Monday, April 18, 2005

Summary of The Emergence of Powerful Black Unions by Roger Kerson

In his article The Emergence of Powerful Black Unions, Roger Kerson argues that labor organizing is one of the few above ground avenues left for black South Africans to express their dissent against the apartheid system. The reason for this is that the economic survival of the apartheid state depends largely on the power of black labor and industry, and consequently the state has no choice but to recognize and content with the new unions. Roger Kerson himself is a spokesperson for the United Auto Workers union and his article appears in The Anti-Apartheid Reader which was published in 1986 before the fall of the apartheid regime. Kerson outlines the importance of labor activism in the anti-apartheid movement and demonstrates that union activism extended beyond economic gains for workers and into the political sphere as well.
Kerson begins the article with a material example of the power of black unions. When John Gomomo, a shop steward at an auto factory and vice president of the National Automobile and Allied Workers Union was arrested by South African Security forces, 3,000 black workers at the factory walked off their jobs and refused to return until their leaders were released less than six hours later. This is a markedly different situation than most political activity happening in South Africa at this time where, “With most opposition groups under constant attack by the government-- virtually the entire leadership of the United Democratic Front, for example, is in detention, awaiting trial or in hiding, and several people have been mysteriously murdered-- trade unions are one of the few remaining aboveground outlets for black resistance” (Kerson 277). Unions have a distinct advantage over other anti-apartheid groups specifically because the South African economy depends on black workers in a way that makes the state vulnerable to their demands.
The union organizers are aware of both the leverage they have as workers in their dealings with the state and of the political interconnectedness of economic issues inside the factory and the repressive apartheid system at large. According to Chris Dlamini, president of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), “There’s no way we can divorce ourselves from the popular struggle... It emanates from the fact that people don’t have the right to vote -- that our people do not have equal access to the wealth of this country, even though we pay taxes... Trade unions are the only platform we’ve got” (Kerson 277). This accountability to black South Africans outside of the industrial world as well as to the workers themselves perhaps stems in part from the democratic nature of these unions and the fact that only active workers can serve as union officers who are at all times accountable to the rank and file.
The importance of black workers in the South African economy has in turn led to prominent business leaders and large corporations who “do their best to defeat black workers on the industrial front are suddenly painting themselves as supporters of black political aspirations” (Kerson 278). These corporations are being hurt economically because of the South African political crisis and the subsequent divestment of many global corporations. Increasingly, they are also looking to protect the interests of capitalism in the potential post-apartheid state. A.M. Rosholt, executive chairman of Barlow Rand Ltd., asserts the need “for businessmen to speak out more forcefully for the need for reform and to take steps to guarantee that blacks ‘enjoy their fair share of the fruits of the system’” (280) in order to protect a capitalist institutions from anti-apartheid reforms. Kerson argues that black workers will not be bought by the business rhetoric. Though these businessmen also argue that divestment hurts workers, two opinion polls actually “show that more than 70 percent of blacks favor some form of economic sanctions or divestment to put pressure on the Pretoria regime” (280). The union leadership and the ran and file are clearly aware that their best interests and the best interests of the corporations are not the same.
Ultimately, Kerson makes a good argument for the importance of black unions and “nonracial” unions in fighting the apartheid system through activism both inside and outside the shop floor. The discussion of the role of corporate businessmen encouraging an end to the apartheid system is especially interesting given the role of capitalist interests in the post-apartheid South Africa that succeeds the publishing of Kerson’s article.