Back to work effort at Lonmin mines in South Africa falters

Owners on the Lonmin platinum mines in South Africa said on Saturday that not enough workers had reported to work to restart operations at the mines. The company had hoped to resume operations and end a bloody two-week strike that has left 44 people dead. On Monday, even fewer workers reported to work.

Earlier last week the mine owners threatened to fire striking workers who refused to return to work, but the threat didn’t appear to intimidate the strikers, and the company quickly rescinded it.

Three thousand rock drillers at the mines near Marikana went out on strike on August 10. Between August 10 and August 15,  violent clashes between the strikers and police and security personnel led to the death of 10 people including two police officers.

On August 16, police surrounded an encampment of strikers and began shooting as the miners tried to escape. Thirty-four miners were killed in the worst massacre of striking workers in recent memory. The Business Report of South Africa said that autopsies on the dead miners show that most were shot in the back.

The strike that led to the miners’ slayings has been characterized as a turf war between the established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and its rival the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The fight between the two unions is one layer of the strike’s story, but the cause of the strike runs much deeper.

The strike began as an unauthorized wildcat strike of low-paid, frustrated rock drillers who labor under some of the worst conditions imaginable. Their lungs are exposed to unhealthy rock dust and the noise of the drills is constant and deafening. For their efforts they are paid about 4,000 rands a month ($450).

Because of their poverty wages they live in slum-like conditions in nearby villages. A report on the conditions in these villages by the Bench Marks Foundation, a non-profit group funded by South African churches, says that most of these villages lack basic services such as functioning sewerage systems. Because there are no sewers, miners and their families are susceptible to parasites such as bilharzia, which causes fever, chills, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

These desperate conditions drove the strikers to demand a pay increase that would lift their monthly pay to 12,500 rands a month  ($1,500). The increase has been characterized as unrealistically high, but if the miners were to get what they are demanding, Lonmin CEO Ian Farmer, whose 2011 compensation was 20.3 million rands ($2.4 million), would still be making 144 times more than the miners.

Chris Rodrigues writing in Rolling Stone puts the strikers’ demand in perspective. At their current wages, the workers would have to work 13 lifetimes to match Farmers’ salary. If they get the wages that they are demanding, they would still have to work four lifetimes to catch up with Farmer.

These conditions and these disparities rather than organizing efforts by AMCU led the miners to walk off the job. According to Ben Fogel, whose article appears in Counterpunch, most of the workers who went on strike were not affiliated with AMCU. They were either NUM members or non-union workers.

After the strike took place AMCU organizers tried to recruit the strikers and held itself out as their bargaining agent, which led to objections from and conflicts with the NUM, the recognized bargaining agent.

Since the massacre, labor groups all over the world have taken sides in the dispute, but all hold Lonmin responsible for the killings. One statement issued by Kilusang Mayo Uno, an independent labor center in the Philippines, is representative of the many statements condemning Lonmin.

We condemn Lonmin Platinum Mine, a London-based multinational mining company operating in Marikana in the northwest of Johannesburg, for the massacre. Lonmin is the third largest platinum-mining company in the world but is reported to be one of those giving the lowest pay.

In the US, the United Steelworkers, an ally of the NUM, issued a statement that read,

The USW condemns Lonmin for provoking this conflict by ignoring the established collective bargaining agreement with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and supporting a company union.  Lonmin, Implats and the Chamber of Mines must be held accountable for these anti-union tactics which constitute a concerted attack on the NUM and on collective bargaining rights guaranteed by ILO Convention 98.

Lonmin had hoped to restart operations this week, but only 57 percent reported to work on Saturday. That percentage dropped to 13 percent on Monday. NUM is encouraging strikers to return to the mines and said that it would be meeting with the company this week to discuss the workers’ demands.

Meanwhile, Julius Malema, the former leader of the African National Congress youth organization, who was expelled from the ANC, called for the nationalization of the Lonmin mines and all mines in South Africa.

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