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Sibanye strike 'remains protected' after court decision, union says

A feud over the legality of a monthlong strike at Sibanye Gold Ltd.'s gold operations in South Africa remains unresolved after a Dec. 21 court decision to have an independent group assess the situation.

The decision was a temporary victory for the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, or AMCU, giving it legal legs to continue the strike that began Nov. 21.

"AMCU members' constitutional right to strike remains protected," the union said in Dec. 21 news release, noting that the court also put Sibanye on the hook for legal costs.

But the court did not put the dispute to bed.

Sibanye had sought to have the court declare the strike illegal and, by extension, allow it to impose a wage agreement on AMCU workers. Sibanye contends that a majority of union members favor its wage agreement, giving it the right to call an end to the strike under labor laws, while the AMCU has questioned Sibanye's count of union rolls.

Here, the court did not make a final decision.

Sibanye spokesperson James Wellsted told S&P Global Market Intelligence that the court ordered South Africa's Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration to oversee a review of union membership and report back to it by Jan. 7, 2019, after which it would make a ruling.

The order for greater scrutiny of union membership leaves unanswered the question of whether Sibanye has the majority it claims. South African labor laws under section 23(1)(d) of the Labor Relations Act allow employers with the support of a majority of union members to enforce collective agreements over the rest of its workers.

Earlier in December, Sibanye cited the law in demanding AMCU workers return to their jobs Dec. 15 or face the possibility of disciplinary action, including being fired. AMCU ignored the demand, dismissing the count of union numbers.

Wellsted stood by Sibanye's figures, saying, "We are confident in the numbers from our initial membership verification process." He also said Sibanye's dependence on section 23(1)(d) to enforce the wage agreement "remains a strong possibility."

The AMCU, which could not be reached for comment, said in its statement that the process of verifying members excluded the union and was "inherently unfair."