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Recent articles by Lucien Van Der Walt
Recent Articles about Southern Africa Economy
Saving jobs in South Africa in the crunch: 'engage' or revolt?
Learning from workers in Korea and France
One of the great weaknesses of SA unions - or at least their leaders - is the notion that unions should actively aim at restructuring the economy through policy engagement. This idea is often labelled 'strategic unionism' or 'radical reform', and centres on a politics of cooperating with capital and the state to effectively restructure "South African" industry for global competition. This is summed up in the phrase that "business is too important to leave to management".
The same idea - the so-called "progressive competitive alternative" - rests on the belief that there is a working-class-friendly "high road" to the global economy (in contrast with the low-wage-high repression "low road" of China et al, the idea here is workers via unions can suggest ways to restructure that will lead to high wages, job security and co-determination). It can be seen in the abortive (union-initiated) Reconstruction and Development Programme of the early 1990s, the unions' follow-up, "Social Equity and Job Creation", in the more recent "Sector Job Summits" process, and the recent presidential meetings on the global crisis. It is at the heart of COSATU's deep commitment to - indeed, entanglement in - NEDLAC and other corporatist structures.
The disgraceful record of the economy over the last four decades no doubt fosters the notion that "business is too important to leave to management", but (in claiming the problem is "management" rather than the system and its ruling class, or is "bad" capitalism rather than "good" efficient capitalism) it draws exactly the wrong conclusions (unions effectively seeking to manage exploitation, rather than abolish it). If the economy is "too important to leave to management", why collaborate with that management? Why try and fix its problems? Why not, in short, fight to dethrone it permanently through working class counter-power?
The problems with the unions' approach are obvious:
- centralisation and bureaucratisation: policy engagement of this sort generates within the unions a need for a layer of highly trained technocrats, and shifts focus from militant struggle (by the grassroots) to technical talks about "policy" (by the technocrats and their state and capital equivalents). It pushes union leaders and advisors into what the syndicalist De Leon called the role of "labour lieutenants of the capitalist class"
Current struggles demonstrate there is a serious alternative means to save jobs as the crisis bites: occupation and the refusal to be retrenched. This model, seen spectacularly in action in the heroic and for the time successful occupations struggles at the Daewoo plants - and general strikes - in South Korea in 2001, is again on the agenda, as the following report from France shows: such measures are not a complete solution - more a holding action and a training ground for the key task of taking and holding the factories - but absolutely vital.