South African spotlight shifts to black miners. Decision to strike shows growing power of black unions

South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers has moved into the spotlight, calling for a strike amid the country's ongoing unrest and mounting economic difficulties. But the importance of the NUM goes beyond current developments. It is part of a broader shift that has brought South Africa's fledgling black trade unions from the periphery much closer to the center stage of the country's economy in recent years.

The NUM, South Africa's largest black trade union, is preparing for a strike Sept. 1 at mines owned by three major mining companies.

Although the union felt impelled to strike, it had scored at least a partial victory. In wage negotiations it won concessions from some mining companies. In the past, the Chamber of Mines, an industry organization that bargains on behalf of the employers, had negotiated from a united front. This time the NUM was able to split the Chamber of Mines.

The union has warned that any action against strikers by the three ``enemy companies'' will be met by action from its entire membership, including those at mines where the NUM has accepted settlement offers. The NUM claims a membership of 150,000. The strike will affect 62,000 black miners.

The NUM has taken a more militant approach to wage negotiations this year. Aside from demanding a 22 percent wage increase the NUM demanded that South African President Pieter W. Botha lift the state of emergency or face a boycott of white-owned shops. The boycott is now in progress.

Black trade unions were only legally recognized by the government in 1979. The NUM was founded less than three years ago.

Since recognition in mid-1979, membership in registered black unions has grown by more than 725 percent, from less than 57,000 to nearly 470,000.

Before 1979 strikes by blacks were outlawed and their unions could not negotiate binding agreements. After recognition was extended a fierce debate ensued over the question of whether or not the new unions should register, a formal process that required them to meet certain government requirements. Some, notably the South African Allied Workers Union and the General Workers Union, were opposed, fearing that registration would place them under control of the white authorities.

Today, however, only one large union, the South African Allied Workers Union, has not registered. The General Workers' Union and the NUM have both applied for recognition.

The consensus in black trade union circles is that the benefits of registration outweigh the costs. Registered unions can seek enforcement of their rights in the industrial court and can legally collect membership fees.

Most employers have found it it in their interest to establish working relations with the unions. The NUM is a case in point. When black miners went on strike in 1946, seriously disrupting production, mining companies and the Chamber of Mines adopted a hostile attitude to black unions. The Chamber of Mines denied union organizers access to miners, most of whom were contract laborers living in company compounds. In the early 1980s attitudes began to change and some mining companies saw the need for colle ctive bargaining.

A key factor in that decision was the sporadic outbursts of violence by disgruntled miners in the 1970s generated by the lack of communication between management and workers. These confrontations were often violent and chaotic since the black miners had no formal means of voicing grievances.

The formal recogition of black trade unions has given them the right to strike. But only after a stipulated process. The union has to apply for the appointment of a conciliation board. If the board cannot reconcile the interests of workers and employers, the union can proceed to the next step: holding a strike ballot.

The past year has seen a significant change. When they first gained recognition, most unions concentrated on factory issues. Now the unions are getting more overtly involved in political issues, partly because of pressure from their members.

If the strike scheduled for Sept. 1 triggers sympathy action from other black miners there could be a serious disruption of gold production at a critical time for the economy. Gold is the single biggest earner of foreign exchange for South Africa.

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