The role of unions in a time of crisis

Posted on November 5, 2012


In a world wracked by ongoing economic crises, what is the role of trade unions?  And if they focus solely on “bread and butter issues”, are they, as National Union of Mineworkers spokesman Lesiba Seshoka says, doomed to fail because “broader policies are shaped at a political level”.

What, in fact, is meant by “a political level”?  And are not bread and butter issues — generally defined as wages and conditions — political to the core?

These questions came to the fore again in South Africa in the aftermath of the bloodshed at Marikana on August 16.  But they are also being asked around the world as unions become embroiled in increasingly fractious relations with employers, governments and, all too often, their own members.

In the process, sight seems all too often lost of the fact that trade unions emerged as a reaction to the economic system and not as an alternative;  that the defensive organisations of the sellers of labour gain their greatest power through uniting workers as workers, irrespective of their differences.  Only when there is a general threat to their wellbeing — to their “bread and butter” — do most organised workers rally in a manner that can sometimes spill over into radical political change or revolution.

But such radical change can be reactionary or progressive:  it can become repressive and authoritarian or extend democratic control and human rights.  Right now, the world seems to be on the cusp of moving one way or the other.

Observing the scene from London during a recent visit, it was evident that there is growing anger across Europe about high levels of unemployment, especially among men and women under the age of 25, and to the fact that real incomes for the majority of workers, globally, are declining.  Bread, let alone butter, is under general threat.

In several countries, there is also considerable anger and disillusionment at trade union leaders who are seen — rightly or wrongly — to enjoy too cosy a relationship with employers or political parties in or out of power.  Such tensions have become acute amid exploding petrol bombs in Athens and the brutal police repression of protests in Madrid, and are exacerbated by various forces on the political margins that are clamouring to fill developing political vacuums.

Given this background, and looked at from the perspective of Europe, the current industrial upheavals in South Africa are merely a sideshow in an often confusing carnival of revolt against the harsh consequences of a system in crisis.  Opposition to austerity is a common theme.

Yet austerity, along with assurances that the pain is necessary in order to achieve the ultimate gain, seems a universal theme among those in power.  As a result, the centre in many countries, in the form of the unions and their sometimes erstwhile political allies, is looking decidedly shaky.

The same applies in South Africa, where the centre — epitomised by the ANC-led alliance — seems to be be holding up rather better than its counterparts in countries such as Greece or Spain.  But everywhere the established order seems under pressure.

Even in Britain, still basking in the afterglow of a successfully staged Olympiad, there are now signs of subterranean rumblings.  How strong these are — and how angry — should become clear as more anti-austerity protests get underway.

Britain’s Trade Union Congress (TUC) organised well attended protest marches in London, Glasgow and Belfast on October 20.  The turnouts, especially in London, revealed the strength of popular feeling about growing unemployment and the declining spending power of wages as well as probable disillusionment with protest marches. The estimated 150 000 who turned out in London on October 20 was a far cry from the near 1 million who marched against the war in Iraq.

In fact, it is not since the massive anti-poll tax march in 1990 that such protests have done much more than highlight levels of disgruntlement.  That massive march swamped central London.  Police could not contain this surge of humanity, scuffles broke out — and escalated into a full-scale riot that signalled the end of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative (Tory) government.

Not that any of the unions or their supporters saw October 20 as a repeat of 1990.  But they all saw it as a curtain raiser for further protests although the TUC leadership remains wary of committing to anything specific.  Outgoing TUC general secretary Brendan Barber clearly sees the opposition Labour Party as the answer, a point of view not shared by a substantial number of trade unionists, who booed LP leader Ed Milliband when he spoke at the rally at the end of the October 20 march.

Two of the TUC-affiliated unions, the strategically important transport union, RMT, and the Fire Brigades Union, no longer support the LP.  They argued that October 20 should be seen as “preparation for a general strike”.

RMT media officer Geoff Martin also repeated the demand that the rail network in Britain be “re-nationalised”.  RMT, expelled from the Labour Party in 2004 when the union allowed branches to decide which political parties they wished to support, sees little difference between Labour and Tories.

“It’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” says RMT general secretary, Bob Crow.  Adds Martin:  “Just a question of being mugged by the Tories or burgled by Labour.”

But while RMT supports the notion of a “trade union rooted alternative” to the existing parliamentary choices, there is no such alternative in place. The protest marches were organised in the wake of the party conferences last month of all three major political choices in Britain:  Liberal-Democrat, Labour and Conservative.

The “Lib-Dems”, junior partner in a coalition government with the Tories, were first off the mark, followed by Labour and, finally, the Tories.  In all three cases, and however it is packaged, the theme remained austerity:  wage freezes, cuts in public spending and promises of pie in the sky, by and by.

The promises and the vagueness are understandable because the British elections are still three years away.  But those years should see greater tension and more confrontation as, in line with the rest of Europe, austerity packages are resisted by the labour movement.

Whatever the ultimate result, the next few years seem to promise considerable turmoil in what is still a major export market for South Africa.  The sideshow south of the Limpopo therefore looks likely to be in for some even tougher times.

Posted in: Commentary