Carol Paton’s article Wildcat action changing bargaining process was first published in BDlive and Business Day today.   Extracts with permission but click on either link to read the article online in BDlive [free registration required].

THE Marikana crisis was caused by the very thing South Africa’s institutionalised system of labour relations was intended to prevent.   Strong unions and progressive legislation were supposed to protect the interests of workers while at the same time channelling militancy and avoiding wild, unpredictable eruptions.

As has been widely argued by many, including Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, union strength and success have created social distance between union leaders and workers.

This factor has caused mineworkers on the platinum mines to abandon the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) for the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

Besides its political reverberations, the Marikana incident also has implications for the industrial relations framework.

Most generally, the incident can be expected to further galvanise Cosatu and its affiliates to take up the cause of income inequality.   While this has always been a strong theme for Cosatu, union leaders who may until now have been disposed towards persuading workers to accept inflation-linked increases will be less likely to want to do so.

For the mining industry, the writing is already on the wall when it comes to the wage bill.

The lives of any new workers who are hired will certainly be at risk.   Significant wage increases are the only measure that can bring an end to the conflict.

It is also no coincidence that following the Impala strike, underground workers at gold mines approached the NUM for a wage adjustment of R2,000.

The NUM and the Chamber of Mines have tried to contain these in the bargaining cycle.   But since the present agreement continues until July, that might not be possible.

The upshot of the settlement at Impala and a likely one at Lonmin is to make a mockery of the established bargaining cycle that has brought certainty and stability to labour relations.

If workers are able to trigger wildcat action that results in substantial victories, illegal activity will keep on spreading.   In this, the mining industry, which has a history of violent labour relations and union activity, is most vulnerable.

One solution is centralised bargaining for the platinum sector.   While that will help further down the line, it cannot arrest what lies ahead in the next few months.