JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The end game to South Africa's big platinum strike is drawing near after the producers said they would take their latest wage offer directly to employees after marathon wage talks to end the 13-week strike collapsed on Thursday.
South Africa's longest and most damaging mining strike in living memory is not about to come to an abrupt end as both sides strive to win rank and file hearts and minds in a high stakes war of attrition on the platinum belt.
Leaders of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) have signalled their displeasure with the offer from the world's top three producers, Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin.
AMCU treasurer and negotiator Jimmy Gama was quoted in the City Press newspaper on Sunday as saying the union was consulting with its members about the latest offer through mass meetings that would last until Wednesday.
"We can't predict if our members will reject it," he told City Press.
AMCU's leaders have said they were "arrogantly rebuffed by the platinum cartel", so it seems unlikely their members will publicly accept the offer at mass meetings which are typically dominated by the union's shop stewards and most militant core.
"The guys do not want to go back to work, not for this money," Venter Mulutsi, an AMCU members with Implats who attended a rally on Friday, told Reuters by telephone.
But the producers are forcing the hand of AMCU and its president Joseph Mathunjwa by betting that most of the strikers have lost their resolve to strike as they face the third consecutive month without pay.
The strike is a headache for President Jacob Zuma and the ruling African National Congress with elections looming on May 7.
STRIKE BREAKING BY TEXT
The companies have been sending cellphone text messages to the 70,000 striking AMCU members urging them to accept the deal and they also plan to spread the message via radio and newspaper spots.
Mulutsi confirmed he had received the text messages.
An Implats' spokesman said three had been sent. One reads: "NO AGREEMENT HAS BEEN REACHED – WAGES ARE DEADLOCKED,:
Another refers briefly to the offer while a third says "All employees must now seriously consider this offer. We have to work together to find solutions that are affordable and possible to resolve this wage deadlock."
This campaign will also target the "labour sending areas", such as rural villages in the Eastern Cape province far from the shafts, where much of the mine labour force hails from and where many of the strikers have returned to sit the stoppage out.
The gap between the two sides has narrowed.
Initially demanding an immediate doubling of the basic wage - net salary before allowances such as housing - for entry-level workers to 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month, AMCU has since said it would accept annual increases that would reach this goal in three or even four years' time.
The producers' latest offer was for wage rises of up to 10 percent and other increases that would take the minimum pay package - the basic wage including the allowances - to 12,500 rand a month by July 2017.
The companies say they can afford no more as they contend with rising costs and depressed prices for the precious metal used for emissions-capping catalytic converters in automobiles.
In fact, platinum's spot price is little changed since the AMCU miners downed tools on Jan. 23 despite the unprecedented scale of the stoppage, which has hit 40 percent of global platinum production.
A painful restructuring is considered likely after the dust clears from the strike, with job losses expected, especially around Amplats' struggling Rustenburg operations, which it has signalled it could sell or mothball.
The sector's viability is also being shaken. Producers have lost over 15 billion rand (833.1 million pounds) to the strike so far, according to an industry website that gives a running tally (http://www.platinumwagenegotiations.co.za/).
($1 = 10.6410 South African Rand)
(Editing by Stephen Powell)