Our news over the past couple of years has been dominated by the Marikana incident and the subsequent Platinum strike which has just ended. Now we have Numsa out on a national strike demanding a 12% (15%?) pay increase and the banning of labour brokers.
It is almost like we are back in the 80’s with unions being at the forefront of the struggle against the Nationalist (apartheid) government. Yet the ANC has just been re-elected for a five year term and Cosatu is part of the Tripartheid Alliance. So what is going on?
Let us take a look back at strategies of the 80’s and, in particular, the influence of the British trade unions who were strong supporters of the Anti-Apartheid movement. One of the influential leaders at the time was Arthur Scargill, leader of the Mine Workers union. He had an interesting philosophy called impossibilism:
“The essence of impossibilism is to set workers off after a set of demands which are impossible to achieve. Which is not as daft as it looks. It educates workers in the grim truth that the current system cannot – of its very nature – meet their demands. That lifts the struggle onto a higher and more revolutionary plain, especially if the ‘repressive brutality’ of the State, as well as the realities of capitalism, are employed in breaking the strike.”
In other words, if strikers are set up to fail and to lose their jobs, they can then be easily persuaded to reject the whole capitalist system and to fight for its complete overthrow (revolution). The 80’s was a time of strikes, mass action and of course, the armed struggle in South Africa. This philosophy therefore made sense at that time.
Take for example a document that was circulating in the local motor industry at the time:
“As soon as you start trying to organise a union in a non-union workplace, start thinking about the possibility of industrial action. In any non-union workplace there will be dissatisfactions. Carefully probe, bring resentments to the surface and expose them against the employer. Start from individual problems but establish which issues are really group problems and are likely to lead to widespread mobilisation: which problems are most deeply felt and therefore most explosive.
In any non-Union workplace you would have to pose the Union as the answer to these problems. The Employer has to be seen as the cause of poor pay and conditions; the Union as the solution. Contrast this workplace with others where a Union is recognised and the superior terms and conditions there.
Move carefully and slowly but persistently. Talk to workers in breaks, in the pub, on the bus and at home. It is better to go slow than too fast.
You may face a problem where a minority of workers are straining to have a go at the Employer whilst the rest are not ready. To some you are too far ahead, to others you are lagging behind. You may have to do your utmost to restrain the first group if it is too small, whilst trying to avoid demoralising them. On the other hand, don’t think in terms of a majority.
The majority are only likely to join a Union when it is recognised and can bring benefits. A strategically placed willing minority can win the day.”
This approach is one of not seeking to constructively engage for the betterment of the workers. It is aimed at fermenting discontent, even if there is none. Look at the latest round of strikes and it would appear that history is repeating itself.
It is important to understand that while the majority of people voted for the ANC, it does not mean that they are happy with the way that they are being governed. That fact is evidenced by the widespread, often violent service level protests, and the dissension within the labour movement. Amcu, Numsa and other parties within the Cosatu as well as the Economic Freedom Front are very opposed to the Zuma government.
Let us wake up to the fact that if the situation is left unchecked, we are heading toward an ‘Arab spring’. It is important for both Government and employers to take serious notice of what is going on.
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