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South Africa Mine Shooting Puts Union Politics Center Stage

  • Anita Powell

Miners celebrate their release from jail at Ga-Rankuwa Magistrate's Court, Pretoria, South Africa, Sept. 3, 2012. Workers that were arrested at Marikana were released after charges of murder and attempted murder were withdrawn.

Miners celebrate their release from jail at Ga-Rankuwa Magistrate's Court, Pretoria, South Africa, Sept. 3, 2012. Workers that were arrested at Marikana were released after charges of murder and attempted murder were withdrawn.

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s powerful union movement is showing its stress under pressure as platinum miners continue a three-week long illegal strike. Violent clashes at the beginning of that wildcat strike led to 44 deaths, among them 34 strikers shot dead by police. And a militant union says it has refused to sign a peace accord that would pave a path for negotiations between unions, workers and mining giant Lonmin.

There is uncertainty about what may happen next. But one thing is clear: the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Unions (AMCU) is angry.

"We have been used by the management before when they sent us to the mountain to say one thing to the workers and the next minute they [reneged] on their commitment, leaving us with a rotten egg on our face," said union president Joseph Mathunjwa, explaining why the militant South African trade group refused to sign a peace accord with other unions and Lonmin platinum mine management after weeks of illegal strikes.

Strikes on a hilltop next to Lonmin’s mine in Marikana turned violent, leading to a deadly August 16 police shooting that left 34 workers dead.

"As far as we are concerned, this peace accord flies in the face of fairness and it goes against the very grain of what it purports," Mathunjwa added.

What isn't clear, however, is what the AMCU intends to do as South African platinum miners stay away from work for a third straight week and fears grow of building violence and political backlash.

Officials from the the union, which has been blamed -- or credited, depending who you ask -- for starting the strike, would not say Friday whether they would urge workers to return to the job by a Monday deadline that is stipulated in the peace accord.

“The deadline of Monday is made by those who are signatory to the police accord so I think that question should be channeled to those who have signed that commitment,” Mathunjwa said.

Instead the union is holding out for Lonmin to make an offer toward workers' demands of a three-fold salary raise to $1,500 a month.

A rival union, the powerful, established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), has repeatedly said that this demand is ambitious, and Lonmin has said it is unsustainable.

AMCU on Friday accused the NUM and other groups that signed the accord of being “sweetheart unions.”

For its part, NUM has said AMCU’s decision to not sign the peace accord “sends the wrong message to the workforce, a message of divisions and lack of common purpose.”

No one really knows what will happen next in this saga that has shaken the nation to its core. This course of events has exposed rifts in the South Africa's powerful labor movement -- and the nation’s largest trade group says this internecine fighting won’t help workers.

Patrick Craven, a spokesman for the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), says AMCU is part of a long tradition of breakaway small unions which come in with a bang -- and then fizzle out.

“In the long run, we think these unions will not last," Craven said. "But in the meantime they can be very, very damaging, to have these divisions within the union movement, which some employers will not hesitate to exploit and try to play off one group of workers against another, which is clearly not in the interest of any workers... but which are also not in the interest of any serious employer, because having situations which can lead to what we saw in Marikana and building up to it is not in the interest of anyone in South Africa.”

The head of COSATU, which counts some 2 million members, has said that the movement is facing “a huge threat to workers’ unity” and named AMCU as one of the culprits.

Unions hold great importance in mineral-rich South Africa, which also has a large unskilled workforce. The nation’s powerful labor movements started during the apartheid era in a bid to protect workers, and to this day, unions command great power and political clout.

But some of the workers at Marikana have been turned away from unions altogether, forming their own group to negotiate directly with Lonmin. Craven, the COSATU spokesman, says their chances of success are slim.

Whatever happens, the eyes of the unions, and the nation, will be on that dusty mine on Monday as workers decide what to do.

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