikana commission of inquiry highlighted anything this week, it was the intricate tactical moves within labour relations and its legal frameworks, and the power relations between mining bosses, union leaders and miners.

In what circumstances should a collective bargaining agreement, which always has an “escape clause”, be changed? Are monetary allowances to certain workers solely at management’s discretion? How are the interests of specific categories of workers represented in wage talks? And when does a scarce skill not command top dollar?

It seems rock drill operators on the platinum mines fall through the cracks.

Since at least 2009, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has, unsuccessfully, tabled the regrading of rock drill operators at Lonmin from category 4 to 7. This would have boosted their basic salary by about R2 000, up from a basic of between R4 000 and just over R5 000, plus extras, like a living-out allowance and pension and medical aid.

NUM is averse to negotiating special deals, such as only for rock drill operators, preferring instead an across-the-board approach for categories of workers, with a bias towards better percentage increases for the lower-paid.

Singling out for a special deal the rock drillers – who do the backbreaking work crucial to extracting valuable ore from rock – goes against this bargaining strategy, the commission heard.

Meanwhile, platinum mining companies regard rock drill work as a “scarce skill” – so much so that, when Lonmin restructured in 2009, the rock drillers were not allowed to take severance packages on offer.

That, according to NUM national health and safety secretary Erick Gcilitshana, had raised “expectations” of better pay. What added to this was the decision by Impala Platinum (Implats) to up the rock drillers’ guaranteed pay, excluding bonuses, to R9 991, and to regrade them, according to the company, on the basis of a market analysis of their skills.

This followed a violent unprotected strike by Implats rock drillers early last year. It started after it emerged Implats had hiked miners’ salaries in December 2011, about six months after the company and NUM had signed a two-year wage deal.

Word of the April 2012 rock drillers’ wage hike travelled. In June, rock drillers at Lonmin’s Karee operations marched to the company head office, demanding a R12 500 monthly salary.

Karee vice-president Mike da Costa decided to engage directly with them. Lonmin human resources made approaches to NUM which, the Marikana commission of inquiry heard, were rejected, as the process had already started. And at the end of July last year, Lonmin’s executive committee agreed to a rock drillers’ allowance of R750 at Karee, R700 elsewhere, and R250 for assistant rock drillers.

Despite Lonmin advocate Schalk Burger’s argument this week that such allowances were solely a management decision, Gcilitshana maintained that, while NUM could not disagree with more money for workers, the process had been incorrect, as the adjustment was made “unilaterally”, outside the collective bargaining structure.

And all salary matters must be discussed collectively. This had happened a few years ago, when inflation superseded the wage settlement.

Following questions by NUM advocate Karl Tip, Gcilitshana added the wage increase outside the collective bargaining process indicated Implats had not negotiated in good faith, suddenly finding money which it had said was not there during negotiations.

“As NUM we were not happy with the way the company did it. We believe we should have been involved,” Gcilitshana testified.

Meanwhile, an important sub-plot played out at Lonmin’s Karee operations. All 11 000 miners were sacked following an illegal strike in May 2011 over the NUM branch leadership elections, which saw chairman Khululekile Steve ousted.

About 9 000 were re-employed, not reinstated, which under the labour law regimen means the workers did not return to the same conditions and terms of employment. But, importantly, being re-employed meant they would have to rejoin a trade union of their choice.

That’s when NUM lost its majority to the rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). However, at the time NUM retained recognition, as it was the majority union overall at Lonmin, thus remaining bargaining partner.

While Amcu now had a significant presence at the firm, it did not receive even limited recognition, required to participate in collective bargaining, unlike the United Association of SA and Solidarity, trade unions which largely represent white-collar workers on mines.

That set the scene for the collective bargaining in the second half of 2011, a process which effectively excluded thousands of workers, even though they were unionised.

When NUM signed the agreement in October 2011, it had failed again to have rock drillers regraded, had to cut down to R1 850 its R3 000 demand for a housing allowance, and accept an increase about 5 percent below the workers’ initial demand of 14 percent.

Fast-forward to July last year, when Lonmin’s exco approved a rock drillers’ allowance following their march at Karee: co-incidentally, that mining operation had on January 15 recorded its six millionth death-free shift, according to trade union Solidarity.

The direct communication between Lonmin management and rock drillers had set a precedent and made it difficult for unions to be involved.

NUM discovered a backlash against it, with many miners saying they wanted nothing to do with the union. Strikers started gathering at the Wonderkop stadium to press their demand for a R12 500 monthly wage. On August 11, they marched to the company offices, and two people were injured in a shooting at the NUM offices. Thereafter,

roughly 3 000 strikers gathered at Wonderkop koppies – the rock-strewn area where police killed 34 miners on August 16.

The key question before the commission remains: could the killings have been prevented?

Sunday Independent