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Table of contents

As the bargaining procedures have become routinized, so over the years the state has made relatively fewer official interventions in the racial allocation of labour ; the enforcement of informal job reservation which increasingly protects Indian and Coloured workers in secondary industry is negotiated discretely at meetings of industrial councils 3. The industrial councils represent a highly developed industrial relations system based on the social partnership of registered trade unions and employers and over one million workers of all races are covered in the most strategic industries.

Wages in the less significant industries, excluding African miners and agricultural workers who are totally unorganized, are revised periodically by the state Wage Board. To a large extent the expansion of industrial councils in particular helps to explain the declining militancy of White, Coloured and Indian workers.

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The advanced nature of the industrial relations system in South Africa poses important questions for trade unionism among black workers. These trade unions are totally excluded from deliberations over job classification, wage rates, hours and overtime, benefits, complaints and grievances and yet their members' jobs, wages, and working conditions are determined by this process.

The industrial council agreements are highly technical documents: in a recent court case they were described as subordinate domestic legislation and not a contract between union members and employers 4. All aspects of wages and conditions in key industries are determined by a complex legalistic procedure which is impenetrable by unregistered trade unions.

These agreements provide in minute detail controls over employment : for example, maximum hours in industry are limited to 46 per week, child labour is prohibited, workers are given payslips, overtime rates are laid down. This formal superstructure of control over production processes is an attempt to strengthen bourgeois ideology among all workers, to limit competition among capitals, and to reduce even registered trade unions to the level of benefit funds. There is at the moment an active debate taking place within the ruling class in South Africa on the appropriate form of trade unionism for African workers and the question of 'deracializing' labour relations.

The issues have come into prominence because of the crisis of accumulation there has been no real expansion in the gross domestic product over the past two years , the rising demands of black workers, and the demands of the international trade union movement for trade union rights in South Africa. Capital requires a decisive transformation of the labour process with rapid deskilling and job fragmentation to restore a higher rate of return on investment and make South African products more competitive.

The concessions which may be offered recognition for official African trade unions under state control, an end to job reservation, etc are predicated on a belief in the underdevelopment of class consciousness among African workers and a determination to suppress class conscious leadership.

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The potential and significance of black working class action is seen fundamentally differently by revolutionary and bourgeois theorists. It has been argued that black workers are subjected to the most exacting exploitation and oppression by capital in the form of racial legislation. The superexploitation of African workers is more than simply the fact of a higher rate of exploitation of the working class than that in advanced capitalist countries.

National antagonism is a form of class antagonism in South Africa " Braverman, , p. While the idea that 'nations' may be exploited must always remain problematic in Marxist theory witness the debate about underdevelopment and unequal exchange , this statement is a definite attempt to link class struggle to the popular consciousness of the oppressed masses in South Africa.

Black workers, from this analysis, suffer a two-fold oppression ; economic and national oppression. Class interests from this analysis tend to become reduced to economic interests, and political practice is not based on a working class strategy.

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The concept of national oppression which implies an absolute control over the lives of African workers by the apartheid state provides a complete fusion of political national and economic class struggles. Concretely, all forms of social action by black workers are seen as being fundamentally political and potentially revolutionary, and industrial strikes then automatically become political actions. Also in terms of the pass laws they are immediately open to arrest because they have broken their contracts by withdrawing their labour" Sechaba, November , p.

The politics of African working class action is immediately related to the totality of state repression and racial legislation. From the perspective of double exploitation both as Africans and as workers and national oppression every strike can be compared to a revolt of the oppressed, outright defiance of the racist state, and virtually an insurrectionary act. The possibility of reforms confusing working class action or of trade union practice becoming economistic is immediately negated by the revolutionary potential of African working class action. Bourgeois theorists of industrial relations and social change, to the contrary, present the black working class in South Africa as disorganized and incapable of determined political action.

One of the few thorough studies of industrial relations in South Africa concludes that black workers are not fighting militantly for higher wages and better conditions and that South African has "a remarkably low incidence of industrial strife" Clack, , p. Clack distinguishes between industrial strikes, which he describes as of limited size and short duration, and large-scale work stoppages which are "only incidently strikes, having been political demonstrations against general rather than industrial disabilities" Clack, , p.

As other bourgeois theorists of industrial relations he insists on dividing industrial from political action and avoids any discussion of the nature of exploitation in apartheid society. It has also been argued that strike action is a 'blunt weapon' in the struggle against apartheid, and that industrial action cannot easily be turned into an insurrection. The black working class is presented as incapable of disciplined national collective action : "at present, the black labour force in South Africa is politically too isolated, too heterogeneous in character, too poorly organized and occupationally too unstable.

Although Africans, much as workers elsewhere, are engaged in a continual quest for money, the additional amount desired is not at any time very great. Such demands as those articulated during the course of the Durban strikes 98 per cent for higher wages were easily manageable and were in fact quickly dealt with in the various industries by the White industrial management" Petryozak, , p.

Bourgeois theorists devalue working class action and present the black proletariat as capable of only sporadic action and presenting demands which can easily be met by employers or effortlessly destroyed by the state.

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They are determined to remove the revolutionary content from working class action. The most advanced black trade unions have been described as inherently economistic, and doubt has been thrown on the idea that working class militancy necessarily develops revolutionary consciousness. In an article in the African Communist Davis is critical of all educational institutions and trade union organisations within the country as at best militantly economistic, or at worst operating to displace SACTU the South African Congress or Trade Unions as the international representative of the South African working class Davis, At a deeper theoretical level is has been argued within the movement that trade unions as such are not productive of a socialist consciousness and retard the fulfilment of the primary conditions of revolution.

As a form of working class organization trade unionism is limited and counter-productive to revolutionary action. Even in the context of a capitalist crisis, trade unionism does not necessarily develop revolutionary consciousness, crucial to which is the pre-existence of the revolutionary party and the relative strength of the hold of bourgeois ideology over the proletariat.

Bourgeois ideology, it has been argued, is strengthened by trade unionism and in this way trade unionism retards the development of the party. From another perspective there is scepticism about open working class organization which stems from a view that the apartheid state is allpowerful and that the only form of struggle appropriate to the strength of the state apparatus is armed struggle. Class-conscious workers, it is argued, should abandon the struggle to establish trade unions and acknowledge the primacy of political struggle by leaving the country to get professional military training.

The issue of working class rights thus can only be solved through military struggle ; in a national democratic state trade union rights will be granted to workers. This interpretation of the weakness of potential working class organization and action within the country given the massive repression leads to an understanding that the apartheid state will not tolerate any effective challenge to its rule and that any surviving organization of black workers is necessarily suspect.

In this article the development of the labour movement among black workers will be related to the growing number of strikes, uprisings in the townships and mines, and the general level of activity of the black working class. What were the conditions which have transformed South Africa from a relatively strike-free country to one in which workers are increasing the level of their organizations and increasingly taking industrial and political action?

To what extent have trade unions dampened or advanced revolutionary consciousness among black workers? Is any effective black working class organization possible within the present repressive economic and political structure, or are the only alternatives faced by working class organization to be accommodated within these structures or be destroyed?

Is it true, as a working party of the Ruskin Students Association have argued, that trade union organization within the country must be practically impotent until the present apartheid system is crushed? Ruskin Students Association, , p. What has been the relationship between the trade unions and the uprisings after Soweto? More generally, to what extent is class action by black workers political and a challenge to the apartheid state?

It will be argued that trade unionism among black workers is not revolutionary by nature, but only in relation to the development of working class struggle, and by creating bases for decisive action by black workers. Operating, as they are forced to do, outside the system of collective bargaining or functioning unionism, trade unions of black workers are forced through their weakness and lack of disciplinary powers to relate to the fundamental questions raised by the working class or be destroyed. Their ability to advance working class consciousness is depenent on their response to the working class movement which is deepened by the growth of an underground revolutionary party.

It will be argued that trade unions, as open and legal organizations, are not the vanguard of resistance, for resistance must be spearheaded underground during the intense repression now experienced by the black working class. These issues will be developed before moving on to an evaluation of South African experience of working class struggles. Despite their importance as a weapon in the armoury of mass struggle, political strikes have not been considered inherently revolutionary.


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Despite providing a coherence to working class action the question of the purpose of mass political strike action remains: are they to be the basis for demanding political reforms, for deepening the working class movement, or creating the preconditions for an insurrection? In part this has been because of the failure of mass political strikes to achieve the disorganization of the state which was anticipated, but in many cases there was no conception of transforming general strike action into insurrection.

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A strong current of socialist theory has transformed the Marxist theory of revolution into an ideology of integration. German Social Democrats and trade unionists were, for example, hostile to the 'anarchistic' advocacy of general strikes as opposed to the "painstaking day-to-day work of strengthening the organization of the workers". Party leaders such as Bernstein conceived of the general strike as a means of accomplishing the proletarian revolution. These views of the incorporation of the working class through political strikes were vigorously opposed by Rosa Luxemburg who argued that mass strikes were the "method of motion of the proletarian mass" brought about through revolutionary struggle Luxemburg, , pp.

She argues against parliamentary fixation, the subordination of all political and mass action to parliamentary politics, and in particular against "practical politicians" who couple the mass strike with the issue of universal franchise : "it follows that they can believe two things - first, that the mass strike is of a purely defensive character, and second, that the mass strike is even subordinate to parliamentarism, that is, has been turned into a mere appendage of parliamentarism" p.

Despite evoking the spontaneity of the working class, she does argue for the most responsive interaction between mass strikes and the party which is called upon to take up the political leadership of the strike movement to bring about a revolutionary moment. Basic to Luxemburg's conception of the mass strike is the productive relation between political and economic struggles, even to the extent of turning the more conventional idea of economic strikes being transformed into political strikes upside down : "the purely political demonstration strike plays quite a subordinate role".

Both forms of struggle are necessary to each other : "Each great political mass action, after it has attained its political highest point, breaks up into a mass of economic strikes" Between political and economic demands there is "the most complete reciprocal action.

earkipbeaka.tk While mass strikes are led by the more conscious workers, the crucial aspect of this form of struggle is the recruitment of the widest possible proletarian layers for the struggle, such as unorganised workers pp. Through mass strikes there is a definite advance in class consciousness, in the material position of the workers, and even in attaining elementary trade union demands previously denied pp.

Far from being destroyed by participating in the mass upsurge, Luxemburg argues that it is only by seizing the moment to advance industrial and political demands that the trade unions could be transformed from collective bargaining agencies into mass proletarian organisations. In this context he theorizes the proletariat producing leadership through organization and action, containing its own reserves of energy in less advanced workers, and having interacting groups of workers within itself.

Contrary to Luxemburg he argues that organization is central to mass strikes : the leading workers are the most organized and it is this vanguard which develops the political slogans and the longest fighting strikes. In a crucial article which combines his theory of the working class vanguard with statistical analysis, Strike statistics in Russia , Lenin develops the concept of an active working class putting forward demands and develops strike committees and distinguished between different levels of consciousness in the working class.

The advanced workers draw in the 'average' and 'backward' workers and provide the political leadership in the struggle. CW 16, pp. They had a crucial role in mobilizing the mass of workers to action through advanced slogans and audacious strike demands which spurred on the backward sections into the more modest, and often economic, demands. The wave of largely economic strikes in turn sustained and gave force to the emphatically political strikes of the advanced sections.

Each forward move encouraged new, unorganized sections of the proletariat to seize the chance to improve their conditions, and these claims were generalized and radicalized in the demands of advanced workers. The 'average' workers can then make the transition to political demands as outlying areas of the country and unorganized sections of the class are drawn into battle. This theory of revolutionary waves of mass strikes depands on the closest connection between political and economic demands as the most unorganized sections can be aroused only by "the most extraordinary accentuation of the movement" and by economic demands.

It is this constant interaction and transformation of demands and strikes which makes possible the telescoping of evolutionary socio-political development into revolutionary advance. The upsurge of mass strike action may not have been precipitated by the immediate commands of reolutionary organization, but the fact of mass working class action creates the basis for wider organization of the working class.

The new leadership, new militant groups, new tactics, which are created at the moment of mass action draw upon the revolutionary experience of previous resistance ; the history and experience of working class struggles which bring forward coherent working class demands. As Lenin has argued, there are degrees of 'spontaneity' and political maturity in the working class.

During an upsurge in class action the secret and underground organization of workers takes decisions on the timing of strikes, formulation of demands, and action against informers. It is during mass action that the concrete connections are made between organized revoltionaries and this underground : the hundreds of revolutionaries are turned into thousands of leaders of mass proletarian action. This concept of a working class movement relies on a developed network of social relations which form the basis for working class solidarity within the docks, factories, plantations, offices, and other working places.

As the working class advances through struggle and develops class aspirations which are first manifest in demands for control over production, capital responds with more refined forms of bourgeois ideology which attempt to win over the organic unofficial and unelected leadership of the work groups in production. The organizational strength of the working class depends, therefore, on the links of the revolutionary movement with the organic leadership of workers in production and the overall development of revolutionary ideology.

In most capitalist countries these developments lead to an open trade union movement within a socialist movement.


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  • In highly repressive states such as South Africa the immense pressure of class and racial oppression has virtually eliminated organized workers as a group during crucial phases of accumulation. While a party constructed on the principles of 'democratic centralism' in the Leninist mould may find it possible to survive under severe repression as a highly integrated, secret group organized on the basis of independent cells linked horizontally to other cells, a trade union is difficult to continue as an effective mass organization.

    The effectiveness of trade union organization is closely related to the mass movement of workers and to the growth of broad and popular organization. The problems of an 'underground' trade union are immense. Nevertheless they have been conceptualized as illegal trade unions following a section in What is to be done?