File image: Reuters

South Africa's radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) said it had gained representation of most workers at a mine that Aquarius Platinum is closing and that it was willing to go to court to have it reopened.

Aquarius, the world's fourth-largest platinum producer, is the latest mining company for which the militant new union has claimed majority membership in at least one mine - a development that will not be welcomed in board rooms.

AMCU has been waging often violent turf battles for members with the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), tapping into a deepening vein of discontent with the labour organisation, which is seen as too close to the ruling ANC political party.

Aquarius said in late June it was placing its Everest mine on “care and maintenance” - industry speak for closing down - “pending better prices and improved industrial relations”.

“We call on the board to withdraw their decision and reopen the mine,” AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa told a news conference on Monday.

He said AMCU was now the majority union at the Everest Mine with 1,100 members out of the 1,600-strong workforce and that Aquarius had violated labour laws by not consulting with it in a timely fashion over the Everest closure. He said the union was willing to go to court over the issue.

South African labour legislation is often seen as union-friendly, but the AMCU's prospects for success in court may not be great, because companies are careful to act within the law.

Aquarius officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Everest mine accounted for 21 percent of group production in 2011.

Mathunjwa accused management of closing the mine to avoid wage negotiations with AMCU.

“The basic salary is below a living wage. We have asked for an adjustment to get people to a living wage,” he said.

The platinum sector is vulnerable to recruiting drives from up-start unions because unlike the gold and coal sectors, it does not bargain collectively as an industry.

Much of its labour force also lives outside company-controlled hostels, which typically would not allow unrecognised unions to recruit on their premises.

Mathunjwa also said that independent verification of AMCU's members with world No. 2 platinum producer Impala Platinum would begin next week.

Implats officials have signaled they believe AMCU has around half of the 20,000 unionised workers at the company's Rustenburg unit, the world's largest platinum mine which was shut for six weeks earlier this year by labour unrest, a situation that pushed spot prices higher at the time.

AMCU claims it has about 15,000 members at Implats.

Officials at Lonmin, the third-largest producer of the precious metal, said last week that the AMCU now claimed about 5,000 members at its Karee mine.

South Africa is by far the world's largest platinum producer, and the industry has been squeezed between rising labour, power and equipment costs and falling prices while demand is tepid for the metal, which is used to build emissions-cutting catalytic converters in automobiles.

Output has also been hit by a government safety drive.

Aquarius' share price in London was down almost 6 percent on Monday to 43.3 pence. CIBC earlier cut its target price to 50 pence from 75 pence. - Reuters