Communist Party of Australia

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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Trade Unions and Day-to-Day Struggles to Build Socialism in South Africa

by Vishwas Satgar

Unions are working class organisations and are important to galvanise the collective strength of workers against capitalists.

As institutions of worker power, unions date back to the 19th Century and were formed to fight the harsh conditions imposed by early industrialisation, both in Europe and its colonies. Struggles were waged against the violence associated with the establishment of the early factory system; sweated child labour and indentured labour; long hours of work and poverty wages.

It was only in the 1920s that progressive unionism took root in South Africa. Progressive trade unionism developed in a way that has linked day-to-day struggles with struggles for wider social and political transformation. Put differently, progressive trade unionism has located trade unions within the national liberation struggle and the struggle for socialism.

For unions to avail against and contest imperialist globalisation, particularly its “free market” restructuring agenda, and ensure working class leadership of the National Democratic Revolution, there is a need to embrace a strategy and practice of transformative unionism.

Such a strategy and practice of transformative unionism would attempt to take the progressive trade union movement in South Africa beyond the option of reforming capitalism to include a few more people within the capitalist class (neo-colonialism) or give it a more humane face through welfare capitalism (social democracy).

Essentially, the politics of transformative unionism is about building socialism, now, within the ongoing National Democratic Revolution. It does not seek a middle road between the two reform versions of capitalism but rather attempts to present socialism as an alternative, that should be built through day-to-day struggles.

Transformative unionism places the working class at the forefront of a socialist transition in South Africa, with its main goal being the democratisation of South Africa such that power is shifted on to the side of the working class and the poor. Within the economy this amounts to using transformative practice and struggles to change ownership and hierarchical managerial control, such that socialist economic relationships are constructed which are not governed by exploitation and gender oppression. Hence, transformative unionism is revolutionary unionism.

Revolutionary unionism attempts to avoid the twin dangers of two types of unionism:

(1) Defensive unionism — which is sometimes referred to as “workerism”. It is narrow unionism which opposes imperialist globalisation and its “free market” restructuring agenda through defensive struggles for higher wages, better grades, retrenchment packages and training, for instance, without wanting to transform the underlying power relations of the employment relationship.

Such a unionism allows capital to dominate the state and, ultimately, lead social transformation. It does not link struggles in the workplace to wider working class struggles to inform the direction of society.

Essentially, it fails to provide any viable transformative alternative for workers, even from below.

(2) Corporatist unionism — engages imperialist globalisation by compromising with its “free market” restructuring agenda. Sometimes it is referred to as “strategic unionism” or “social unionism”.

Basically, it attempts to reform capitalism by locking workers and capitalists in a social partnership, for the construction of a globally competitive social democracy or welfare capitalism.

Within this kind of unionism the state is understood to be “neutral” and is given the task of off-setting the harsh effects of “free-market” restructuring by providing a welfare net and/or training policies to help workers get jobs in export led sectors or in Transnational Corporations operating in South Africa.

Corporatist unionism is “elitist” and is about deal making at the “top”.

Also, and most importantly, it divides the working class between countries by involving them in the global race for competitiveness and in the end maintains the dominance of capital’s agenda.

In presenting socialism as a political and ideological alternative, transformative unionism draws, firstly, on its own long history. This goes back to the Paris Commune in the French Revolution, the workers and peasants Soviets in the Russian Revolution and the Workers Council movement in Turin, Italy, during the year 1919.

Sometimes this tradition is referred to as “council communism” and was about changing power within these societies from below.

In South Africa, the approach to transformative unionism being presented by the SACP draws on this tradition but also attempts to go beyond it by recognising that although the institutional form and expression of worker power is important, planning and asserting alternatives (for the enterprise, industry and macro-economy) from below, using workers own accumulated knowledge and experience is fundamentally more important.

Taking forward these planned alternatives has to be asserted through working class hegemony or dominance on all terrains — parliament, government, NEDLAC, the factory floor, the community and so on.

The second, and critical aspect about advancing socialism through transformative unionism, is its starting point regarding the construction of socialism in South Africa.

It acknowledges that Karl Marx never left a blueprint for socialism. Sometimes, people make the mistake of believing socialism is everything that is the opposite of capitalism. This is not true and is an abstract model of what socialism should be.

Both Marx and Engels, although making a critique of capitalism and recognising that it exploits workers and places ownership of the means of production in private hands, still viewed it as a progressive system in the development of history from and beyond primitive, to slave and feudal societies.

The level of development of the forces of production or technology was clearly hailed by Marx and Engels as fundamentally progressive within capitalism. Hence, transformative unionism attempts to revolutionise the progress capitalism has made, in the sense, that it tries to ensure the economy is organised to meet social needs rather than make capitalist profits.

The core of transformative unionism is a commitment to action and struggle. A commitment to overthrow capital by building worker capacities for democratisation of the economy and ultimately, socialist development. This depends on workers and unions practicing the following strategic elements or pillars:

(1) Advancing Worker Plans Through Participatory Planning From Below. In Capital (Volume 3) Karl Marx makes an important point about how economic resources should be utilised. His idea was of “associated producers rationally regulating their interchange with nature, bringing production under their common control instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of nature”.

Essentially, Marx believed the market could not organise the resources of a society to rationally meet its needs.

The attempts at central planning in the Soviet Union, although attempted as an alternative to the market, also failed. It introduced inefficiencies into the economy and was authoritarian, to the extent that it was incapable of being in tune with the real needs of the society.

On the other hand, the failure of centralised planning does not rule out the possibilities of other forms of planning.

For transformative unionism planning from below through widespread participation is essential and democratic.In this regard shop stewards are important and pivotal to participatory planning. They have to be the spearhead that brings together workers to plan alternatives and solutions to capital driven “free market” restructuring within their enterprises and even at an industry level.

Participatory planning also enables workers to plan wage and “non-wage” issues like investments, technology policy and new products, to meet the needs of workers and communities — resources are matched to social need as opposed to production being geared to market demand.

This does not mean that workers plans would not produce a surplus or be profitable. However, the difference would be a “social view of profitability” which takes into account the consequences production has for income levels, employment, the environment and peoples health and safety.

(2) Autonomous Worker Self Management — capitalist enterprises are organised hierarchically through top-down managerial control.

The power within this kind of control enables managers to unilaterally decide on plans for enterprises, new technology policy, investments, marketing, human resource development policy and so on.

If real democratisation and industrial democracy were to be achieved workers have to advance worker control beyond consultation, negotiations, joint decision-making and participation on company boards. Workers have to strive to achieve autonomous worker self-management. It is the ultimate form of worker control and socialist management that enables real democratic economic decision making.

As a power or competency, autonomous self management can be struggled for, now, through a host of channels, from collective bargaining agreements to workplace forums, in the course of advancing the workers’ plans.

(3) Worker and Community Ownership are essential to transform ownership patterns in the South African economy.

At the moment, ownership in the South African economy is in the hands of a few large conglomerates and transnational corporations.

Nonetheless, unlike the Soviet Union where state ownership defined the socialist order, ownership of the means of production in South Africa has to be changed such that it is socialised. This means social ownership and control of property is not just embodied in the state but has to also be located directly within the hands of workers and communities.

The state has a key role in terms of socialising property relations in South Africa. Besides expanding the reach and ownership base of the state through state owned farms, consideration must be given to nationalisation of particular enterprises in certain sectors to break the dominance of private capital.

Also, worker and community enterprises should consider joint ventures with the state, that fundamentally redefines the meaning of public/“private” partnerships. This is feasible mainly at a local government level.

Ultimately, the state has a regulatory role to prevent the over concentration of ownership and this can be facilitated through a host of policies like competition policy, anti-trust laws, complete state ownership and so on.

(4) Internationalism has been a core Communist principle.

The unity of workers from around the world in their struggle against capital and for socialism has inspired revolutionaries, activists and intellectuals for several generations.

Of late there is a tendency to downplay internationalism and replace it with the principle of solidarity. These principles, however, are not the same. Solidarity mainly amounts to worker-to-worker or union-to-union support across national boundaries within defensive struggles.

Internationalism includes solidarity but also supports worker power to take over or defend nation states against imperialist globalisation. Transformative unionism upholds the principle of internationalism and recognises the need to develop global strategic alliances to advance and defend socialist gains.

(5) Transformative alliances — are essential to advance working class hegemony within the National Democratic Revolution.

This operates at two levels. One at the level of party-to-movement relationships which are best represented by the Tri-partite Alliance between COSATU, the SACP and the ANC. This is a relationship that maintains the fraternal autonomy of forces and allows strategies and tactics to be negotiated.

For workers the main political significance held out by the tri-partite alliance is the opportunities it holds out to contest state power and promote transformation from above.

The other level of transformative alliances operates between social movement to social movement. For instance, COSATU needs to forge alliances with SEWU (an informal sector organisation for the self employed), unemployed workers organisations or even the Black Management Forum to ensure transformation is asserted from below. Ultimately, these alliances hold the prospect of ensuring worker plans dominate transformation.

Basically for unions, in South Africa today, to accept transformative unionism amounts to pushing the frontiers of trade union organisation and class consciousness. It ensures the crucible of day-to-day struggles to advance socialism places workers at the coalface of a new chapter in South African history — the struggle to advance a socialist revolution.

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