Unions in crisis

Has the trade union form outlived its usefulness for workers?

Jemal Countess for the Solidarity Center via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 (2014).

There can be little argument that the world of work in South Africa, and indeed globally, is in the throes of a deep, systemic crisis.

There are record levels of socio-economic inequality between those who own the means of production and those who produce. This is threatening to pauperize the vast majority of workers and has only been further catalyzed by the ongoing pandemic. Workers and worker organizations are increasingly divided, ideologically, socially, economically, and organizationally. The trade union movement is disoriented and weak.

This has given rise to strategic confusion. Past ideological certainties are no longer able to provide the framing glue for holding together a clear strategic vision and set of goals. Previously, we have had institutional and organizational moorings that allowed for the strategic building of more inclusive, militant and effective unions,as well as the catalyzing of working-class unity in action. These have largely crumbled or been captured by corporatists, corrupt bureaucrats, abstentionists, and sectarian/factional politics.

All of this raises a range of crucial questions and issues for the working class and for progressive/left forces in general. One of those questions is whether or not the union form has outlived its usefulness for workers, as a historically central component of working class organization and struggle?

The two dominant views of unions on the left largely derive from Lenin’s idea of “trade union consciousness.”

The one view is that only the (vanguard) political party can be a vehicle for mass political struggle and revolution. Although unions are good sources for party recruits and for some economic struggles, they are fundamentally compromised, reformist, and limited.

The other view sees unions as potential vehicles for mass struggle, but only where there is socialist leadership and involvement of a socialist party. The main problem here, however, is that a great many who call themselves socialists, and more specifically layers of union leadership and officialdom who belong to socialist parties, have been responsible for the degeneration of unions and have themselves also been fully compromised.

Regardless of these framing views, it is in the realm of union life, practical action, and experience of struggle that a more grounded and accurate assessment can be made about the state of unions, unionism, and the associated usefulness of unions to/for workers.

There are three unfortunately enduring features of South Africa’s post-1994 union picture: the first is that a minority of workers are union members. The latest Stats SA figures show that, as of 2018, only 29.5% of employees are members of a trade unions. The second is that unions have fundamentally failed politically and organizationally to see and acknowledge casualized workers, not only as equals but as forming the majority of the working class. And the third is that organizational and material gaps between union leadership/officials and rank-and-file members have increased. This has been accompanied by a general lack of assistance to, and representation of, those members.

A 2018 COSATU survey found that many union officials considered the financial and human resource “costs” of organizing and recruiting casual workers was too high for the consequent “return” in union subscriptions. The membership of most existing unions overwhelmingly comprises male permanent workers. They are themselves insecure about their jobs and social status. Their general attitude to casual workers (and more especially women workers who make up a majority of casual workers) is either one of indifference, or hostility and control.

Workers’ social, political, economic and moral consciousness has generally been missing from the strategic radar of unions for the better part of South Africa’s post-apartheid transition. Much like the party, state, and social movement terrains, the personal has been largely removed as a central component in shaping and guiding both individual and collective practice.

Large parts of the labor sector, both individual union leaders and rank-and-file workers, have contributed negatively to (re)shaping the landscape of political and socio-economic possibility, of what it means to be a progressive worker/activist, to build and engage in inclusive and tolerant organization and struggle. Basic ethics/values of honesty, respect, humility, accountability, empathy, responsibility, solidarity and generosity informed the huge personal sacrifices for, and collective moral power of, past worker and liberation movement struggle in South Africa. With some exceptions these have been cast aside.

In their place, union investment companies have been at the heart of the preoccupation of union leaders/officials with high-end lifestyles focused on personal enrichment and accumulation. They have prioritized factional power-mongering and engaged in destructive, socially reactionary behavior, including violence against women. As Mandy Moussouris asked soon after the formation of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), which styled itself as an independent trade union federation in contrast to CODSATU, which s in an alliance with the ruling party: “What exactly is the new federation going to do to ensure that women do not continue to be used as political tools in a battle of men over power?”

The post-1994 labor market terrain has been institutionally, legally and procedurally constructed to privilege unions as the principal form of worker representation and voice. Worker organization has been required to formalize into the union form to get recognition by employers, and participation in the institutional and legal-procedural frame. This has cost significant financial, human, and legal-institutional resources.

The union form in South Africa has been mostly characterized by exclusivity and hierarchy, which have gone hand-in-hand with formalization. Exclusive in the sense that unions represent a shrinking minority of workers; hierarchical because all unions have embraced formal leadership positions differentiated by title and salary, centralized bodies of executive authority at the core of regular decision-making, and the general dominance of men at all levels of the organization.

Although the form of worker organization does not completely determine its core character, the two are in many ways interlinked. The form can go a long way in determining how effective the organization is in practically advancing the workplace struggles of its members; linking up/creating solidarity with other workers and the broader working class; not just in the workplace but also on a more mass campaigning and solidarity basis; responding to the overall needs of those members; and reflecting its stated values and principles, as well as aims and objectives.

With some exceptions, unions in South Africa and globally have largely proven to be ill-fitted to the overall and rapidly changing structure of the working class, the conditions of work, and the needs of both union members and other workers.

But unions are not about to just disappear or be wholly replaced by more democratic, worker-controlled forms of organization, even if there is a strong case to be made for such. Nonetheless, over the last 20 years the key foundation of gains for workers (both unionized and otherwise) has come from creative, mass, collective action outside of the formal/legislative labor institutional framework of the National Education, Development and Labor Council (NEDLAC), tripartite corporatist negotiations and bargaining councils. In other words, from collectively conceptualized and independently practiced class struggle, regardless of the dominant worker organizational form

This includes non-union worker collectives, such as the African Reclaimers Organisations (ARO) who are considering adopting a model of “community membership.” Middle-class supporters can join ARO as “activists” and lend their expertise and practical support. In this way, the organizational form is built to cover the multiple and changing needs of members; for example, kitchens supplying food to workers and their families, rehabilitation centers, and the occupation and self-management of empty spaces for production.

Workers in South Africa should also look at the Argentine Union de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular (UTEP). It was formed in 2011 as a confederation, bringing together worker-recovered enterprises with self-employed and casualized workers in recycling, textile, and housing cooperatives. The UTEP has more recently formed itself into a type of “extended trade-union.” Crucially, UTEP’s underlying ideological frame, principles, values, and social relations are at the centre of its organizational form and practice. In this way, it is able to adapt its forms of organizing to the holistic needs of all members, dependants, and supporters. At the same time, it has solidarity and movement-building focus and intent.

So, it’s possible to see the current and coming period as heralding a transition of possibility rather than decline. The present union form, as well as the labor movement as a whole, needs to be reimagined and rebuilt. It is within and alongside the world of casualized work— which houses the majority of workers—that it can and needs to be done.

Here, there is the possibility of a future in which much of the old ideological, organizational and discursive baggage can be off-loaded. New spaces for critical thinking and debate can be created, in which progressive and personal, as well as collective, social, and moral values and principles can be committed to, and in which the basics of inclusive and grounded organizational forms and struggles can take center stage.

Further Reading