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The myth of a labour aristocracy in South Africa

The myth of a labour aristocracy in South Africa

by Eddie Cottle| Amandla! Issue No. 66 | October 2019

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It is well known that relatively well-paid industrial workers formed the social base of the Bolsheviks. Low paid textile workers were generally unorganised.

In recent years, there has been a lack of a revolutionary movement, and reformism has persisted amongst workers in South Africa. This has led to disillusionment and a claim that organised labour is a labour aristocracy. This claim has been made without substantiation. It often makes vague reference to workers who are “higher paid”, “relatively privileged”, “permanent white-collar” and “permanent blue-collar” who make up the social base of trade unions to explain their reformism.

More recently, in the book Cosatu in Crisis, it is argued that Cosatu’s composition changed from blue collar and working class to one that increasingly represents “lower middle-class”, white collar workers. In other words, the defenders of a labour aristocracy thesis claim, the reformism of sections of workers is because they are well-paid and largely white collar. They contrast this with the past where federations such as Cosatu were predominantly lower paid, blue collar and militant.

There are several errors with this line of inquiry. This article will show that there is no historical evidence that workers who are well-paid and permanent are generally reformist while workers who are low paid and precarious are radical and revolutionary. In order to understand trade unions today, one must take into account the structural changes in the economy which have altered the labour process and the skills composition of the workforce. This in turn has directly affected the composition of the trade unions. Finally, I will address the question of why reformism and conservatism persist, despite opportunities for the working class to use their collective power to alter their social condition.

No link between higher pay and reformism

It is well known that relatively well-paid industrial workers formed the social base of the Bolsheviks. Low-paid textile workers were generally unorganised. They were either apolitical or they supported the Mensheviks until the beginning of the Russian revolution. Throughout the 20th century, well-paid industrial workers played a leading role in mass uprisings. In the US, relatively well-paid workers led the struggles in auto, steel, rubber and other mass production industries. They united workers regardless of skills and pay levels. Well-paid workers in trucking, auto, telecommunications, public education and postal services led the proto-revolutionary mass struggles in France, Italy, Britain, Portugal and the U.S from 1965-1975. In the South, well-paid workers (copper mining, metal, and auto) in Chile, Argentina and Brazil were the leading force during the 1970s and 80s.

The industrialisation of South Africa from 1939, coupled with the Great Boom of the 1960s, saw the introduction of racial Fordist mass production technologies and a division of labour. These increased demand for semi-skilled and skilled workers to support the growth of manufacturing as the lead sector of the South African economy. By 1985, and in line with restructuring policies, the proportion between unskilled (which had been the majority of the workforce), semi-skilled and skilled had changed. It now looked like this:

  Unskilled Semi-skilled Skilled
Manufacturing 13% 76% 11%
Mining 51% 42% 7%
Construction 18% 65% 16%

The emergent black trade unions, including Cosatu, drew their membership mainly from permanent, semi-skilled and skilled workers who adopted socialist ideas and formed part of a revolutionary movement to overthrow the apartheid capitalist state. The notion that permanent employment explains reformism is thus without an empirically factual basis.

South Africa’s post-apartheid neoliberal model of growth in turn changed. It was predominantly based on manufacturing and mining (blue collar workers). It is now dominated, in terms of employment creation, by the business services sector and the public sector (white collar workers). This is fundamental to understanding the transformation of the composition of the trade unions.

As any socialist would argue, the expansion and decent employment of workers in the public sector is central to the socialisation of the economy in the long-term struggle. It is rather baffling that permanent employment, itself a product of class struggle, is frowned upon rather than celebrated!

Furthermore, the average wages for blue collar and white-collar workers are surprisingly similar. For example in 2006, average monthly earnings in mining, with 74% blue collar workers, were R7,388. In finance and business services, with almost 100% white collar employment, they were R8,486.

A benchmark of white-collar earnings is home ownership. This places middle segment housing at R818,333 for 2006, with a qualifying gross income of R28,000. The average public sector worker, earning R9,137 per month, only qualifies for a bond of R284,000. This is in the segment of working-class housing, with an average price of R362 000.

Public sector not secure or skilled

In 2003, the skills composition of the public sector was unskilled (11%), semi-skilled (70%) and skilled (19%). Most public sector workers are therefore, semi-skilled, white-collar workers and are not lower middle class. They are proletarian and disposable, since they can easily be replaced. In all industrial sectors except agriculture, semi-skilled workers make up 60-77% of the workforce.

The proponents of the labour aristocracy thesis assume that the permanent status of most of Cosatu’s membership implies secure and non-precarious forms of employment. Quite to the contrary. The public sector in its entirety has been subject to restructuring. Non-core activities have been partially or fully outsourced to private entities. There is a constant threat of further privatisation (read retrenchments) and fiscal restraint. The majority of industrial action comes from public sector workers (288 strikes from 2000-2014). Contrary to popular belief, the average “relatively privileged”, permanently employed Cosatu member, of which public sector workers constitute one third, finds themselves in precarious employment, a condition they have resisted.

Without guaranteed long term employment and social welfare, which requires a high wage economy, the material basis for a labour aristocracy simply does not exist. The roots of the reformism of the working class and organised labour lie elsewhere, in the capitalist labour market.

Competition in the labour market

Workers most of the time act as individuals. They are in competition with other workers to sell their labour power on the capitalist market. Their main priority is their own reproduction and that of their families and not radical change or the overthrow of capitalism. The daily struggle for survival, long hours of travel and working time and the additional reproductive responsibility of female workers provide little time to engage in a day to day struggle against the exploitative conditions. So large sections of workers embrace reformist unionism, with its routine industrial relations procedures and actions. The working class, at the same time, seeks to protect or advance its overall social reproduction through support for reformist parliamentary parties.

The rapid pace of capital-intensification in production since the 1990s has led to a proportional decrease in the amount of employment required within the labour process. This has expanded the reserve army of labour, which in turn decreases the market power of labour. These conditions of high unemployment further increase competition between workers; between employed and unemployed, permanent and casual, men and women, foreign and local. In such conditions, sections of workers adopt conservative and even reactionary ideas, such as those evidenced by the recent spate of xenophobic violence. They even refuse to organise unorganised workers because they appear as a threat to existing employment conditions. These processes never take a uniform direction, and a section of workers maintain a consistent progressive outlook.

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The roots of militancy

The periods of changing class consciousness, where workers adopt a more radical approach, are episodic. They correlate with long-term movements of capitalism, where the general rate of profit declines and capital responds through the introduction of labour-saving technologies and cost cutting across industry.

Such a period, an initial turning point in the level of class struggle, occurred in 2005, and the trade union movement led by Cosatu, under pressure from its rank and file members, began to adopt a more radical position. The 2005 strike wave was offensive in character, with trade unions demanding wage rates double the 3.4% inflation rate. The average settlement rate was 6.3%, with workers fighting against an overall deterioration of working conditions. Except for construction, the strike wave affected all industries. About 40% of strikes were wildcat.

The strikes were qualitatively distinct from prior years. The national strike of 90,000 workers in gold mining was the first in 18 years, since the defeat of the 1987 miners’ strike. The strike in South Africa Airways was also a first. Several of the strikes were challenging changes to the labour process. The strike at VW was against planned outsourcing; at chrome mines it concerned job grading; at Fidelity Supercare, workers were protesting flexible employment contracts, and Zimbabwean workers at Maswiri Boerdery were protesting changes in pay for piecework. Other distinct features of the strike wave were the entry of seasonal and casual workers in agro-processing at Nestlé, Delmonte, Unifruitii citrus packaging and eight strikes in the Western Cape fishing factories.

In several of the strikes, unions were attempting to unify workers through fighting against disparities in pay between seasonal, casual and permanent workers and for higher increases for workers at the lower end of the wage spectrum. The Solid Doors strike, a steel company in Mpumalanga, embarked on the longest strike (177 days) in the history of South African labour relations.

The other unique aspect of 2005 was that it witnessed the emergence of multi-union strikes, like the municipal wage strike in July (Samwu and Imatu), X-Strata Alloys Lydenburg Works (Numsa and Solidarity), Electrical Cables (also Numsa and Solidarity); and the national strike in gold (NUM and Solidarity). This development indicated new attempts at unity in the broad unionised workforce in South Africa. Furthermore, there was a one-day national strike called by Cosatu against job losses and poverty.

Each strike wave after 2005 built on the previous one, and the strikes were reminiscent of some of the most violent strikes of the 1980s. They were fundamentally a contest over the changing nature of work. The year 2007 was illuminated by 608,919 strikers and 9.5 million days lost, both of which were the highest figures in a decade. The high level of days lost is largely attributed to the wage demands of the offensive Public Service strike, a “contest of power” lasting 25 days, involving 10 trade unions and 332,074 workers.

This extraordinary period, involving all workers, permanent and casual, blue-collar and white-collar, unleashed a level of self-activity and organisation that seemed impossible just a few years before. The competition amongst workers was breaking down and a working class “for itself” was beginning to ferment.

Reformist trade union bureaucracy

However, the trade union bureaucracy noted the momentum of the strike waves it led in the 2005-2007 wave, which were uniting organised and unorganised workers. That bureaucracy attempted to hold back this movement in favour of a short-lived political exchange within the Tri-partite Alliance for a more “labour-friendly” Zuma government.

This political exchange did not succeed in holding back workers’ struggle, and in 2009 construction trade unions led a national strike of organised and unorganised workers. They had a common set of demands, including converting workers on limited duration contracts into full-time workers. The outcome of the strike set the pace for other workers, with a real wage increase of 4%, extension of annual leave days and a 40-hour week. The leadership ultimately backed down on permanent employment because of “patriotism” surrounding the 2010 FIFA World Cup and called off the strike. In 2010, there were strikes in transport, mining, higher education, health, chemical, transport, municipal, metal, auto, energy, hospitality, retail, and farmworkers. In many of these strikes, the demand to end casual labour and labour broking featured prominently.  

The 9.5 million days lost in 2007 more than doubled to 20.6 million in 2010. However, most of the days lost were in the public sector, where some 1.3 million workers came out on another militant strike. They suspended their strike after nearly three weeks, in a battle that saw some of the largest police attacks on labour since the fall of apartheid. Cosatu failed to carry out its threat of a solidarity general strike, putting a damper on the momentum of workers. In general, most strikes were successful, with workers across industrial sectors securing real increases comparable to those of the 1980s.

The trade unions united around the ousting of then President Mbeki, but as the level of class struggle intensified tensions emerged in the Tri-partite Alliance. They in turn increased divisions amongst more militant and conservative trade union leaderships. This was most starkly visible with the fall-out over the Marikana Massacre and the role of the National Union of Mine Workers leadership in sabotaging the strike. Cosatu split at a time when so much more was possible in harnessing the momentum of workers to achieve more substantive gains.

It is the trade union bureaucracy, not its membership, that is the foundation of a consistent reformist practice and ideology within the working class. It is that leadership which is vested in maintaining capitalist relations. They are a distinct layer, freed from the daily humiliation of the capitalist labour process. They have direct access to sources of power in the state and business to advance their individual lifestyles and careers. In this context they reduce change to parliamentary reform and institutionalised collective bargaining. They occasionally engage in militant action when reformism fails, only to hold workers back or sabotage their struggle, as in Marikana, when the momentum of workers begins to shake the established system.

Eddie Cottle is a labour scholar and a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party.

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One comment on “The myth of a labour aristocracy in South Africa
  1. sizwe says:

    Semi skilled.Skilled and semi skilled are capitalist terminologies used to justify low wage. Well one either has it or doesnt have it. One cannot almost have a skill. The first couple of paragraph really is all about schooled people, which is not bad, really almost everyone in the world have been schooled. However being educated takes but only few moments, unless one wishes to reach certain heights of understanding in certain issues. And that’s not even to say that most people who go to school ever went there to make a difference in this world. They just didnt have a choice. So whatever Aristocracies and other crasies mingled with cosatus and reforms are true to a certain extent, but also not true. Quantum physics shows that all is possible.

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