From a trade union viewpoint, Margaret Thatcher will never be mourned. But her impact on global politics and economics cannot be denied. She rode the crest of a wave of liberal economic policies that swamped the consensual balance of the post World War Two years. In the process, she highlighted as few have done before or since, the inherently hostile relationship between labour and capital.
She was an unabashed class warrior who stood on the side of the rich and powerful and who despised and patronised, in equal measure, those who labour to create wealth. So it is scarcely surprising that Cosatu, after the usual expressions of condolence, noted that she “elevated greed and self-centredness to a principle”.
The National Union of Mineworkers was even more blunt, noting that Margaret Thatcher waged and led “a relentless class war against the working class and the poor”. But this legacy, dubbed “Thatcherism”, lives on, in South Africa and elsewhere. We ignore it or blindly laud it at our peril
This is because we all have much to learn from the the so-called “Thatcher era” and the circumstances in which it emerged. As such, we would do well to harken to words such as those from a Welsh miner of an almost bygone age.
It was he who noted, in 1984, as the great miners’ strike in Britain got underway: “If we lose this strike, Britain will never be the same again.” With his calloused hands hanging by his sides, his muscular frame stooped by years of hard labour, he spoke those prophetic words with firm conviction. As well he could, for his own bitter experience extended to Britain’s general strike of 1926 followed by years of Depression-era joblessness as a blacklisted striker.
He, like so many others, had hailed the nationalisation of the loss-making coal mines in 1947, a measure not strongly resisted by the mine owners who negotiated substantial compensation. For much of the labour movement, it was an act epitomised by an historic photograph of miners erecting a sign: “This mine now belongs to the people.” It did not. It belonged to the state and operated on the same competitive principle as before.
In 1984, the old miner was recently retired, but many of the younger miners on strike in that year are still alive today and were in his audience. They will be among the many who will not mourn the passing of Margaret Thatcher. Her policies, promoted by her all-male cabinet — “she was the only one with the balls to do it,” was one wry comment — effectively destroyed one of her country’s most powerful unions and, along with it, Britain’s coal mining industry.
She and President Ronald Reagan of the United States became associated most closely with the “trickle-down” theory of economics, the idea that if the rich become richer, more wealth will trickle down to the poorer layers of society. But wealth here is equated merely to monetary profit.
It is an approach that lauds economic growth above all else, taking little or no cognisance of job losses, or the destruction of productive capacity, issues that the labour movement constantly stresses. It is also a theory that hails the illusory wealth registered by the indices produced by those regulated casinos, the Stock Exchanges.
From a labour movement viewpoint, this “neo-liberal” theory still lies at the heart of South Africa’s macro-economic outlook. However, as trade unions and their allies have clearly shown, it is a theory that has succeeded only in widening the vast gap between the haves and the have-nots, creating social dislocation and tension.
Trade unions, for all their faults, seek to protect and to improve the living standards of workers and the poor in general. And more enlightened capitalists realise that, for the sake of stability, it is best, in normal circumstances, to seek a balance between the opposing interests of labour and capital: a live and let live scenario.
Free market fundamentalists such as Thatcher was, seek not to balance, but to dominate at all costs and at all times. They recognise the inherent antagonism between capital and labour and seek to assert the control of one over the other. in all and any circumstances.
So Thatcher took on the British unions one by one — the “salami tactic” — and for all their professed principles of solidarity, the labour movement failed to unite in a fightback. Individual unions were left to defend themselves. The overall result was that the movement itself was weakened, something celebrated even by previously “enlightened” employers. “Thatcherism” was triumphant.
The crushing of the miners was the turning point. And one in which the exiled ANC and its trade union arm, the SA Congress of Trade Unions played a less than honourable role. They remained aloof from a struggle involving one of their strongest union supporters, seeking refuge in expressions of patriotism and nationalism, dismissing the miners’ fight as a “British affair”.
The miners’ union was broken, a fate that awaited the print unions in 1986 as jobs and productive capacity in the real economy declined. Gross Domestic Product grew, but it was a GDP based on financial services and the vagaries of the Stock Exchange — all of it bolstered by increasing credit purchases by already indebted households. Inevitably, this “Thatcherite” — and “Reaganite” — bubble had to start deflating.
That deflation is still being felt around the world in the ongoing economic crisis with its growing legions of the unemployed and the unemployable. South Africa — with or without BRICS — is no exception, something many local trade unionists have come to realise.
As they see it, this new trade bloc involving Brazil, Russia, India and China promises, at best, only more efficient competition with other blocs. And that means more pressure on wages and the working conditions of those with jobs.
So there are renewed calls for nationalisation. But, looking at the legacy of Thatcher and beyond, this seems a bit like history repeating itself.