It is a sign of the times in South Africa that one of the first serious labor challenges of the year has come from black miners. At its annual congress over the weekend, the black National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) decided to demand that statutory racial discrimination in South Africa's mines be scrapped this year. The demand may bring to a head an issue that has long rankled black miners.
The difference is that now black miners, through the NUM, feel powerful enough to challenge the discriminatory practice that has barred them because of their skin color from higher paying jobs in the mines.
``The union is stronger and there is a lot of impatience among [black miners],'' explained Cyril Ramaphosa, general secretary of the NUM.
The mining sector is the backbone of the South African economy and employs about 500,000 blacks. Despite the crucial importance of the mines, black miners in the past have never been an important factor in the country's industrial relations sphere. Laws and employer practices ensured that unionization of black miners did not take place.
But that changed in 1982 and the employers on the mines later began allowing union organizers access to the mines. Today, the NUM claims a membership of 110,000, making it one of the largest unions in South Africa.
The NUM was put to its first real test last year when it staged the first legal strike of black miners in South Africa's history. The strike turned violent and precipitated wildcat action that resulted in 13 miners' death.
Still, the NUM won higher wages as a result of the strike. Mr. Ramaphosa says the strike strengthened the union and has made recruiting easier. He also claims the mining employers now have more respect for the NUM.
The mining sector is the last major industry in South Africa to practice official job reservation. Blacks, by law, are not allowed to have a blasting certificate, which is necessary for advancement to certain higher paying jobs on the mines. Ramaphosa says about 20,000 black miners would otherwise qualify for job promotions on the mines if not barred by the job reservation statute.
The South African government accepted in 1981 that job reservation on the mines should be done away with. But recognizing the political difficulties in forcing change on the conservative white mining unions that support job reservation. Pretoria left it to the mining companies to work out a solution with white miners. Only then would the government act legislatively.
So far, that process has not produced an agreement. Ramaphosa says the NUM is no longer willing to wait while the employers -- through the South African Chamber of Mines -- and the white mining unions discuss the job reservation issue.
The NUM now wants to be part of those negotiations, where it will demand that job reservation be scrapped immediately, according to Ramaphosa.
The Chamber of Mines says its talks with the white unions on job reservation have made ``some progress'' even though no agreement is yet in sight.
The Chamber of Mines also points out that there has been progress in other areas affecting black miners since 1981. Blacks on the mines are now allowed to train as apprentices for skilled trades and they can become underground officials.
Yet the Chamber of Mines concedes it is the barring of blacks from obtaining blasting certificates that affects the largest number of black workers.
``We're now facing the last and most difficult hurdle'' to equal opportunity on the mines, says one official at the Chamber of Mines.
Also at its weekend congress, the NUM decided to register with the government.
In the past many black unions refused to register since it was seen as a step that implied cooperation with the South African government. But this issue is rapidly fading in the ranks of the black unions, who recognize there are pragmatic advantages to registering.
The NUM, for instance, once registered, will find it much easier to collect dues from members. Registered unions can have employers automatically deduct fees from union members while unregistered unions need special approval from the South African government for such deductions. Getting this permission can take up to a year.