Workers are not your whipping boys

Thy income done: ‘The worker struggles have been defensive in nature.’ (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Thy income done: ‘The worker struggles have been defensive in nature.’ (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Last month the World Economic Forum's Global Com­petitiveness Report put South Africa at the bottom of 147 countries in terms of labour-employer relations for the second year in a row.

We need to ask why this is in a way that goes beyond a kneejerk scapegoating of unions.

The signal for the latest wave of labour bashing was the publication of an International Monetary Fund South Africa country report.

But it contained no surprises, rehashing the same set of failed economic policies that have laid waste to much of the world economy over the past few decades and blaming labour for failing to submit to the imperatives of flexibility.

It was followed by a decision by BMW to cancel expansion plans in South Africa, putatively in response to a strike by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.

The scale of the media offensive in the wake of this was staggering. With some schadenfreude and more than a little panic, many commentators interpreted BMW's decision as a watershed moment in the post-apartheid period.

Research needed
Some interesting media research stands to be done here — we may celebrate a relative openness in the major press houses, in which a wide spectrum of opinions is featured, but the sheer weight of visceral anti-labour reporting belies a worrying degree of corporate influence.

Its immense resources no doubt devoted to achieving this are paying dividends.

The task of demonising labour is no longer the work of a few shills for hire — anti-union sentiments have become so commonplace and normalised that they feature reflexively in most reporting on labour and economic issues.

Allister Sparks's promotion of unreconstructed Washington Consensus economics is symptomatic of the corporate capture of journalism in South Africa.

The ability to submerge the facts in the debate over wages and unemployment is another measure of the success of business lobbying.

Research by economist Ilan Strauss, the Alternative Information and Development Centre and the Datafirst Unit of the University of Cape Town shows that the real wages of most workers in the economy have been stagnant for the past decade, or even longer.

Declining living standards
With higher inflation for poorer households and the growing burden of unemployment, most workers have probably experienced declining living standards.

The obverse is soaring profitability. A June study by Credit Suisse Holt claimed that the largest players on the JSE are the most profitable companies in the world.

What do these figures show? First, it makes the story that blames strikes on "insiders" (unionised formal sector workers) making greedy demands that keep outsiders out of work a tough sell.

We're constantly reminded that strikes often hit workers hardest and that it often takes years to recoup the wages lost from absent days.

But it doesn't follow from this that strikes are coercively manufactured by union bosses.
If anything, bureaucratisation and the loss of worker control have put union leaders in quite the opposite role.

The worker struggles that our punditry so malign have actually been defensive in nature — desperate attempts to hold on to existing incomes in the face of employers who have pocketed the productivity gains — super-profits — of 20 years and are determined to squeeze even more from workers. Capital is responsible for these strikes, not workers.

The capitalist response to wage demands
But the statistics on wages and profits also tell us something more about the nature of the capitalist response to wage demands.

Undoubtedly, these strikes are taking a chunk out of gross domestic product growth each year.

Undoubtedly, fractious employment relations are displeasing to investors and making credit harder to come by.

Undoubtedly, most firms have the margins to avert strikes by rolling back precariousness and granting workers the first real increases since apartheid.

Undoubtedly, such increases would, up to a point, make South Africa an easier place to do business and even feed back into profits by creating demand.

The ANC could not have been a better partner for big business. Its success in enabling a compromise with free-market economics, which saw profits boom and wages stagnate while subverting mass resistance, has been remarkable.

Keeping the flames of red danger alive
But, despite this, it has never fully won the trust of domestic capital and its predominately white personifications.

The mere presence of a communist party and a union federation in the tripartite alliance and the ANC's continued use of a revolutionary rhetoric, whatever its divergences from practice, keep the flames of rooi gevaar (red danger) alive.

Now, with a slight discolouration of the wealthy classes through black economic elite formation, with which capital co-operated, and the shifting of social antagonisms from race to class, employers are increasingly emboldened to attack workers directly and push ANC leaders to embrace the logic of their compromises fully by openly suppressing left elements in the alliance.

The ANC will be in power for a time still and the most powerful factions of local capital are determined to ensure that its economic programme remains invariant within a neoliberal framework, which means squashing the power and influence of unions.

This must be achieved without allowing the development of a mass left opposition.

Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Forum represents the first leftward split from the ANC, however much a xenophobically inflected nationalism is increasingly crowding out its class perspective.

Opportunistic politics
But the EFF remains too inextricable from Malema the individual, who is himself compromised.

Its politics is too opportunistic — too quick to sacrifice principle to the sentiments of a mob — and lacks a programme that perceives struggle outside the 2014 ballot box.

The youthful and precarious nature of the EFF's social base and much of its leadership and the immaturity of its organisational structures will not allow these weaknesses to be easily corrected, meaning that the EFF is unlikely to present a credible alternative to the ANC.

A far greater threat would be a split by Cosatu, which carries the traditions of the Congress and has considerable resources and organisational machinery and a much more advanced cadre.

Linked to the mass of unemployed under a Marxist programme, such a movement could shape the political future of this country.

One of the first questions it would have to address is how to end the ability of companies like BMW to hold South Africa to failing economic policies with the threat of capital strike and flight.

A broader political agenda
Many capitalists believe, erroneously, that unions are opposed to the interests of the unemployed.

But the intensity of the attack on unions, which is succeeding in drawing a wider social layer, belies a broader political agenda.

These efforts — to undermine unions and divide the unemployed from organised workers — are feeding dissent into more dangerous and volatile channels.

For progressives not wishing to see South Africa sundered by a chauvinistic, retributive nationalism and an authoritarian party of big business, the task of defending the unions and linking factory floor and community struggles remains paramount.

Niall Reddy is a researcher at the Alternative Information Development Centre and a member of the Progressive Economics Network

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