The Left & Attitude to Bourgeois Elections (John Appolis)
Wednesday 7 December 2005 by Dale
The Left and its attitude to bourgeois institutions (John Appolis)
In March this year the Rosa Luxembourg Institute arranged a discussion with the social movements on the left’s attitude to the role and participation in bourgeois institutions. Evidently this is a question that should not only be a concern to the social movements but militants in the trade union movement -especially within the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) - need to reflect on this issue. Presently, the trade union movement participates in a plethora of bourgeois institutions - for example Nedlac, the various SETAs, bargaining councils - and in most instances provide the general staff for them.
There has been no engagement with the question of whether or not participation in these institutions assists in the forward march of the trade union movement. This absence of any critical reflection is largely attributable to an unquestionable acceptance of the political and legal legitimacy of these bourgeois institutions within its ranks. Nowadays participation is taken as an absolute norm, a given, an ‘automatic reflex’. We have now a democratic state and by extension its institutions are legitimate and acceptable. These institutions are not characterised as bourgeois but are perceived as part of the democratic conquests of the trade union movement. Any talk of a boycott or temporary suspension of participation from them would be taboo, frowned upon and considered to be ‘ultra-left’.
This kind of uncritical acceptance of bourgeois institutions, and automatic participation therein, was not always the stock-in-trade approach of the trade union movement towards such institutions.
In the late 1970s and early parts of the 1980s the trade union movement pioneered vigorous intellectual and political engagement on this very same question and, in fact, was deeply divided on its attitude towards them and participation therein. There was intense, and sometimes acrimonious, debate on the appropriate approach unions should take. These differences were refracted through the debate on registration and participation in the then Industrial Councils (the forerunners of the present bargaining councils). Note should be noted that the theoretical underpinnings of the debates were not always comprehensively dealt with in the trade union movement itself. For the most part these questions were introduced from without, from the ranks of the radical intelligentsia aligned to the movement. In itself this is not a problem.
Broadly speaking, one section of the trade union groupings advocated for registration and possible participation in the Industrial Council system and here reference is made to the unions aligned to the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), the Consultative Committee of Trade Unions and the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA). Many of them became registered unions and applied for participation in the Industrial Councils.
Another set of trade unions argued for the rejection of registration and boycott of the Industrial Councils. The chief advocates of this position were the Western Province General Workers Union (WPGWU), Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU), the African Food and Canning Workers Union (AFCWU) and the unions aligned to the United Democratic Front (UDF). Ironically the AFCWU was a registered union under the auspices of the then-Industrial Conciliation Act of 1953.
These differences were really only settled after years of concrete experimentation with both positions. Unfortunately there was never a balance sheet made of these two approaches. It is almost by default that registration and participation in industrial councils have become acceptable. Recently the South African Transport Union (SATAWU) embarked upon a very militant national transport strike, sometimes reminiscent of the strikes of the 1980s, under the auspices of the National Road Freight Bargaining Council. However, two of its forerunners, the WPGWU and SARHWU (South African Railway and Harbour Union) were militant advocates of the rejection and boycott positions.
Background to Registration and Industrial Council system
In June 1979 the repressive Apartheid Regime legalised African trade unions for the first time in the history of the country. Initially this right was restricted to urban African workers - contract, migrant and foreign workers were denied the legal right to join unions. Later in the same year (September 1979) the apartheid state conceded the right to migrant workers but still prohibited foreign workers. This concession came after all the trade union groupings objected to the exclusion of migrant workers because significant numbers of union members were migrant contract workers. Quite clearly this exclusion was geared towards disrupting the organisational and political base of the emergent black unions. Not only did migrant workers constitute the majority numerical base of the unions but they were the source of militancy within the workplace. The unions of the 1970s were in the main organisations of the migrant contract worker.
To obtain organisational rights and to access the new industrial relations institutions the trade unions had to apply for registration to the repressive Apartheid State. The unions had to accept certain restrictions like, amongst others, non-racial unions could not be registered, they had to maintain racially segregated executives and unregistered unions were not recognised in law. Upon registration unions would, for instance, have the right to stop-order facilities, access to workplaces and apply for participation in the industrial councils and thereby engage in bargaining at that level. In exchange for registration and legal acceptance, unions had to comply with stringent administrative controls. A union had to make available to the apartheid regime a copy of the union’s constitution, head office address, names of office bearers and officials, list of membership and audited financial statements, among others. Unions were however barred from engaging in any political activity and had to confine themselves to economic issues. Today many of these rights and administrative controls, with the exception of the political prohibition, are contained within the current Labour Relations Act of 1996. They are now considered as important advances for the black working class.
These differences occurred in a context where there was a revival of the independent black trade unions. The five years preceding the reforms were characterised by militant strikes in defiance of the apartheid legal frame-work which outlawed them. Many of the progressive unions, if not all of them, were moulded in the furnace of illegal, bloody and courageous strikes on the part of black workers. Many of them and their fledgling unions were subjected to brutal oppression at the hands of the apartheid state and its surrogates. The rejectionist position was probably the most obvious one and the easier to articulate because the experience of black workers with apartheid institutions was one of oppression and exclusion. The pro-registration position, on the other hand, had a much more difficult task because, after all, they were advocating registering with a brutal oppressive state machinery and participation in one of its institutions. The tactical advantages of registration and participation were not immediately apparent and had initially to be demonstrated theoretically.
The Participating Faction
Initially the major consideration informing FOSATU’s position towards registration was that of countering the threat emanating from the parallel unions organised under the banner of conservative TUCSA. The latter accepted in an un-principal manner the state’s terms of registration so that they could use the legal space to form unions for African unions. FOSATU was concerned that TUCSA by obtaining registration would usurp the legal space that now existed for organisation and by that gain a tactical advantage over the independent unions. This concern drove FOSATU to undertake an investigation into the organising initiatives on the part of the parallel unions.
To counter this organising thrust coming from the right of the labour movement FOSATU thus opted to seek registration but on its own terms. These terms were that non-racial must be allowed to register with no racial divisions in their executives, existing unregistered unions must be allowed to exist and enjoy legislative recognition. They wanted to force the state to accede to unions the right to determine the composition of their membership without state interference.
Registration and participation was perceived as a tactic, a means to achieve the long-term objectives of the unions of non-racialism, restricting the role of the state in industrial relations and to struggle for the principle of worker control over their trade unions. They argued that it was important to tactically exploit the legal space offered by registration in order to make further inroads in the workplace. For them registration took out of the equation the legal obstacle of not being able to obtain recognition from the employing class. The common line of approach of employers towards the emerging unions, at the time, was to refuse to have any dealings with them unless they were registered. Importantly the legal cover of registration also facilitated access to the workplace, a very important gain considering the general hostility of employers towards the emergent unions.
FOSATU further contended that the independence of unions from the apartheid industrial relation system is not inevitably compromised by participation within its institutions nor is it guaranteed by staying outside it. By staying true to their traditions and principles of militant struggles, workers’ control and accountability to the membership, the unions would avoid being co-opted into industrial relations system of the apartheid state and avoid compromising their independence. These traditions and principles placed the black unions in a position to exploit the openings and avoid all the potential pitfalls intended by the apartheid state.
The boycott faction
The position of the other grouping - in particular the WPGWU- was ambiguous because, whilst rejecting registration, it nevertheless entertained the idea of registering on its own terms. Unlike FOSATU it never actively tested out the boundaries of the legislative reforms by taking the initiative in forcing the hand of the state in the matter. Rather they stated they will only register if the state institutes the desired changes and therefore waited for more reforms from above, from the state. In practice the position amounted to a boycott of registration.
According to WPGWU, registration will amount to the unions undermining the right of workers to freedom of association and right of workers to control their unions. Registration will also cause the unions to compromise their independence from the apartheid state by being drawn into the state-sponsored industrial relations system and its ‘complex web of controls’. Once registered unions will be forced to join the industrial council system where the conservative white unions have veto power over the admission of unions. In order to obtain a seat on the industrial council independent unions will be compelled to become respectable and moderate their ‘radicalism’. Importantly unions are to be confined to a form of bargaining at industry level where the balance of power is in favour of employers. The strength of the independent unions was at shop floor level. This level of bargaining engenders the reliance on experts, decision-making by leaders and consequently a widening gap between the leadership and workers would develop.
Unlike FOSATU, the WPGWU grouping did not regard the threat from the parallel unions as being serious. For them the political re-wakening of the black workers in the 1970s, for them, laid to rest any notion of a bosses’ union. The militant struggles and emergence of independent unions were clear signals of these progressive sentiments on the part of black workers. The independent unions had strong traditions of workers control and were strongly implanted within the shop floor whereas the parallel unions had paper membership and were in the main mere benefit societies. It was further contended that FOSATU’s rationale for registration amounted to nothing but a ‘fruitless chase for paper membership’ and it is making the ‘sine quo non’ of trade unionism centre around stop-orders and concluding of collective agreement.
This reliance on registration and membership of industrial council for the existence of trade union will turn unions into’ bureaucratised welfare institutions’. A process of legalism will engulf the union because there will be a tendency to rely on the legal procedures to obtain and enforce rights. The strength of workers and organisation will be ignored and undermined. The rule of law will reign supreme. The unions do not need legal protection to push back employers. The power of workers has done that thus far and will continue to do so. Instead of advancing the struggle of workers registration will compromise the independence of the labour movement and lead to its ‘emasculation’.
FOSATU countered by pointing out that there was a tendency on the part of the boycotters to exaggerate the controls in the law, to underestimate the rightwing union threat and to conflate a tactic with a principle. Further the strong tradition of workers control and militancy to which reference is made by WPGWU is the guarantee that the intentions of the state to create bureaucratised unions removed from their membership are not be realised.
The Sources of the Differences
The sources of differences resided in the divergent conceptions of the nature of the apartheid state and the nature of social change. These differing conceptions framed the estimations of the nature of the legislative changes initiated by the apartheid state.
The nature of the apartheid state
The ideologues of FOSATU viewed the apartheid state neither as a neutral arbiter in the class struggle nor as a mere naked repressive instrument of the ruling class. It was something in between. The apartheid state was certainly repressive and capitalistic but it found itself ‘buffeted’ by contradictory pressures emanating from the struggle between contending social forces. The FOSATU ideologues argued that the alignment of social forces at any given time shapes the agenda of the state. Thus the apartheid state could be forced to grant concessions to the working class. In this case the legislative reforms were forced upon the apartheid state and they constitute real advances for the black labour movement.
The contradictory impulses deriving from the economic imperatives of monopoly capitalism and the strength and organisation of the black workers propelled the state onto the path of re-structuring its relationship with the trade unions. Economic imperatives arose because the previous decade saw a phenomenal growth in the physical composition of the industrial working class as a result of the expansion of the manufacturing base. From the point of view of monopoly capital there was a need for a steady and secured supply of semi-skilled black labour. This required a relaxation of the restrictions on the movement and association of black labour. The presence of the militant independent trade union movement contained potential seeds of a long-term threat to the stability of the capitalist system and therefore its existence had to be factored into the equation. A new form of control over the black trade unions was necessary. And hence this relaxation on the movement and association of black workers signalled a fundamental shift in the apartheid state’s relationship with the independent black trade unions.
The fundamental defect with FOSATU’s conception of the state was the underplaying of its class content. FOSATU correctly pointed out that the state can be influenced by the alignment of class forces but it did not also emphasized that the essential capitalist character of the apartheid state places a limitation on its ability to undertake reforms. The apartheid state was essentially an instrument of the capitalist class and in all material instances acted in the interest of the capitalist class. It could not reform itself out of existence. Its outer form can be jettisoned but not its class content, for that a revolutionary socialist rupture is required. FOSATU’s flawed conception of the apartheid state opened the door to a notion that the capitalistic state can be fundamentally transformed through a process of reforms and not through a revolutionary rupture.
For, whilst accepting that reforms are possible under apartheid, the boycott faction proclaimed that the apartheid state is not classless which can be moulded at will by the different classes. But rather the apartheid state is a capitalist state and has to act in the interest of the capitalist class. It is not only a capitalist state but also repressive and undemocratic. In particular the black population was still denied basic democratic freedoms and in this way the apartheid state retained its essential repressive character.
Even though emphasis was placed on both the form (undemocratic) and substance of the apartheid rule (capitalist class character), the boycotters placed more weight on the form of rule in determining the approach to the institutions of apartheid. For them registration or participation will provide unnecessary credence and legitimacy to the rule of the apartheid elite. Reading directly from its conception of the state being capitalist and repressive the boycotters proclaimed that the reforms were a sham and a blatant attempt to extend controls over the working class. They did not regard them as real gains of the working class.
A much more extreme version of this understanding of the nature of the apartheid state had its origins in the South African Communist Party’s characterisation of it. During the 1970s the SACP characterised the apartheid state as being close to a fascist state. In contrast to FOSATU the outer form of the apartheid state was elevated and clearly over exaggerated. Moving from this fascist premise they contended that no legal trade unions are possible under apartheid. By extension meaningful or peaceful reforms are not possible under such repressive conditions. Any trade unions that did exist were either agents of the apartheid state or part of the CIA-inspired unions. This conception tended to made the boycott a principle.
The struggle for reform and the nature of social change
The pro-registration faction correctly advocated for the tactical utilization of the legal space created by the reforms despite their limited character. What the boycotters did not appreciate is that the legislative changes did represent an advance on the formal position of black workers and their trade unions where before no such legal rights existed. These reforms did not resolve the difficulties of organisation in their entirety but the legal codification of the gains of the working class is an important development. They represented the temporary pushing back of the frontiers of control of the enemy. What should be recognised is that the class struggle in its most essential features takes on the form of a protracted trench-warfare where the digging of trenches and their stubborn defence for the purpose of securing further advances becomes a strategic necessity for the working class. They provide the launch pad for further forays into the territory of the enemy. In this particular instance the legislative changes removed certain legal restrictions on the organisation of black workers and opened the spaces for the expansion of the scope of trade unionism in South Africa. This is precisely what happened.
The struggle for legislative reforms - like the legal right to join trade unions - is not in itself reformist. It is not so much the struggle for reforms that is reformist but rather how reforms are viewed and where they are located in the struggle for socialism. When reforms are seen as end themselves and not means to an end then we have classical reformism. Rosa expressed this idea very succinctly when she said:
“The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the conditions of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the social democracy the only means of engaging in the proletariat class war and working in the direction of the final goal - the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labour. Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the social democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution its aim.”
The role of participation
In the same light, registration per se or participation in bourgeois institutions in itself does not lead to the weakening and co-option of the organisations of the working class. However, if participation is premised on the notion that these institutions are part of the conquests of the working class and their overall role in the functioning of the capitalist system is overlooked, then we have the classical case of co-option. Participation in bourgeois institutions for the sake of participation and as an end in itself is reformist because then it becomes a barrier to the self-activity of workers. Organisational imperatives are then sub-ordinated to participation. Conversely if participation is viewed from the angle of winning and exploiting spaces for the building of struggle and organisation then the chances of co-option are radically reduced.
Differing perspectives on social change
The kernel of the differences resided in the understanding, or lack thereof, of the relationship between reform and revolution. In fact, the main source of the differences originated in the differing view of the nature of social change in South Africa and its path of development. Granted at the time these political strategic differences were to a large extent not always that obvious but rather latent. This is not at all surprising taking into account that the working class movement was in its embryonic stage. The intensity and tempo of the struggle after 1980 thrust to fore these strategic questions compelling factions to nail the banners to the ship.
FOSATU correctly emphasised the importance of the struggle for legal reforms but this union grouping put a Bernsteinist spin on this question. While articulating a vision of socialism they sought to achieve it through a ‘strategy of radical reform’. Avoiding direct conflict with the apartheid state in order to ensure the continued existence of the trade unions, the struggle for reforms had to be conducted in a peaceful manner and was to play itself out on the economic and factory terrain. Socialism was to be the end result of the peaceful accumulation of legal reforms won in the sphere of production. In this strategy of reform the question of the conquest of state power by the working class as the means of ushering in the transition to socialism was completely absent. There was no place for ‘revolutionary rupture’ with the capitalist order. It preferred ‘the method of legislative reform in place and in contradiction to the conquest of political power and social revolution’. This led FOSATU to ignore the political and democratic issues and to frown upon alliances with the political and national liberation movements.
And Rosa, in her polemic with Bernstein, emphatically stated that people who counterposed reforms to revolution:
“....do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society. ...Our program becomes not only the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism; not the suppression of the wage labour system but the diminution of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of suppression of capitalism itself.”
In the case of FOSATU, Rosa’s formulation of this question was quite prophetic where today most of the leading ideologues and actors of this tendency landed up being transformed into the managers and staffers of capitalism. The erstwhile general secretary of FOSATU is now the chairperson of the National Gambling Board, its national education officer is now Minister of Public Enterprises.
The boycotters suffered from a different dose of reformism. In contrast to FOSATU they were inclined to downplay the struggle for reforms and placed more emphasis on the revolutionary overthrow of the apartheid state. They conterposed revolution to reform. This led them to elevate the boycott of state institutions into a principle. Again Rosa is instructive here:
“ Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoise and the proletariat”.
Further, despite placing more emphasis on the revolutionary overthrow of the apartheid regime, there was extreme vagueness and ambiguity on the final goal, the final aim of the revolutionary rupture and the motive force anchoring it. No clarity existed as to which class is to achieve the conquest of power and what the nature of the transition from apartheid is to be. In the end this tendency settled for the reform of apartheid capitalism and exchanged it for democratic capitalism. And so the two factions embraced each other.
Workers Consciousness and State of the Trade Union Movement
Even though in the debate it was stressed that an important determinant in deciding the appropriate response to the state’s initiatives is the state of the working class movement there is no substantial treatment of this subjective factor. Surprisingly the historical and conjunctural opinions, militancy and experiences of black workers were not given the same detailed attention. Both faction merely asserted the strength of the black unions but no real attempt was made at a concrete examination of this decisive factor.Put another way it is important to dissect why some sections of the black trade unions agreed with registration and participation whilst others did not. Neither position can solely be attributed to the influence of the radical intelligentsia. To do this is to deny workers a tactical sense.
The state of the trade union movement
At the time of the Wiehahn Commission the new trade union movement was largely caught up in the mode of survival. For in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto uprising the apartheid state launched a wave of repression that directly impacted on the independent trade union movement causing it almost to collapse. Further in the post-1976 period the independent trade unions had managed to secure recognition agreements at only four factories.
Importantly the lifeblood of the trade unions - the strike activity by workers - had largely dried up. Between 1977 and 1979 there was a marked decline in strike activity contributing also to a decline in union membership. For the whole of 1979 there were only 21 000 workers on strike as compared to 1974. During this period, union membership also declined by 10% after the initial influx of workers between 1973 and 1976. This is reflected in the membership figures of one of the most militant trade unions at the time, the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU):
Year Membership 1974 3 900 1975 5 000 1976 6 700 1979 6 700 1980 10 000 1981 24 300 1982 30 000
By April 1979 FOSATU had only 20 000 members organised in 12 trade unions. The total membership of the unregistered trade unions were 87 346 reaching a density of only 1.9%. It should however be stressed that where the emergent unions existed there were in most instances high levels of militancy, worker control and democracy. The point is that at the time of the new legislative changes the trade union movement was battling to survive.
This organic relationship between strike activity and union membership became an important feature of the history of the South African trade union. For instance, union membership took off from 1973 moving from a relatively small base of 1018 to over 95 000 by 1976. This phenomenal growth more or less co-incided with the strike wave started in 1973.
Generally the working class movement as a whole was experiencing a temporary ebb after the post-1976 wave of repression. The apartheid state seized this moment to introduce the reforms calculating that it could lead to the co-option and control of the trade unions. Yes, the need for political incorporation of the trade union movement was overall considerations for the legislative reform but the apartheid state still had to find the opportune moment to institute them. It thought that the temporary ebb in the working class activity was that moment but it obviously miscalculated because between its intentions and reality lies the class struggle.
The case for the workplace experience
Another factor to consider is that, despite the general exclusion of black people from state institutions and political processes, there were differing and uneven experiences among black workers with state-inspired institutions at the point of the workplace. Some workers participated in the liaison and workers committees established at the workplaces. By 1979 there were in existence close to 2 600 liaison committees and 300 works committees. In many cases black workers entered these committees in order to transform them or to render them useless. There are many examples of where this tactic has led to the impetus for strong union organisation at the factory floor. In fact, sections of the trade union movement advocated the tactic of entry these committees in order to strengthen the building of worker control committees in the factories.
Within FOSATU there were ex-TUCSA parallel unions (for example - NAAWU) who were part of the old pre-1979 industrial relations framework and had experience of both the advantages and disadvantages of operating within the legal spaces of apartheid. They could draw on this experience to engage with the Wiehahn reforms.
It is my contention that there existed a certain body of knowledge and experience amongst black workers of tactically using the legal spaces of apartheid to build struggles and organisations. Combined with the weak state of the trade union movement there was probably real support amongst sections of workers to explore the tactic of registration in order not to surrender control of their unions to the apartheid state but to use the legal openings to strengthen their organisations and struggles.
This is not to downplay the real experiences of large sections of black workers of the brutal repression of their struggles and organisations at the hands of the apartheid state. The majority of back workers’ encounter with the apartheid state and employers was one of repression and exclusion. In the face of such repression black workers build their trade unions, engaged in militant illegal strikes and won many important improvements and advances outside the apartheid legal framework. Many black workers were battle-hardened and acquired their radical consciousness in this furnace of struggle. To some extent these experiences shaped and influenced their attitude towards apartheid-created institutions and therefore provided the subjective conditions for the rejection of registration and participation in the industrial council system.
One could say that it was probably inevitable that, at the time of Wiehahn, there were divergent views on registration within the ranks of the organised black workers. The emergent trade union movement was still in its infancy, the spread of unionism was limited, and experiences of workers were themselves diverse and uneven. Very few national unions of note existed which could have assisted in the assimilation of the lessons learnt by the different sections of the working class.
The developments post-1979 confirmed the tactical sense of the FOSATU-grouping. Though both the registered and unregistered unions grew in the aftermath of Wiehahn era, the pro-registration faction was best placed to take advantage of the resurgence of militancy amongst black workers. They were also better place to explore different tactical manoeuvres to broaden the scope of trade unionism. But on the political terrain they proved to be quite inept and as a tendency within the working class movements was overtaken by the semi-insurrectionary upsurges of the mid-1980s.
Black workers saw the limited legal codification of their rights and gains as a sign to continue the struggle against the employers and build their trade unions. They drew confidence from the extension of rights and turned Wiehahn on its head. In fact, the legalisation of the emergent black trade unions ushered in the next turning point in the development of South African trade union movement - the first being the 1973 strikes. And with the opening of the legal space came a prolonged period of stubborn resistance on the part of black workers punctuated with temporary ebbs and flows, and whose flames were only extinguished, ironically, with the advent of a democratic government.
1979 closed with militant strikes at the Ford plants in Port Elizabeth and the Cape Town meat workers strike. This set the scene for a major upsurge of strike activity with the first part of 1980 being marked by militant strikes at Frame, Volkswagen and Johannesburg municipal workers strike. The latter strike involved more than 10 000 workers. By August 1980 more than 95 000 workers had gone on strike as compared to the 21 000 for the whole of 1979. Inspired by the renewed confidence displayed by these workers a massive strike wave hit the East Rand in 1981 and lasted for two years. At the heart of the strike wave was the MAWU and the latter grew phenomenally - for instance between 1980 and 1982 membership grew by more than 200%. The membership of FOSATU shot up from 20 000 in 1979 to 97 000 in 1982 (a staggering 400%). As in the previous phases of strike activity union membership grew phenomenal.
The Tactic of Participation in the Industrial Council
FOSATU’s conception of the state made it more attentive to tactical possibilities whereas the boycotters’ approach blinded them to these same possibilities.
For instance FOSATU, especially MAWU, separated the tactic of registration from that of entering the Industrial Councils. Registration was a way of testing out the intentions of the apartheid state and pushing the boundaries of the limited reforms. MAWU applied for registration in March 1980 on its own terms - that is on the basis of non-racialism and rejected the state’s terms of registration. The apartheid state granted registration to MAWU but on condition that it only represent black workers. This condition was rejected by MAWU and the union launched a legal challenge in the apartheid court. In conjunction with its legal case, and in support of it, the MAWU launched a public campaign and made it clear that in the even it looses the legal case the Union will deregistered. The Union eventually, in April 1983, won registration on its own terms.
The tactic to enter the Industrial Council was informed by different considerations from that of registration. MAWU only applied for membership of the Metal Industrial Council in 1983 - three years after it applied for registration. It was a time when the East Rand strike wave was coming to an end with many strikes not achieving their stated demands. The employers, in the wake of the ebbing of the strike wave, embarked upon a counter-offensive in the form of mass retrenchments. MAWU was of the opinion that there was a strategic need to consolidate the organisational and political gains of the strike wave and to fend off the employers’ counter-offensive. For the Union the entering into the Industrial Council would provide the space to centralise the demands of the metal workers and give a national focus to their struggles. Importantly, the Union could legitimately entered into collective bargaining not only for its own members but for the thousands of other unorganised metal workers and in that sense become a national counter pole of attraction to them.
MAWU through its creative tactics achieved its stated objectives by building a strong national union. In the earlier years of its participation in the industrial council the Union placed great importance on the principle of democratic participation in the process of centralised collective bargaining. It creatively combined mass campaigning with wage negotiations in the industrial council. The Union’s tactic of refusing publicly to sign the wage agreements concluded by the white unions that were not in the interest of black metal workers ensured that the Union captured the imagination of the metal worker. Between 1983 and 1985 the Union not only succeeded in consolidating its mass base and warded off the counter-offensive but its membership grew by 8 000. The launch of COSATU in 1985 unleashed another round of strike waves and the MAWU was well placed to take full advantage of the new upsurge in mass militancy. In fact between 1985 until 1987, at the time of the merger with other unions to form NUMSA, the Union had 70 000 members (in 1985 it was 38 000 - close to 100% increase). . In those earlier years it can be said that MAWU avoided all the pitfalls of participation in the undemocratic Industrial Council.
Later on, however, the participating trade unions in the industrial council system begun to take on the problematic features raised by the boycotting faction. MAWU, after becoming the dominant force within the industrial council, developed a material interest in the council separate from the imperatives of struggle and organisation. More and more the interests of the metal workers were being exchanged for the continued existence of the industrial council and more credence was given to legal conformity. The gap between leaders and base became a reality.
The Significance of the Debates
The debate reflected serious concerns over the role and trajectory of the emergent trade union movement, its relationship with the state, the traditions of workers control and democracy.
One of the key issues demonstrated by the debate is that the characterisation of the incumbent state power in its totality (form and content) plays an important role in defining the nature of social change and the attitude towards existing institutions. Today COSATU is committing the same errors of its predecessors in its understanding of the state. Instructively COSATU characterised the present South African state as a democratic developmental state into which a working class bias must be injected. This amounts to a similar perspective as that of the early FOSATU where the fundamental transformation of capitalism was conceived as the result of quantitative accumulation of reforms. History and Rosa have shown that such a position leads to nothing more than a struggle for a benevolent form of capitalism.
Further, as in the case of FOSATU, COSATU is underplaying the bourgeois character of the present South African state. What COSATU is ignoring is that the fundamental factor determining the character of the state is not its form of rule, which varies greatly at different times, but the type of property and productive relations that its institutions protect and promote. Over the past centuries capitalist societies have been governed by various kinds of states regimes - monarchical, republican, parliamentary regimes, military or fascist dictatorship.
Reading directly from its conception of the South African state as being democratic COSATU has, by all accounts, made participation in its institution a matter of principle. Making the same error as the boycotters COSATU is elevating the form of rule (democratic) over the substance of the state power (the capitalist nature of the ANC state) in determining the approach to its institutions. Whereas the boycotters turned the boycott of bourgeois institutions into a principle, COSATU is turning participation into a principle. Again Rosa is instructive in this matter:
“ In this society (capitalist), the representative institutions, democratic in form, are in content the instruments of the interests of the ruling class. This manifests itself in a tangible fashion in the fact that as soon as democracy shows the tendency to negate its class character and become transformed in an instrument of the real interests of the population, the democratic forms are sacrificed by the bourgeoisie and by its state representative. That is why the idea of the conquest of a parliamentary reformist majority is a calculation which, entirely in the spirit of bourgeois liberalism, preoccupies itself only with one side - the formal side- of democracy, but does not take into account the other side, its real content. All in all, parliamentarism is not a directly socialist element impregnating gradually the whole capitalist society. It is, on the contrary, a specific form of bourgeois class state, helping to ripen and develop the existing antagonism of capitalism”.
Another important question highlighted by the debate is that of the independence of the trade unions from the capitalist state. This question of independence was regarded in such a serious light that, at one stage, the WPGWU contemplated voluntary dissolving the union if the apartheid state was to forcibly compel unions to register. Fortunately the differences on these questions did not go to those extremes. Instructively the principle of trade union independence from the capitalist state is not dependent on the form of the state - be it repressive or democratic. Rather the decisive factor is the capitalist property relations on which the state rests - that is the class content. COSATU’s elevation of the democratic form of the state has led it to compromise this principle of independence. Nowadays there is sometimes no real distinction between COSATU and the state. For instance, recently COSATU and the Department of Labour jointly launched a campaign called ‘Pick up Gains Campaign’. At other times there are joint celebrations of May Day by COSATU and the state. These are some of the examples where the federation has become indistinguishable from the state.
The debate has also indisputably shown that the decisive factor in determining the appropriate tactical attitude towards bourgeois institutions is the state of the working class movement. Today, more than two and half decades later, the South African trade movement displays the worst concerns projected by the boycotting faction. It sees participation in the plethora of bourgeois institutions as a matter of commonsense not to be questioned. It has become removed from its membership, legalism engulfs it, and has become nothing but ‘bureaucratised welfare institutions’. Lean production has engineered new structural divisions within the working class with the widespread casualisation of work. And generally speaking the South African working finds itself in a deep seated lull.
In March 1980, Martin Nicol had the following to say about the then registered unions and he could easily have described the unions of 2005:
" ...registered unions are not...firmly based on anything which could meaningful be termed the organised strength of the workers. Isolated demands have been won through sudden displays of militant worker solidarity but the unions have not organised in such a manner as to make worker unity the main and constant base of their strength. In general, workers are brought together only sporadically for banner waving meetings to show support for wage or other demands to be put before one of the councils or boards. Strikes are infused with spontaneity and are often used by unions merely to force to the attention of the Department of Labour or the Industrial Council, that a ’dispute’ exists and that a suitable board should be appointed as soon as possible. The base of these unions is not the organised workers. They owe their existence and success rather to the legal supports of the industrial legislation".
One could say that the prognosis of the boycotters has become a reality but within the context of a post-apartheid democratic state. And seemingly on the face of it there exists, today, a case for the boycott of the bourgeois institutions, especially ones like NEDLAC, which have only managed to suffocate the unions.
The question is thus: Does participation in the prevailing bourgeois institutions advance the cause of the South African trade union movement? Suggestively the time has arrived for the trade union movement to engage meaningfully on this question with its membership and society at large. Such an engagement will bring to the fore all the questions highlighted by the previous debate - namely the nature of the present South African state, the nature of social change to be undertaken, the nature of the appropriate ideological and political tools to undertake the necessary change and the state of the working class.
More pointedly, it is not a matter of whether this question must be engaged but rather how this engagement is to be undertaken. Learning from the previous debate, the theoretical and ideological perspectives underpinning the positions must not only be the preserve of the experts, the intelligentsia or the leadership but that of the mass of membership. Such an engagement, if it is undertaken, can only assist in the strengthening the trade union movement.
The question is thus reduced to whether the trade union movement of 2005 is up to the task of undertaking such an engagement as its predecessors once did. I am doubtful. But one can only hope.