Thursday, April 14, 2005

From Roland...

South African Trade Unionism: Where to Go From Here?
I will review three texts’ depiction of the internal dynamic of South African trade unionism in the early 1980s: Joe Foster’s address to the FOSATU Congress in April 1982, Doug Hindson’s comparison of the old and new union movements, and Bob Fine et. al’s call for union registration. Three key questions emerge from the strategies advocated by the authors. Does union registration represent an extension of state repression or the opposite - a concession to labor? How closely must labor unions align their objectives with those of "nationalist" struggles? How should unions build the capacity necessary to build class consciousness, hitherto lacking?

The Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924 launched an era of white-dominated craft unions that forestalled the formation of more inclusive, class-oriented organizations. Membership in these unions was segregated by industry and denied rights to African workers. Over time, even though blacks were at their weakest organizationally, the Act had the adverse effect of consolidating diverse groups of blacks, including tribes, migrants and non-migrants, as well as urban and rural denizens. In 1977, following a wave of protests and "urban revolts," the government granted in-plant committees formal negotiating powers, adding a significant channel for worker demands. The 1970s also marked a departure from the old model of labor solidarity organized along industrial lines and emphasizing "shop-floor strength" towards a more general, "mass township" unionism that more effectively harnessed worker militancy.

As with all political movements, a significant source of tension is the degree of compromise with the forces being opposed. Fine et. al debate the advantages and disadvantages of registering black unions rather than boycott the enabling legislation. Opposing the black voices that claimed that liberalization was merely masking further domination through apartheid, the authors claim that registration are genuine concessions that offer an extension of rights: "concession or rights [registration] offers will be used by black workers in ways that were never intended to consolidate, broaden and strengthen the union movement."

Foster says the directional emphasis should be on shop-floor strength and establishing national nonracial unions; the idea is to preserve worker militancy. He urges members to look at success stories around the world, including Poland and Solidarity. He tempers his outlook by stating that South Africa is not an advanced industrial society like the Western states, which have strong labor movements. South Africa currently had no "social identity as a working class." Foster outlines the capitalist exploitation of racist divisions in labor. He laments the black unions’ lack of leadership experience, and organizational instability and weakness. He argues for realistic goals: (1) not to organize all workers, but "mobilize across factories and across industries" and (2) to set feasible standards of union governance in the name of unity and not allow too much individual autonomy."

Recommended Readings
Fine, Bob, Francine de Clercq, and Duncan Innes. "Trade Unions and the State: the Question of Legality." In Maree, Johann, ed. The Independent Trade Unions, 1974-1984: Ten Years of the South African Labour Bulletin. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1987.
Foster, Joe. "The Workers’ Struggle ? Where Does FOSAT Stand?" In Maree, Johann, ed. The Independent Trade Unions, 1974-1984: Ten Years of the South African Labour Bulletin. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1987.
Hindson, Doug. "Overview: Trade Unions and Politics." In Maree, Johann, ed. The Independent Trade Unions, 1974-1984: Ten Years of the South African Labour Bulletin. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1987.
Twentieth Century Durban. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.