Opinionista Ayabonga Cawe 9 May 2016

No comrades for the millennial worker?

The crux of the matter is not only that “staffriders have stolen the ANC, Cosatu” and the entire alliance as Zwelinzima Vavi suggests, but the age-old question of whether the “horse” that emerged in the late 1980s would be fit for the race in the changed political and shop-floor terrain of the 21st century.

He is from the old school. Sleeves rolled up at the elbows as if ready for the toiling that is the soundtrack of the lives of the many he has come across. Greying hair approaching the ears, a reminder that many moons have passed since the slogans that tugged at his heart had meant something. “That which we are, we are”, as Tennyson said in Ulysses. We were comrades, before that word referred in township parlance to the big-bellied NewsCafe and Tshisa Nyama, BMW-driving types; the gluttonous defenders of the “revolution”. His voice beams across the room, half-way between the register used in rallies and that used in backyard caucuses or negotiations. This comrade is comfortable in both.

Igshaan Schroeder is the co-ordinator of the Casual Workers Advice Office, a relic of a bygone era of shop-floor activism and popular education. Igshaan is a product of union organising in its heyday; an embodiment of worker control, solidarity and the primacy of worker and community solidarity in struggle. The language is alluring, and often heard in rallies across the nation around Worker’s Day. Even President Zuma took the opportunity at Moretele Park a few Sundays ago to remind workers nostalgically not only of his own union roots, but the roots of the alliance and solidarity between Cosatu (and SACTU before it) and the ANC and the Party.

What was missing from the analysis was an appreciation of two related developments over the last two decades which have exposed the “clay feet” of the labour movement in South Africa. The first is the changing nature of the workplace, away from the 20th century “racial Fordism” that was the backdrop of the trade union movement’s heyday in South Africa. The second is the changing sociopolitical profile of workers on the shop floor, much an outcome of their rearing in a post-Thatcherist 21st century of “individualism” and market fundamentalism.

Both of these developments are prominent features of global neoliberal restructuring of the workplace. A changing global division of labour, fragmented value chains and the paradoxically beneficial and disruptive role of technology in production have created a workplace different to that which inspired the likes of Elijah Barayi and others, to bank a decade of gains and misses to form a federation in 1985. The ilk of Barayi, Jay Naidoo and John Gomomo, were they to return to the trenches of the many mines, steel mills, canning factories and conveyer belts around which they organised workers, would find (where such are still operational) very few of these familiar.

More important, who are these workers that have emerged from the 21st century workplace, the majority of whom are not organised in any trade union? The answer: the woman in the retail trade, in the call centres nestled in obscure office parks, the migrants who work as petrol attendants and waitresses and the women who, while ill from the toll of their work on their bodies, clean and look after the children of others, but never their own. Increasingly, it is these workers who the traditional trade unions will not touch with a bargepole: the seasonal, temporary and casualised workers who cannot with any certainty assure union clerks that their subscriptions will be up to date.

Designed by Apple in California, assembled in China”, reads the label on the back of an iPhone, a timely reminder that the days of design, production and marketing occurring in the same geography are over. Sophisticated production chains now dot the global landscape, with high value elements ring-fenced by complex intellectual property regimes and low value or “non-core” elements of production happening in low wage environments across the globe.

As a senior executive at Transnet told me as I was researching the supplier development programme at the parastatal in 2014, the local industry exhibited very little capacity beyond “fabrication, metal bashing and taking designs from other overseas entities and then doing the assembly”. In this environment, nations like South Africa, with a lopsided industrial and skills profile, confront this globalised production landscape with minimal policy and intellectual property safeguards to protect local industry. Viewed in this way, the challenge for labour is not only an internal one, but also externally driven, and mediated by an alienating and excessively competitive global economy.

The crux of the matter is not only that “staffriders have stolen the ANC, Cosatu” and the entire alliance as Zwelinzima Vavi suggests, but the age-old question of whether the “horse” that emerged in the late 1980s would be fit for the race in the changed political and shop-floor terrain of the 21st century. The question begets another one: how does the political unionism of the 1980s and 1990s respond to the global neoliberal restructuring of the workplace, and related developments in community level struggles?

Unlike the bygone era, where the Cosas generation, with their “each one, teach one” mantra, entered the workplace with experiences of community and school-level politics and organisation, the millenials who now enter the workplace have different or rather limited experiences which link them intergenerationally to the struggles that conscientised their parents before them. This doesn’t make the work of organising young workers in casualised and precarious employment impossible, but difficult. As Igshaan related:

You can find a worker sitting with another colleague outside before the meeting starts, and when the meeting starts only one of them will join, and when you ask, ‘who was that you were sitting with’, the comrade will tell you, ‘that’s my best friend’, to which I ask, ‘why did you not invite her to the meeting?’. Blank stare.”

This is not to say that the current generation of young workers is not interested in struggle or organisation, just that the collective appreciation of shared experiences of injustice and exploitation cannot be taken for granted. In a world of greater individualism, where technology can often replace the necessity for physical human interaction, communication and solidarity, it is not surprising that the worker whose story Igshaan related did not find it unusual that she didn’t invite her friend to a workers’ meeting aimed at resolving issues they both faced. It’s just the nature of the world we live in.

These two challenges, combined with growing mistrust of labour federations who have positioned themselves as political kingmakers in the ruling coalition, rather than providers of effective services to their members, further complicates the matter. Add to this the recurrent theme of union collusion with employers or perceptions of social distance and an inability, with humility, to communicate victories and failures. Viewed in this way, one can see that the challenges are not confined to the shop floor but are faced by ordinary people in their interactions with community leaders, where the promises of housing, roads and schools are often made without the disclaimer that the ward councillor in effect has “no power” to deliver these. When such limitations (and lies) are exposed, the frustration of communities is palpable. The labour movement, in linking their struggles with the best of the shop floor and community traditions of yesteryear, would do well to remember the words of Paulo Freire:

Sooner or later, a true revolution must initiate a courageous dialogue with the people. Its very legitimacy lies in that dialogue. It cannot fear the people, their expression and their effective participation in power. It must be accountable to them, must speak frankly to them of its achievements, its mistakes, its miscalculations and its difficulties.”

Such a movement is by nature a humble vehicle of the people, not an avenue for the interests of the labour aristocracy. It is a movement able to add its weight to the struggles (at times seen as unrelated) of ordinary folk, who like the casual workers organised by the Casual Workers Advice Office, are at times in employ, often not. Without such a reflection, Worker’s Month is emptied of its political and subversive character, and achieves another unintended consequence: emboldening the grip and strength of employers and capital in the conflict around how we distribute the benefits of production. We would do best to remember this. DM

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