JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — More than 20,000 black miners were fired Thursday as South Africa's major mining companies attempted to break a strike that has halted production at a third of the country's gold and coal mines for nearly three weeks.
Anglo American Corp., hit hardest by the strike, said that it had dismissed the 20,000 at five gold mines and four collieries when they refused to return to work and warned that it would fire another 20,000 over the weekend if they also refuse.
Similar moves appear to be planned by two other companies, General Mining Union Corp. and Johannesburg Consolidated Investments Co., and the number of dismissed workers could total more than 80,000 within a few days as companies take an even tougher stand.
The mass firings brought a warning from the Congress of South African Trade Unions of a nationwide general strike in support of the miners, an action that would deepen the prolonged political crisis here and perhaps bring direct government intervention.
Jay Naidoo, general secretary of the 712,000-member congress, declared: "Black workers in this country have very few weapons, but withdrawal of our labor is one of them. A general strike is not a last resort--it is one of the weapons that we have."
More than 300,000 of South Africa's 600,000 black miners have been on strike since Aug. 9 to support their demands for higher pay, improved fringe benefits and better working conditions. From the outset their action has been widely interpreted as a power struggle between black labor and white capital.
The companies have proposed compromises on many of the miners' demands, but they have refused to increase their offers on wages, the main issue of the strike. To yield to the strikers, the companies believe, would only bring greater demands and larger work stoppages in the future.
Although the mining companies have already unilaterally implemented pay increases of 15% to 23%, the union has been seeking an across-the-board increase of 30%, which it reduced this week to 27% in hope of a company counteroffer.
Miners Rejected Offer
Members of the National Union of Mineworkers voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to reject an industry take-it-or-leave-it offer, which included increased death benefits and greater vacation pay, because it did not include a new wage proposal.
Although Anglo American had said there was a "substantial return" to work by the miners this week and implied that the strike was collapsing, it acknowledged in announcing the mass firings that more than 80% of the workers had accepted dismissal rather than go back to work.
Among those dismissed Thursday were 3,000 miners who conducted an 18-hour sit-in inside one of Anglo American's gold mines west of Johannesburg, protesting what they said was the force used by mine security guards to make them go underground to work Wednesday night.
Most of the men came to the surface late Thursday and were handed severance pay and put on buses out of the mine complex to their homes in remote rural areas. Anglo American spokesmen confirmed the sit-in but denied that force was ever used to make miners go to work.
Anglo American had earlier cited "an urgent need to resume mining operations" amid speculation that it had borne more than half of the loss from the strike. So far, the work stoppage is estimated to have cost the industry more than $100 million in pretax profits.
Law Allows Strikes, Firings
South African labor law permits recognized black unions to strike, provided they follow required procedures, but it also allows the companies to discipline striking workers by locking them out and firing them if they do not return to work when ordered.
Naidoo, of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, said that 350 top officials of its affiliates met earlier this week and agreed to support the mine workers, the largest of its constituent unions, with a program of "solidarity actions."
A general strike, as suggested by Naidoo, would probably be illegal under the 14-month-old state of emergency, but the labor federation has organized a number of "stay-aways" involving millions of black workers to protest government policies over the past year without prosecution.