The striking times in which we live

A couple of things about the current wave of strikes.

Firstly, a strike entails costs for all parties involved in the collective bargaining process. We tend to think of the costs to the company and the customers of the company. But equally significant costs are born by the union and its members. Generally they don’t get paid while on strike and the strike incurs the hostility of management – for the union and leading elements amongst the workers. Management will weed out the workforce first chance it gets. In strikes the victory is never certain and if management can hold out the unions can incur the hostility and disappointment of members and potential members. A bad strike can break the back of a union.

Secondly, these strikes should not be understood as significantly unusual or confrontational. As Jacob Zuma is paraphrased by Wall Street Journal a few minutes ago: “… the strikes are a normal aspect of the bargaining season between unions and companies”.

The withholding of labour has been a right and a duty of workers for as long as capitalism has existed. It is how the system balances itself and without strikes and the right to strike the labour/management relationship would be uneven and unhealthy. Given a completely free hand (free from state regulation and free from collective worker and consumer action) management will create sweatshops every time a coconut – it’s the logic of the system.

Thirdly, strikes – particularly big national affairs – play to the middle ground (or rather they should, but they don’t in South Africa). The workers, in a confrontation with the bosses or government –  are struggling for the support of the classes of people that fall between: the middle classes, professionals and unemployed. In South Africa, the racial dimension of historical exclusion meant that prior to 1994 Cosatu had little potential support outside of organised workers and the unemployed. Trashing the streets and high levels of violence in industrial action was one of the results of Apartheid’s racial and class gettoising of South Africa. The same is not true today. Cosatu often fails to heed the changed circumstances and almost seems to be inviting growing social hostility and their own isolation as a result of their tactics. They should remind themselves that it was the daughter of  a grocer that crushed the flowering of British trade unionism. Maggie Thatcher closed pit after desperate pit and the petit bourgeois stood by and cheered her on. Over a long period United Kingdom trade unions had lost the support of the middle ground and they lost the coal industry and the government as a result.

Fourthly, in the grand scheme of things, Cosatu is on a hiding to nothing. Globalisation essentially means that capital,  goods and services can move swiftly anywhere in the world, making it impossible for anyone or anything but “best in the world” to compete. Globalisation essentially reduces local advantage. The same is true for labour markets. It is not that the individual (cheap and efficient) labourer is now internationally mobile – although this is sometimes the case. The labour or production process itself becomes broken up in ways that place the actual work  where it can most efficiently performed. Imagine cotton grown and picked by children in Uzbekistan, dyed and woven in India; and the garment designed in Milan and manufactured  in Jiangsu, China. How do trade unions lock down that labour process? The fact is they don’t and this means trade unions are up against history.

Finally, something that irritates me: Cosatu’s endlessly talks “for” the poor and unemployed. The truth is, frankly, the exact opposite to what Cosatu claims. The individual spokesperson or leader is probably speaking from the heart but this claim of brotherhood is actually a denial of the true nature of Cosatu’s relationship with the poorest and marginalised. Cosatu would like to end unemployment; because the logic of Cosatu’s business entails working to establish a monopoly on labour – to increase bargaining power with management. This means the imperative of the union is to control the labour market i.e. control the supply of labour. Ideally Cosatu would like 100% employment in the economy, then the “good” Cosatu controls would be in short supply. But when there is a large pool of unemployed structured into the economy, the trade union strategy must be to deny the unemployed access to the labour market or deny management access to the unemployed. And that is exactly what Cosatu has done since 1994. Cosatu cannot end unemployment so instead it supports legislation that “locks out” the unemployed from the labour market and “locks in” its own members in a highly regulated “labour aristocracy”. Thus there is no group more hostile to the interests of the unemployed and marginalised than Cosatu. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the Labour Relations Act and the various other aspects of law that structure the labour market are less victories for human rights in South Africa and more victories for those already employed over those who hope to be employed in future.

6 thoughts on “The striking times in which we live

  1. Your analysis of the current wave of strikes is quite thought provoking, particularly the point on COSATU being hostile to interests unemployed and marginalise. Moreso when the federation regards its as the champion of this sector of society.
    I am not sure whether you could isolate this aspect of your post and do a more detailed piece on it.

  2. I may get a chance to look at the question in more depth, but not for a few weeks. The short point is it is important to see the exchange between labour and employer as constituting a market in which the “thing” being bought and sold is the workers ability to work. Like all makets, the price is determined by supply and demand. If it is a “buyers market” i.e. if the employer is the only buyer he/she can force the price down. If labour is scarce, the price is driven up or improve the conditions on which the deal is struck. The logic of Cosatu is to keep its commodity, the thing it has to sell, scarce. The ONLY way Cosatu can do this in the South African context (with high structural unemployment) is to use the state and the law to make it difficult or costly or illegal for employers to “buy” from those who are prepared to sell at a lower price (or with less onerous conditions attached) i.e. the unemployed. Cosatu has used the state (and the mechanisms the state establishes for collective bargaining) to set minimum wage agreements, make it difficult and costly to to fire people, set high basic conditions of employement …. there are a host of other things but the point is that this regulatory regime make it difficulty and costly for management to hire people i.e. it keeps the marginalised out of the system and keeps Cosatu’s hand strong in collective bargaining. I will try to dedicate a post to this, but hopefully other people will comment – and disagree or flesh it out – NicB

  3. Another irony is that, in the good old days, before industrialisation (bef late 1800’s), the majority of blacks in SA (and whites) were self sufficient; lived off the land. Now they have to go on strike, at cost ot themselves, to improve their conditions in the prison (factory), that they have to work in, because they lost everything. How did this happen? We are so used to it that we think clocking in at work is normal and argue and negotiate about our rights within semi slavery as if we are making real gains, when in reality we know that some are becoming obscenely rich, while the vast majority get poorer in leaps and bounds. Sound familiar?

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