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National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA)

South Africa's Coal Miners’ Union Calls for a Public Pathway Approach to Energy Transition

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, April 5, 2022

At its recent 17th National Congress, South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) adopted a bold position in favor of keeping the country’s electrical power utility Eskom fully public.

Attended by roughly 750 delegates, the three-day congress — held in Boksburg, South Africa, from March 30th to April 1st, 2022 — adopted a report titled “Just Transition and the Energy Sector.” The report declares:

As a union with a long history of internationalism, NUM is today part of a global trade union-led effort to secure a Just Transition to a low carbon future. Once championed by unions, the term just transition has been hijacked by capital and its original meaning has been distorted. It is now being used to advance a global “green structural adjustment” agenda, one that is using the climate emergency as cover to advance privatisation and to dismantle public companies and assets.

In recent years, NUM has worked alongside the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), TUED, AIDC and the Transnational Institute to repel government-led efforts to break up and privatize the national utility Eskom.

Amid Rolling Blackouts, Energy Workers Fight For Clean Public Power In South Africa

By Casey Williams - In These Times, March 31, 2022

Can South Africa transition from a reliance on coal to clean power while maintaining jobs? The energy workers fighting for a just transition think so.

The lights went out around Johannesburg on a Monday morning in November 2021, not to flicker back on until early that Friday in some areas. It marked the last rolling blackout of a year troubled by more outages than any in recent memory. The fate of Eskom, the beleaguered power utility behind the crisis, is now at the center of South Africa’s struggle for a just energy transition — a break from fossil fuels without leaving behind frontline communities or energy workers.

As a public company, Eskom has a constitutional mandate to guarantee electricity as a basic right. But the utility struggles to meet that mandate with its aging equipment, staggering debt, corruption and rules that require it to break even, which drive exorbitant rate hikes. Moreover, the electricity running through Eskom’s wires comes almost entirely from coal, smothering the country’s eastern coal belt in deadly pollution and adding planet-warming emissions to the atmosphere — and putting the utility at odds with South Africa’s decarbonization commitments and global calls for renewable energy. South Africa, the 26th-largest country by population, ranks 14th in carbon output worldwide and is responsible for 1% of global emissions, because of this reliance on coal.

Few believe Eskom will survive in its current state, and what comes next is the subject of a high-stakes debate — and is about more than the climate. The state-owned company employs 45,000 workers and supports 82,000 coal jobs in a country where more than a third of the population is out of work. Eskom is a union shop, as are South Africa’s biggest coal mines.

The government’s plan, already underway, is to invite private companies into the energy sector on the dubious grounds that clean energy is bound to win in a competitive market. The powerful miners and metalworkers unions oppose privatization, which they worry will hobble their organizations, if not eliminate the jobs they’re entrusted to protect. 

The unions have reason to worry. European multinationals have installed most of South Africa’s wind and solar capacity so far, importing technicians and hardware. The local jobs that come with them are often low-paid and temporary, vanishing once plants get up and running. Workers with permanent jobs, meanwhile, have struggled with for-profit energy companies over the right to strike.

While some union leaders and workers have responded to the threat of privatization by defending coal mines and the union jobs they offer, unions also say they support decarbonization efforts. There are currents within the labor movement organizing for a just transition to turn Eskom into a unionized, public and clean power utility, run by and for the South African people.

This tug-of-war holds lessons for workers everywhere: The South African labor movement has largely succeeded in making the public debate about ownership and power— about who owns energy resources and who decides how they’re used — rather than simply about renewables versus coal. Still, the temptation for labor to double down on coal jobs remains strong as the South African economy flags and unemployment spikes, emblematic of how hard it can be to fight for long-term goals if jobs are under threat.

Workers Can’t Wait: Just Transition Now – Building Global Labour Power For Climate Justice

Beyond Coal: Why South Africa Should Reform and Rebuild Its Public Utility

By Dominic Brown - New Labor Forum, May 2021

Despite 2020’s record fall in carbon dioxide emissions—largely due to extensive and repeated “lockdowns” of cities, plus dramatic decreases in air travel and the use of motor vehicles[1]—the world is far from making the changes necessary to avert climate catastrophe. The fact that the shutdowns over periods of last year had a marginal effect in the fight against climate catastrophe at best illustrates the enormity of the task that lies ahead. According to a 2019 report from the World Meteorological Organization, “time is fast running out,”[2] while Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), observes “The pandemic and its aftermath can suppress emissions, but low economic growth is not a low emissions strategy. Only an acceleration in structural changes to the way the world produces and consumes energy can break the emissions trend for good.”[3]

In addition to ravaging health systems, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated food and housing insecurity, deepened unemployment, and put a spotlight on existing inequalities. In South Africa, growing awareness of these problems has brought renewed hope in the possibility of a response to the pandemic crisis that could aim for a “just transition” to a low-carbon economy. Like other countries, South Africa is in desperate need of an energy transition. The South African economy remains disproportionately energy intensive[4] (although it is becoming less so), per capita emissions remain high,[5] and the country is the fourteenth largest contributor to global carbon emissions.[6] This energy and emissions profile reflects the historical and continuing dominance of the country’s “minerals-energy complex” (“MEC”)[7] which is supported by cheap electricity generated mostly from low-quality coal, while higher quality coal is exported.

Beyond its detrimental ecological impacts, South Africa’s MEC is deeply intertwined with the legacy of cheap Black labor in the mines and the formation of racialized capitalism. This structure of South Africa’s economy underpins the country’s massive inequality, serious health impacts for many thousands of people in mining affected communities, and the country’s disproportionate contribution to global emissions. This is why the shift to renewable energy (RE) in South Africa must include measures to ensure a just transition that leaves no worker or community behind while working to reverse the legacy of mass unemployment and deep socioeconomic inequalities.

The Political Economy of South Africa’s Energy Crisis

Since coming to power in 1994, South Africa’s government has promised “electricity for all” as a critical component in undoing the gross disparities of apartheid. This commitment has produced a dramatic rise in grid connections, such that more than 80 percent of households were connected to the grid by 2015, up from only 30 percent in 1994. Harder to shift have been the persistent levels of poverty and inequality. South Africa’s “Gini coefficient”— a global measure of inequality—today places the country as the world’s second most unequal, after neighboring Lesotho. With current unemployment at over 40 percent, many households cannot afford electricity, even when they are connected to the grid. The introduction of a provision for free basic electricity in 2004 was a step in the right direction, but at just 50 kWh per month for poor households that is insufficient to meet even basic requirements.

Since coming to power in 1994, South Africa’s government has promised “electricity for all” as a critical component in undoing the gross disparities of Apartheid.

Making matters worse, South Africa’s stateowned power utility, Eskom—which generates over 90 percent of energy consumed in the country—is in deep crisis. Eskom’s crisis has multiple dimensions and various causes, both internal and external, including (1) the 1980s era commercialization of Eskom; (2) postapartheid commitments to provide electricity to the majority of the country previously excluded, under the full cost recovery (FCR) model where the excluded majority are unable to afford rising electricity prices; (3) underinvestment in the utility’s infrastructure, particularly in building new capacity to meet increased demand; (4) conversion of the utility in 2002 to a public corporation, forcing it to pay taxes as well as dividends for the first time since its establishment almost a century earlier; (5) Eskom’s rising debt, dominated by foreign currency borrowed against the weak rand (R); (6) expensive coal contracts with windfall profits, signed in the name of promoting Black ownership in the coal industry; and (7) dramatic increases in the price of low-quality coal, upon which Eskom depends to generate electricity.[8]

Just Transitions, Power and Politics

Workers and Just Transition: A Global View

By various - Labor Network for Sustainability, December 5, 2021

With the election of a President who acknowledges the threats of climate change and of ongoing economic devastation for working people, we have an opportunity to seriously address how to make a transition to a climate-safe, socially-just, worker-friendly society. The primary objective of the Just Transition Listening Project (JTLP) is to ensure workers and community voices are central to the conversation of a Green New Deal and other climate policies. 

On Saturday, Dec. 5 at 12 p.m. Eastern, the Labor Network for Sustainability and the JTLP Organizing Committee will bring together labor and policy leaders to share perspectives, stories, and strategies from the frontlines of the struggle for a just transition globally. This will be the sixth webinar in the JTLP series. In addition to the webinar series we conducted interviews with more than 100 community leaders and workers to learn of their experiences and perspectives on Just Transition. Our report from these interviews will be available in January.

From the experiences of metalworkers in South Africa to the coal miners in Spain, to workers across sectors in Latin America and across the world, the struggle for a just transition is truly global. In order to effectively address the worldwide transitions we are facing in our jobs, environments, and homes, we must demand a worldwide response. Join us on Saturday, Dec. 5 as we learn from each other and set the stage for finalizing and distributing our report to help us win the struggle to protect jobs, communities and the right to thrive as we work toward a society that is ecologically sustainable and just. 

Just Transition as a Worker Movement in Global North and South

By various - United Nations Research for Social Development, October 14 2020

As a grounded concept that originated in the North American labour movement, just transition places the well-being and livelihoods of workers and communities at the heart of transitions to sustainability and low-carbon futures. This second webinar in our JTRC series on justice in low-carbon transitions examines how the spread of the concept to the international climate policy arena and around the world has influenced the role of workers in just transition efforts. It highlights the role of both formal and informal workers and their organizations and explores the differences that shape just transitions as a worker movement in global North and South.

Speakers:

  • Jenny Patient, PhD Student, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield
  • Woodrajh (Woody) Aroun, former Education and Parliamentary Officer of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA)
  • Susanita Tesiorna, President, Alliance of Workers in the Informal Economy/Sector (ALLWIES) and Council Member of National Anti-Poverty Commission - Workers in the Informal Sector Council
  • Discussant: David Uzzell, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey
  • Moderator: Jo Cutter, Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations, Leeds University Business School

For more information about the series and the work of the Just Transition Research Collaborative, please visit https://www.unrisd.org/jtrc-2020

The Green New Deal, Net-Zero Carbon, and the Crucial Role of Public Ownership

By John Treat, Sean Sweeney, and Irene HongPing Shen - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, November 15, 2019

On September 28, 2019, more than 150 trade union representatives, activists and policy allies from more than a dozen countries came together in New York City for a one-day international conference on “The Green New Deal, Net-Zero Carbon, and the Crucial Role of Public Ownership.”

The conference took place against the backdrop of the massive “Global Climate Strike” actions led by young people in numerous countries around the world, coinciding with the UN “Climate Week” of talks in New York City. In the weeks before those actions, TUED organized a “Global Web Forum” on the #Strike4Climate, and subsequently compiled a list of union statements and actions in support of the strikes.

Framing and Meeting Highlights

The conference program was framed around a number of issues and concerns that have emerged out of recent union-led struggles to both defend and extend public ownership of energy in key countries and regions. Over the course of the day’s proceedings, a number of key themes and broadly shared conclusions emerged, including:

  • Investor-focused climate policy is not delivering the energy transition
  • Privatization of state-owned electricity utilities has failed—but alternatives exist
  • Defending public ownership of energy requires a reform agenda that can drive “de- marketization”
  • Confidence is rising to reverse electricity privatization where it has happened
  • Defending and reclaiming public energy requires building union power
  • The transition must take into account the real development needs of the global South, while contesting carbon- intensive “development as usual”
  • There is an urgent need for technical, programmatic work to make achieving the ambitious goals of the Green New Deal possible

Read the report (PDF).

Remaking Our Energy Future: Towards a Just Energy Transition (JET) in South Africa

By Richard Halsey, Neil Overy, Tina Schubert, Ebenaezer Appies, Liziwe McDaid and Kim Kruyshaar - Project 90 by 2030, September 19, 2019

A just transition (JT) is a highly complex topic, where the overall goal is to shift to systems that are better for people and the planet, and to do so in a fair and managed way that “leaves no one behind”. A JT is about justice in the context of fundamental changes within the economy and the society.

Both of these areas are extremely contested, consensus is hard to achieve, and people are generally resistant to change. A JT confronts “business as usual” and threatens powerful vested interests in certain economic sectors. In recent years, a vast amount of literature on the subject has been published, and in South Africa the conversation has picked up pace. The urgency of acting now is indisputable.

While a JT can apply to many sectors and industries, this publication focuses on energy. In addition to being a major contributor to climate change, environmental damage and impacts on human health, the energy sector (particularly Eskom), is facing significant challenges in South Africa. We fully acknowledge that energy is linked to other sectors such as transport, agriculture, water and land use, and that a just energy transition (JET) is a part of a wider JT. While the focus of this report is on one sector, we do so recognising that it is linked to other parts of a larger system in many ways.

Our approach was to look at what we can learn from international experience, to combine that with what has already been done in South Africa, and to make recommendations about how to move forward. This publication focuses on the shift from coal to renewable energy (RE), mainly for electricity generation. We are well aware that a movement away from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) is far more than just moving from coal to RE, but as discussed in Chapter 3, this particular transition is the obvious starting point in South Africa. The lessons and recommendations presented here can also be adapted to other fossil fuel sectors. While the focus of this study is on coal, a big picture perspective of the energy system is crucial. South Africa must adopt an integrated planning approach, for energy and other sectors.

Read the text (PDF).

Energy Democracy and Just Transition Endorsed at Launch of South Africa’s New Trade Union Federation

By John Treat - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, May 1, 2017

At a historic launch event held outside Johannesburg on April 21-23, 2017, almost 1,400 voting delegates from two-dozen unions representing 700,000 workers convened to launch the new “South African Federation of Trade Unions” (SAFTU).

In addition to adopting the name, logo and colors — red, black and gold — delegates also endorsed a range of principles adopted at a preparatory “Workers’ Summit” convened by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in April 2016, adopted a new constitution, and approved a report from the Steering Committee proposing a range of campaigning priorities for the next period.

In a recent article, then SAFTU convener Zwelinzima Vavi said:

We’ve got a mix of workers in the private sector, manufacturing, transport, mining and construction. And we’ve got unions in the public sector – the biggest ones are the South African Policing Union and the National Union of Public Servants and Allied Workers.[SAFTU] is independent but not apolitical. It is truly worker controlled and democratic and not ‘sloganising’ over the issues. SAFTU is truly fighting and militant.”

At a TUED strategy meeting in New York in early April, Karl Cloete, NUMSA’s Deputy General Secretary, told union representatives from 12 countries that while the new federation’s campaigning priorities will focus on the many grave and urgent challenges facing South Africa’s highly exploited workers and exceptionally vulnerable poor, SAFTU would also make energy democracy and just transition part of its core agenda.

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