South Africa union threatens Eskom ‘shutdown’ ahead of vote

Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd.’s biggest union threatened a week-long shutdown at the South African power utility ahead of national elections in May in the latest sign of tensions between President Cyril Ramaphosa and organized labor.

The National Union of Mineworkers opposes the government’s plans to split Eskom into generation, transmission and distribution units, it said in a statement. The labor group is planning a march to the ruling African National Congress’s Johannesburg headquarters on March 30.

“If our march to Luthuli House will produce results we might reconsider our position,” Paris Mashego, NUM’s energy coordinator, said by phone, referring to the ANC office. If not, the union’s members will not report for duty at the utility from May 3 to May 8, he said.

Eskom spokesman Khulu Phasiwe didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. Eskom’s workers are not legally allowed to strike because the utility provides an essential service.

The NUM represents about 15,000 of Eskom’s 48,600 workers. Union officials met on Tuesday to discuss how its members would be affected by plans to fix the utility, which has 419 billion rand ($29 billion) of debt and isn’t selling enough power to cover its interest payments and operational costs, and says it has 16,000 more workers than it needs. It’s also struggling to maintain its aging fleet of plants that intermittently trip and cause rolling blackouts.

“So far, there is no guarantee or a solid commitment that signal there would not be retrenchments during the unbundling process,” NUM said in the statement after the meeting.

The union is also calling for the cancellation of independent power-producer contracts for renewable energy that it also fears will reduce jobs spanning from coal mining to the power stations that burn the fuel.

(By Paul Burkhardt)

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