Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Unions have agreed to a series of steps, including mass pickets on Thursday, to force Eskom to hike its salary increase offer of 0%, before embarking on a strike at the power utility.

Eskom is in financial distress, with a huge debt burden increasing annually. The power utility’s new leadership is working to cut costs, increase revenue and restructure debt.

The state-owned enterprise put nothing on the table during two rounds of salary talks, a move that has angered the unions. Eskom is also taking energy regulator Nersa to court to fight the 5% tariff increase granted by the regulator. Eskom had initially applied for a 19% tariff increase.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and Solidarity were expected to meet on Monday to discuss strike action.

Eskom is deemed an essential service, making the option of a strike illegal.

After talking tough over the weekend, labour unions took a step back and agreed to a series of measures before opting to down tools. However, a full-blown strike was not off the table, they said. It was agreed the unions would hold a picket outside Eskom headquarters on Thursday and also set up a meeting with the Eskom board.

Labour impasse

In a show of unity, the NUM and Numsa were set to hold a joint media briefing on Tuesday on the way forward. The media briefing will see old foes NUM and Numsa take to the podium to announce further plans on the action to be taken to tackle the labour impasse at Eskom.

Labour federation Cosatu and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan have also agreed to meet to provide political intervention in the matter. The two unions have in the past been hostile towards each other and were on opposing ends of the Cosatu fight, which led to Numsa’s expulsion from the federation in 2014.

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim said on Monday it was critical that all three unions at Eskom stuck together in their fight with the utility. In a letter to Eskom leadership, Numsa said workers should receive increases, which the union believed Eskom could afford.

Unions are demanding a 15% increase as well as maternity and housing-related demands. "Failing which … Numsa and NUM would have to discuss that, in pursuit of these demands, we are left with no option but to revisit the brutal truth that a strike in this country is a constitutional right that will be exercised as a last resort," the union said in the letter.

On Monday, Solidarity announced that it had lodged a dispute with Eskom and an arbitration process was likely to follow. Solidarity did not take part in Monday’s meeting.

NUM and Numsa met in Sandton to strategise on the way forward. Jim said he was also not opposed to Solidarity’s approach of a dispute process.

Solidarity’s Deon Reyneke said his union did not attend the meeting as the strike approach at this stage was reckless.

The NUM last week called for a "total shutdown" at Eskom.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions, to whom Numsa is affiliated, said the workers would have no choice but to strike.