Unions In Crisis: Has the union form outlived its usefulness for workers?
By Dale T. McKinley
The general frame: A deep, systemic crisis
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 pauperise the vast majority of workers and has only been further catalysed by the ongoing pandemic. Workers and worker organisations are increasingly divided, ideologically, socially, economically and organisationally. The trade union movement is disorientated 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 organisational moorings that allowed for the strategic building of more inclusive, militant and effective unions as well as the catalysing 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 as well as 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 organisation 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 though, 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.
A crisis of worker participation and representation
There are three unfortunately enduring features of South Africa’s post-1994 union picture:
- 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 union;
- Unions have fundamentally failed politically and organisationally to see and acknowledge casualised workers, not only as equals but as forming the majority of the working class;
- Organisational 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 organising 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.
A crisis of consciousness
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 labour 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 organisation 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 prioritised factional power-mongering and engaged in destructive, socially reactionary behaviour, including violence against women. As Mandy Moussouris asked soon after the formation of SAFTU: “‘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?”
A crisis of organisational form
The post-1994 labour market terrain has been institutionally, legally and procedurally constructed to privilege unions as the principal form of worker representation and voice. Worker organisation has been required to formalise into the union form to get recognition by employers and participation in the institutional and legal-procedural frame. And this has cost significant financial, human and legal-institutional resources.
The union form in South Africa has been mostly characterised by exclusivity and hierarchy, which have gone hand-in-hand with formalisation. 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, centralised bodies of executive authority at the core of regular decision-making and the general dominance of men at all levels of the organisation.
While the form of worker organisation does not completely determine its core character, the two are in many ways inter-linked. The form can go a long way in determining how effective the organisation 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 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.
Alternative forms and possibilities
But unions are not about to just disappear or be wholly replaced by more democratic, worker-controlled forms of organisation, 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 unionised and otherwise) has come from creative, mass, collective action outside of the formal/legislative labour institutional framework of NEDLAC, tripartite corporatist negotiations and bargaining councils. In other words, from collectively conceptualised and independently practiced class struggle, regardless of the dominant worker organisational 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 etc. can join as “activists” and lend their expertise and practical support. In this way, the organisational form is built to cover the multiple and changing needs of members; for example, kitchens supplying food to workers and their families, rehabilitation centres 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 Economia Popular (UTEP – Union of Workers of the Popular Economy). It was formed in 2011 as a confederation, bringing together worker-recovered enterprises with self-employed and casualised workers in recycling, textile and housing cooperatives. UTEP has more recently formed itself into a new type of “extended trade-union”. Crucially, UTEP’s underlying ideological frame, principles, values and social relations are at the centre of its organisational form and practice. In this way, it is able to adapt its forms of organising to the holistic needs of all members, dependants and supporters. At the same time, it has a solidaristic 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 labour movement as a whole, needs to be reimagined and rebuilt. It is within and alongside the world of casualised 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, organisational 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 organisational forms and struggles can take centre stage.