9,000 workers – the entire workforce – at Lonmin’s Karee mine in Marikana outside Rustenburg, South Africa, were dismissed on May 24 for participating in an ‘illegal strike’. They were then given until May 31 to apply for reemployment, in competition with new applicants. Lonmin’s mass dismissal of the entire work force at the Karee shaft, followed by selective re-employment, is clearly intended to intimidate the workers, to cause divisions amongst unemployed and employed workers and to crush their militancy. Disgracefully, the bosses are supported in these attacks by the leadership of the workers’ own union, the NUM.
The workers were dismissed on May 24 for participating in a strike declared illegal by court and are now forced to re-apply for their jobs in competition with other unemployed workers. Now a part of them had been re-employed with management indicating that they would eventually hire a total of 9,000 after completing their witch-hunt, according to press reports. But so far 1,400 are still dismissed.
Conditions of reemployment are as yet unclear with contradictory messages from management (the latest claim being that pre-dismissal conditions will remain in place). But a company spokeswoman said “Re-employment is not guaranteed for the dismissed” (The Star, May 26). Workers are also not aware what criteria are used in the selection process. So far 325 workers have been denied re-employment with union activists clearly targeted for dismissal. As newly hired recruits began arriving at the mine on Monday management’s actions have now added the threat of eviction from the hostels to that of unemployment.
The spontaneous strike was provoked by management’s announcement that they no longer recognised the NUM (National Union of Mine workers) Karee branch leadership as it had been suspended by the NUM Regional leadership. The NUM regional leadership refused to accept the outcome Karee workers’ election of shop stewards, informed management and thus in effect invited management to dismiss the workers.
For some time the Karee mine workers had been at odds with the regional NUM leadership. The Karee mine shop stewards had exposed and fought the corruption that has become all too common in the cosy relationship between employers and union representatives within the Rustenburg NUM region, and indeed across South African trade unions.
Workers explain that it was these shop stewards’ refusal to be bribed into being sweetheart unionists and their determined battles to improve working and living conditions that made them very popular among the workers but persona non grata in the eyes of not only the mine bosses but also their own union leadership.
When their term of office expired in April, all but two (who were full-time in the NUM regional offices) shop stewards were reelected by the workers in mass meeting, contrary to the NUM leadership’s claims in the media. The NUM regional leadership refused to accept this, suspended two of the popular shop stewards for unspecified “misconduct” and tried to impose new elections of shop stewards from which those who had already been re-elected were excluded. The strike was provoked when the Lonmin management seized the opportunity to discipline its worryingly combative workforce by immediately itself announcing the NUM regional leadership’s action to the workers.
The mine management had for years sought to co-opt the NUM leaders, but not succeeded in the Karee branch. Draconian attacks on previous concessions to the union were then launched, in the eyes of the workers as a way of trying to discredit the popular, immutable branch leadership. Amongst other things, over-time payment was cut and automatic dismissal instituted for any worker exceeding 21 days of sick leave.
Not only did the NUM leadership outside Lonmin fail to act to prevent the dismissals, it is clear that in practice management’s actions enjoyed the NUM leadership’s support. Despite announcing that “we will make sure that the workers are reinstated” (The Star, May 26) the NUM national spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka then was quoted in the Mining Review on May 27 as saying “Unfortunately, the company cannot have such people and has to let them go” and that the union “would not support those who were on the wrong side of the law.” NUM leaders also claim that the Lonmin dispute was a NUM internal matter which had nothing to do with management – in effect denouncing the strike and condoning management’s draconian action against the workers, siding with the bosses against their own members! When the bosses attack workers in the context of an internal union dispute, the first duty of a union leadership worthy of the name is to defend its members, not to collaborate with the class enemy.
Lonmin has also prohibited workers from meeting in groups of more than seven. Several shop stewards are in hiding as rumours go around that they are to be killed. The NUM leaders at both regional and national level are in effect supporting management’s repression, telling workers that they must just go back to the shafts and accept whatever conditions the bosses are imposing.
Amongst other things workers told the DSM when we visited the mine on May 27:
We tried every way to talk to them. But the regional leadership has not been talking to us members for years, they only communicate through management. It was the mine managers who went around the shaft with a loud-hailer announcing that we now have a new branch leadership, and that comrades had been suspended.
When the regional leadership came, on Friday [May 20], they arrived in a Hippo [an armoured vehicle used by police to suppress protests under apartheid as well as today] surrounded by police! On the Monday they came back when we had a mass meeting, again in the Hippo and with the police. We were all 9,000 of us and we asked them to come out and talk to us, but they refused. Instead they just stuck up their heads and spoke in a loudhailer for two hours. Then they left without giving us a chance to respond.
Then they claimed that they had almost been killed in that meeting, but we were not threatening them.
We asked Vavi [the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) of which NUM is the largest affiliate] to intervene but he refused to come. Instead he just sent an sms saying ‘Vote ANC and everything will be resolved’.
The strike broke out the day after the May 18 local government elections. On election day the Karee mine workers had marched to the local polling station demanding Vavi’s attention.
Betrayed by their union leaders, and under the heel of management intimidation, the Karee workers are however determined to fight back. Applying for reemployment is a tactical retreat to maintain unity and regroup.
The DSM and the Metal and Electrical Workers Union of South Africa (MEWUSA), a union with which we work closely, are in daily contact with the workers. The NUM’s betrayal of their members is so far the most blatant proof of the rot that is eating South Africa’s unions up from within. The NUM is SA’s biggest union with 300,000 members, and formerly one of the most radical and militant of Cosatu’s affiliates. Cosatu was formed in 1985 on a programme of workers’ control and socialism. Today the logic of its class collaboration with the pro-capitalist African National Congress (ANC) and thereby big business, in the negotiated settlement (ending apartheid but retaining capitalism) and with the ANC government is rapidly catching up with its political positions and its organising capacity. Ideologically demoralised, without confidence in an alternative to capitalism, the union leaders seek accommodation with the bosses. Corruption and betrayal of day-to-day struggles have become the hallmark of union leadership. The NUM now stands out not for its militancy but as the most outspokenly rightwing union, currently campaigning against the ANC Youth League’s call for the nationalisation of the mines! Despite its size, it is today more dependent on its investment companies than on membership fees. To protect the mutually beneficial relationship with the Lonmin bosses, the NUM leadership is therefore joining hands with capital and the state in an attempt to whip the Karee workers into submission, and appear prepared to go as far as cannibalising its own branches to succeed.
The DSM has a branch in the making in Rustenburg after establishing MEWUSA there last year (again after 4,000 workers were dismissed from a Murray and Roberts mine as the direct result of their NUM leaders’ betrayal) and is intervening in this struggle with our small forces. With their own union actively hostile, the Karee workers are in desperate need of solidarity. Due to the heavy repression by management workers have not yet been able to meet and agree on demands etc. Below are draft model letters of solidarity and protest.
And protest letters to:
3) Lonmin (the mine owners):
South Africa: tel +27 (0)11 2188300 / fax +27 (0)1 2188310
Model letter of protest to Lonmin
4 Grosvenor Place
Dear Sir/ Madam,
We have learnt of your mass dismissal of 9000 employees – the entire workforce – at your Karee Mine in Marikana, Rustenburg, South Africa. We understand that you had obtained a court order against the spontaneous strike which the workers had embarked on from May 17, 2011, and used this to dismiss everyone involved in the strike, but that you have subsequently re-employed the majority of these workers. About 1400 workers have applied for and been denied re-employment.
We have been made aware that Lonmin has for some time attacked real wages and conditions at the Karee mine – workers testify for example that their over-time payment has been cut and that more than 21 days of sick leave results in dismissal – and has sought to break the resistance of the local branch of the National Union of Mine workers against these measures. It is therefore clear to us that the company seized on the opportunity of an internal conflict within the NUM over the Karee workers’ right to elect their own branch leadership and shop stewards, to actively provoke the strike by interfering in the union’s internal affairs, conveying messages from the union’s regional leadership to the workers. You then had the strike declared illegal – a perfect pretext for mass dismissal and selective re-employment by which you presumably hoped to root out what you in the media have labelled “rogue elements” – who are however known to their colleagues as uncompromising, loyal fighters for their rights – among your employees.
Your management are the ones which have taken a rogue approach by prohibiting workers from meeting in groups larger than seven. Such authoritarian measures and targeting of union activists leave a bitter taste of apartheid repression that your company surely does not want to associate itself with 17 years into South Africa’s democratic dispensation.
We condemn Lonmin’s attempt to break effective union organisation of your workforce. We are confident that as these are unfair labour practices the workers will succeed in overturning your dismissals. We are prepared to campaign internationally to expose the disgraceful methods by which you achieved an operating profit of $230 million last year, including through public protests at your offices in South Africa and in London / in the European Parliament / ……
Model letter of protest to the NUM
National Union of Mine workers
We have learnt, via the Democratic Socialist Movement in South Africa, of your members’ important struggle to defend jobs and effective union organisation at the Lonmin Karee mine outside Rustenburg. We condemn the Lonmin’s management mass sacking (of the entire 9000 workforce!) on May 24, and its subsequent selective re-employment. Seen together with the Lonmin management’s interference in the internal conflict in your union, between its branch- and regional leadership, which appears to have directly provoked the spontaneous strike on May 17, this is clearly an attempt by the company bosses to break the fighting spirit and unity of your members.
We are however shocked to hear of the conduct of the regional leadership of the NUM, who appear to have actively collaborated with management to suppress the Karee workers re-election of the shop stewards they trust as having lead struggles resulting in concessions from management and having refused to take bribes from the Lonmin management. The reports which we have received of you speaking over your members’ heads with management and arriving to address your members in an armed vehicle and under police guard are nothing but a disgrace, in particular to the militant traditions of workers’ democratic control and socialism which once set out the NUM and Cosatu as an example for unionists internationally.
We are also appalled by the national leadership of NUM’s siding with the Lonmin bosses against your own members. Your national spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said in Mining Review on May 27 that “Unfortunately, the company cannot have such people and has to let them go” and that the union “would not support those who were on the wrong side of the law.” You have also repeatedly claimed that the Lonmin dispute was a NUM internal matter which had nothing to do with management – in doing so you are effectively denouncing the strike and condoning management’s draconian action against the workers! When the capitalists attack workers in the context of an internal union dispute, the first duty of a union leadership worthy of the name is to defend its members, not to collaborate with the class enemy.
We also protest in the strongest against Cosatu’s silent backing of the conduct of the NUM leaders.
We ask that you approach the Karee workers, who naturally feel extremely betrayed by you, to ask for a mandate to take up the fight against their unfair dismissal and selective re-employment, and retract your statements of support for the management’s actions. Otherwise you will be doing great harm to the fighting unity of workers in South Africa and the world precisely at a time when the attacks from a capitalism in crisis require maximal unity and organisation.
MODEL MESSAGE OF SOLIDARITY
Dear comrades of Karee Mine,
We have learnt, via the Democratic Socialist Movement in South Africa, of your important struggle to defend jobs and union activists. We condemn the Lonmin’s management mass sackings and selective re-employment which is clearly a plan to break effective union organisation.
We are shocked to hear of the conduct of the regional leadership of the NUM, who have actively collaborated with management to suppress your reelection of the shop stewards you trust as they have lead struggles resulting in concessions from management and, unlike other union representatives, refused to take bribes from the Lonmin management. We are also appalled by the national leadership of NUM’s support, and Cosatu’s silent backing of this conduct, as well as by the Lonmin management’s draconian response of mass dismissal followed by selective reemployment. With this they want to crush the union at Karee mine, but though you may be forced to retreat now they will not succeed.
Your struggle against the Lonmin management and for workers’ democratic control of your union, the NUM (National Union of Mine workers), which should be your weapon to fight uncompromisingly for the greatest possible share of the enormous wealth that you produce by mining the world’s most precious metal, platinum, is very important. Worker leaders must stand independent from the bosses and we salute your shop stewards’ resolute fight against bribery and corruption and offer our unconditional support for your struggle.
Yours in solidarity,