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By Ed Cropley
JOHANNESBURG, June 29 (Reuters) - More than 220,000 members of South Africa’s NUMSA engineering and metalworkers union will down tools on July 1 after last-ditch wage talks to avert a strike failed, its leaders said on Sunday.
Irvin Jim, Secretary General of South Africa’s largest union, said NUMSA members would also picket the headquarters of state power utility Eskom on July 2 as part of a push for a wage increase of 12 percent, nearly twice the current inflation rate.
Eskom, which produces nearly all the electricity in Africa’s most advanced economy, is defined as an “essential service”, making strikes by its workers illegal.
However, Jim told a news conference that if the union did not get its demands, NUMSA might be left with “no option but to allow our members to liberate themselves”.
“We are going for Eskom. There’s no two ways about it,” he said. “We are doing a picketing. It’s a build-up.”
South Africa is still reeling from a five-month strike in the platinum mines that ended with a wage settlement last week, but not before dragging the economy into contraction in the first three months of the year.
The latest strike is likely to hit engineering firms such as Bell Equipment and industrial group Dorbyl, but the big fear is that a prolonged stoppage in car component factories could affect the important automotive sector.
A four-week strike in 2013 by more than 30,000 NUMSA members at major auto makers cost the industry around $2 billion.
The government has been trying to prevent any more damage to the economy. But its ability to sway NUMSA is limited after the union - once a political ally of the ruling African National Congress - fell out with the party last year because of policy disagreements.
NUMSA is South Africa’s largest union with around 340,000 members, although only around two-thirds of these are planning to go on strike.
It has nearly 10,000 workers at Eskom, and if they down tools it could hamper the utility’s ability to keep the lights on, already a daily battle because of razor-thin margins between power supply and demand. (Reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)