[RECORDING]: Lucien van der Walt, 21 August 2015, “Classes, Commons, Collectivisation: Labour and the Left” (at “Class, Colonialism and the Commons: The Case of Southern Africa” colloquium: Rhodes University, South Africa). Chaired by Mazibuko Jara (United Front)

SPEECH [+PDF] Lucien van der Walt, 2015, “Working Class Struggle, Blazing a Path to Freedom”

Lucien van der Walt, 2015, “SPEECH: Working Class Struggle, Blazing a Path to Freedom [24 Sept 2012, Heritage Day event, Joza Township, Grahamstown],” Zabalaza: A Journal of Southern African Revolutionary Anarchism, no. 14, pp. 26-27.

Talk by Lucien van der Walt at 24 Sept 2012, Heritage Day event, Joza Township, Grahamstown

pdflogosmall Get the PDF here

NOTE: Heritage Day is a post-apartheid South African national holiday; unlike most, it has no clear link to major struggles in the past, although there are efforts to position it as a more “political” day. The talk below was given by Lucien van der Walt at an event organised by Sakhaluntu Cultural Group in Grahamstown, for black youth.fau_book_graphic439_1.jpg

Thank you all for coming. Thank you, chair, for the invitation. Thank you, organisers, for the event today. Today looks like a great day, a great day to look forward.

But before we look forward, we must look back as well. Unless you know where you come from, you will never know where you can go.

This sort of reflection is extremely important to the working class struggle. Heritage Day provides a space to think back, to look back at where we have come from, and to think about where we need to go in future. It’s an opportunity to reflect on what we have achieved so far, but also on what we still need to achieve in order to secure emancipation.

If we look at that past from the perspective of the working class masses, it’s clear that the past is bittersweet.

It’s bitter: there are many injustices and horrors that we cannot avoid seeing. It’s bitter: there is a long dark night of suffering, dispossession and exploitation that casts its shadow over today. It’s bitter: the past is the time of massacres of the working class, of the repression of unions, of the pass laws, of the Land Act of 1913, of the Bantu Education system, of the imperialist wars against Africans and Afrikaners.

Struggles and Victories

It’s sweet also: the past saw ordinary people, the people on the ground – the working class – rise up and fight for justice, for equality, for our rights: to dignity, to decency, to decide how to run the basics of our lives.

It’s sweet: the time of the mass strikes and uprisings, such as those of 1913, 1918, 1922, 1946, 1960, 1973, 1976, 1983, and 1993. These brought light into the darkness, into the long, dark night of suffering and oppression, where bitter battles were waged for freedom.

It’s sweet: when ordinary people stood together, when the working class united, when the sleeping armies of the exploited, the oppressed, the workers, the poor, woke up, the ground shook. The darkness was driven back.

It’s sweet: every small victory fed the campfires of hope, fanned the flames of resistance and rebellion, moved the people into more action.

1913 saw massive struggles by white as well as black workers for basic rights. 1918 saw the first attempt at a general strike by black workers. Read more of this post

Lucien van der Walt: discussing the NUMSA-initiated “Anti-Corruption March”

Numsa pact: Shifting deckchairs or the real deal?

18 Sep 2015, Mail and Guardian, here

Sarah Evans

The launch of a new anti-corruption coalition could be a sign that major labour shifts are afoot.


It is like watching a pair of nervous teenagers flirt. Perhaps they are on a dance floor: their hands never touching, their eyes firmly locked. The trouble is, as with any tryst, predicting whether they will unite is like reading the horoscope to get the answer. It is a rather futile exercise.

So it is with the story of metalworkers’ union Numsa and its various coalitions.

Just after its expulsion from labour federation Cosatu in November last year, the workerist Numsa was unambiguous about its next move.

“The time has arrived to start with the building blocks of forming a new, independent, democratic, worker-controlled, militant, anti-imperialist trade union federation,” deputy general secretary Karl Cloete told reporters at the time.

This week the union presented to reporters a coalition, raising speculation that it is beginning to court other unions and working-class organisations with a view to forming this mooted new federation.

The coalition, reminiscent of mass-based anti-apartheid movements such as the United Democratic Front, is Numsa-led but former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is clearly its front man. His previous calls for a new trade union federation have not been forgotten.

This coalition will lead an anti-corruption march to the Union Buildings on September 30. More than 200 organisations are involved, from independent trade unions to civil society bodies and churches.

Later, there will be a workers’ summit organised by the same group of people behind the march. It could be the beginnings of a new federation, but analysts say that goal is a long way off.

Lucien van der Walt, professor of sociology at Rhodes University, says the coalition could be seen as part of a wider attempt by Numsa to forge alliances outside the workplace. For example, Numsa is behind the United Front and the Movement for Socialism, which some have seen as the beginnings of a political party.

However, Van der Walt says the direction these alliances will take is still up for debate within Numsa. This is also true of the envisaged new federation.

Those involved in the latest alliance are being coy about their intentions.

The workers’ summit so ardently argued for by the likes of Vavi is in the embryonic stages of planning.

Vavi’s previous remarks were unambiguous: this summit would be about discussing the possibility of a new, independent trade union federation. It has been scathingly received by Cosatu and its affiliates. Its public sector affiliate, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, called the endeavour a “foreign-funded political adventure” designed to “undermine” Cosatu.

A meeting was held last week to discuss the proposed summit and anti-corruption march.

On Tuesday Numsa gave notice of its intention to hold the anti-corruption march. The protest action is to take place in terms of section 77 of the Labour Relations Act, which gives employees the right to protest in defence of their socioeconomic rights.

The same day, Vavi and representatives of six unions told reporters that the march would be the start of a long campaign against both public and private sector corruption. Members of the Food and Allied Workers Union sat alongside Numsa and Vavi. The latter two have been expelled from Cosatu; the former remains inside the federation.

Two independent union federations – the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) – are also in the anti-corruption coalition. Nactu brings with it the support of its affiliate, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which is the rival of the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers.

Solidarity is also part of the coalition, but it says it is early days and will not yet entertain talk of joining any new federation. Spokesperson Marius Croucamp pointed out that Fedusa and Nactu are also federations in their own right.

Solidarity is on board with the march and the workers’ summit, but is treading carefully. Despite Vavi’s promises that the summit will discuss forming a new federation, Croucamp pointed out that the first preplanning meeting will only occur next Monday. An agenda has not been set, he says.“It’s really early days. We will take this step by step and see how much we will be involved,” he told the Mail & Guardian this week.

He said the only issues on the agenda of last week’s meeting were the anticorruption march and the workers’ summit. While ideas had been thrown around by individuals in public, Croucamp said the possibility of a new federation was not discussed.

Numsa president Andrew Chirwa told the media this week that the march and summit represent the largest mass formation of organisations since the demise of apartheid.

Numsa’s other project, the United Front, is also involved in the march and summit. Its secretary, Mazibuko Jara, says the United Front is also part of the steering committee.

He says that Numsa is playing a crucial part in a variety of “wider initiatives”, such as the Movement for Socialism and the United Front. Whether either of these will eventually become a new political party or a new trade union federation is not yet clear, Jara says.

“There are different initiatives for different purposes. There’s a need for a new federation, without a doubt, and the workers’ summit will go some way towards [achieving] that. You need various initiatives to respond to various needs in various parts of society.

“But it’s too early to say which way things will turn out when it comes to the federation and the potential political party,” he says.

But are the tectonic plates shifting, or are the chairs merely shifting around the deck?

Leonard Gentle, the director of the International Labour and Research Information Group, says that ever since Numsa’s exit from Cosatu, there has been speculation about what might happen, including the possibility that the union would form a workers’ party.

But organising a march and a summit, and genuinely responding to the issues that have beset the broader trade union movement, are not the same thing.

If a new federation is on the horizon, Gentle says Numsa must first face up to the challenges experienced by the working class.

These are international trends, he says, which include the move away from permanent work to casual or “precarious” work. New forms of organisation to respond to these trends must be at the top of the agenda, he says.

“It’s to Numsa’s credit that it is the one union that’s at least trying to do something different. But that doesn’t free it from the difficulties that labour has across the board,” he says.

Gentle adds that this must include finding common ground with working-class struggles.

“There have been some attempts to do this, but it’s been done in a very top-down way.”

He says this often stems from a bias among the middle-class intelligentsia, which assumes that the working class cannot organise itself. But the events in the wake of the Marikana massacre in the platinum belt show this is not true.

Instead, the country is being taken on a “roller-coaster ride”, anticipating that something “new and exciting” is about to happen, in the form of a new party or federation.

“Is there a desire to form new federation? Yes. Is there a desire to form a new political party? Yes. Were they expecting those intentions to find resonance all over the country? Yes, but the reality is proving to be a lot more difficult,” Gentle says.

Van der Walt says the anti-corruption theme could take a radical direction. “But it could also be quite bland,” he says. “In one way it’s a less ambitious and less radical idea. With the corruption theme, a lot of people could come on board. Your average Democratic Alliance supporter could come on board.

“It also ties it to the governing party. If somebody in government doesn’t support this anticorruption agenda, you could say: ‘Oh, really?’ The same goes for your average ANC branch.”

But Van der Walt adds that corruption is part of a larger class formation: a new, powerful elite using the state as a source of patronage.

This suggests that, while the march’s theme may seem quite mild, it could take a radical turn if it is used as part of a wider assault on neoliberalism.

[Analysis in translation] Lucien van der Walt, 2015, “Dal Salario Di Esistenza Al Contropotere Della Classe Lavoratrice”

Italian translation of  Lucien van der Walt, 2015, “From Living Wage to Working Class Counter-power,” South African Labour Bulletin, volume 39, number 2, pp 35-39 which you can get here. This translation is from anarkismo.net

Dal Salario Di Esistenza Al Contropotere Della Classe Lavoratrice

Lucien van der Walt, 2015, South African Labour Bulletin, volume 39, number 2, pp 35-39

Pur facendo parte della lotta, il salario di esistenza in sè non dovrebbe esserne il fine, bensì dovrebbe essere collegato alla più ampia lotta della classe lavoratrice per costruire quel contropotere che rovesci l’esistente struttura di potere.


Il sistema salariale è il cuore della subordinazione della classe lavoratrice nel suo senso più ampio: i lavoratori, le loro famiglie, i disoccupati. Non possedendo nè indipendenti mezzi di esistenza -per esempio terreni o macchine produttive- nè potere di governo – per esempio una reale capacità decisionale- la classe lavoratrice è costretta a lavorare per un salario, per poter sopravvivere.

Anche coloro che non hanno un lavoro salariato dipendono, tramite i legami familiari, da coloro che hanno un lavoro dipendente; i disoccupati sono, soprattutto, lavoratori senza lavoro. In questo senso, la classe lavoratrice è composta da “schiavi del salario”: ma diversamente dagli schiavi acquistati dai loro padroni, gli schiavi salariati devono cercarsi i loro padroni a cui vendersi all’ora.

Dal momento che i salari sono inferiori al livello del prodotto dei lavoratori, costoro vengono sfruttati tramite il sistema salariale: essi vengono pagati meno del valore di ciò che producono, mentre il plusvalore va ai datori di lavoro.

Questi datori di lavoro sono lo Stato, comprese le aziende di Stato e l’esercito, gli imprenditori privati, specialmente le grandi imprese, ma anche i piccoli imprenditori. I grandi imprenditori costituiscono una classe di governo, proprietari dello Stato e del capitale, compreso il capitale di Stato, insieme alla classe dirigente politica e militare.

Lo sfruttamento è strettamente collegato ad un più ampio sistema di dominio – a livello economico, culturale, politico- esercitato dalla classe dominante -cioè coloro che controllano i mezzi Read more of this post

Lucien van der Walt, 2000, “Report on ‘Le Autre Futur’ Summit, Paris: Another Future Through Social Resistance”

In 2000affiche_cnt_2000_un_autre_futur, I was able to attend an exciting international summit — anarchist and syndicalist — in Paris, France. I had been at an academic conference in the Netherlands (“Revolutionary Syndicalism and African workers in South Africa: a preliminary account of the Industrial Workers of Africa, 1917-1921”, at the ESSHC) and working in the archives of the amazing International Institute of Social History. So, I planned the trip so I could return via France to South Africa. The event in Paris was the April / May 2000 “Le Autre Futur” summit hosted by the National anarcho-syndicalist Confederation of Labour-France (“Paris”/ “Vignoles”, hereafter CNT-F). This brought together a number of formations, internationally, mainly the bigger revolutionary and anarcho-syndicalist unions, like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) from the United States, the anarcho-syndicalist Unicobas from Italy, and the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) of Spain etc.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were the years of a growing “anti-globalisation” movement, and I presented a report on the Paris event as part of a panel at the then-Workers Library and Museum in Johannesburg. Around this time, I had also helped arrange a display of images around the world on May Day 2000, at the Workers Library.

Anyway, here the talk is:

Lucien van der Walt, Saturday 27 May 2000, “Report on ‘Le Autre Futur’ Summit, Paris: Another Future Through Social Resistance,”Talk at Workers Library and Museum, “Resisting Globalisation” workshop.


The last two years have seen the rapid of an international, and internationalist, anti-capitalist movement. This has been developed at two main levels:

FIRST: International days of action against highly visible symbols of globalisation and capitalism. These have become increasingly radical and openly anti-capitalist. The three biggest Global days Against Capitalism have been

— November 30, 1999: mass protests against the WTO meeting in Seattle USA, leading to major riots, 500 arrests, a ban on protests in the entire city for a week by the police. This was matched by solidarity protests across the world, in countries ranging from India to Czechoslovakia;

— April 16/17, Washington, D.C.: protests against the IMF/ World Bank Summits: did not repeat violent clashes on same scale as the Seattle events, but provided a very important point of solidarity for groups from across the world; also for a regroupment and mobilisation of revolutionary forces- for example, there was a contingent called the Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Bloc of more than a 1000 people;

— May Day 2000 – but more about this later…

SECOND: The formation of international networks against various aspects of international capitalism. These have taken a variety of forms, ranging from trade union networks – such as the recent SIGTUR [Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights] congress, bringing together trade unionists from South Africa, East Asia and Australia, held last year in SA – to campaigns against the enormous foreign debts owed by poorer countries – for example, Jubilee 2000 – to international struggles against privatisation.

The conference I want to talk about was organised around the theme “For Another Future through Social Resistance” (24 April – 1 May). It combined both of these features:

— It aimed at networking radical independent — anarcho-syndicalist, revolutionary syndicalist especially — union movements from across the world;

— It aimed at mobilising up a large presence for May Day 2000, “May Day Y2K,” which was to be a major focus of opposition to capitalism and neo-liberalism.

The conference:
The conference centred on a week of action, discussion, planning, and education, from 25 April to 1 May 2000.

According to the call for the conference,

“At the beginning of the new millennium, capitalism imposed its economic model on the whole planet by absorbing the third world and the so-called communist bloc. This total domination is associated with a tremendous increase in inequalities, with fortunes made on the one side … and, on the other side, shameless exploitation and impoverishment …

But the hope of the powerful that this was a definitive victory, the so-called ‘ end of history’, is contradicted by rising criticism and social struggle …

Its time to build another future. A future without exploitation, without domination, an emancipated future for free and equal men and women.”

The conference was hosted by the CNT, the National Confederation of Labour, a radical independent trade union federation in France that aims at the replacement of capitalism with workers self-management of the economy through the trade unions. It is a revolutionary, or anarcho-syndicalist, union movement. It is based especially in areas such as rail, education, and construction.

The conference included an enormous amount of activities, including

—  A radical movie festival, held in cinemas in Paris: more than 300 hours of projection, with more than 100 films (both fiction and documentary);
— Workers theatre in 12 different theatres around the city; Read more of this post

Lucien van der Walt: discussing crisis of steel industry, South Africa

Mail and Guardian here

Foes unite to keep job crisis at bay
21 Aug 2015 00:00 Sarah Evans

The local steel industry is vanishing and about 190 000 people face losing their jobs.

It is Monday morning in Newtown, Johannesburg. The meeting of traditional foes has one thing on their agenda uniting them: to save the steel industry.

Unions in the steel industry such as Solidarity, the United Association of South Africa, the Metal and Electrical Workers Unions of South Africa and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), all normally inclined to protect the interests of their individual membership, sit at the same table with major steel producers such as ArcelorMittal. The unions approached steel manufacturers, and a task team has been formed. This is one of their emergency meetings.

Through the glass window of the conference room are furrowed brows, faces sternly looking at documents and occasionally at each other.

It began with notices to retrench issued by major steel manufacturers. Numsa, usually militant in their posturing against capital, went to the bosses. This time, they were not there to fight or strike. This time, they were there to forge an alliance, probably a temporary one.

They met last Friday. By Saturday a list of 10 demands had been drawn up and sent to six ministers, as well as the presidency. Chief among them was a call for an urgent meeting. Numsa’s Vincent Mabuyakhulu Conference Centre, over the road from its Johannesburg headquarters, is the scene of Monday’s meeting. They are usually on opposite sides of the table. Today, they are temporary comrades.

“It’s huge,” says Steve Nhlapo, Numsa’s head of collective bargaining, who slips out of the meeting to brief the Mail & Guardian. He is talking about what will happen if the industry collapses.

Six months
He says that at least 50 000 workers directly employed by steel manufacturers will be out of work in six months. Add to that the contract workers, truck drivers and cleaners and the number rises to 190 000. It’s more than 10 times the estimated job losses looming in the mining sector where retrenchments are also on the horizon.

Consider families supported and families of workers who support this industry in the informal economy; the knock-on effect is calamitous.

Marius Croucamp, the head of the metal and engineering industry at trade union Solidarity, says there is general consensus among task team members that they have six months left “to save everything” – or else “all the major steel manufacturing plants will close down. That’s it. The industry will be gone.”

He says that in the Vaal Triangle, about 75% of the residents are dependent on the steel industry. In Saldahna, where ArcelorMittal operates one of its plants, 25% of the people living there are dependent on the industry. “It will be disastrous,” he says.

The task team is in agreement on what is to be done. Central to their demands to government is protecting the local steel industry by way of import tariffs and the beneficial treatment of South African steelmakers.

Croucamp and Nhlapo say South Africa is the only steel exporter out of 64 in the world that does not impose import tariffs. Nhlapo adds that state-owned enterprises do not use locally manufactured steel. At Medupi, the yet-to-be completed new coal power plant, Thai steel is being used.

With this so-called cheaper steel comes the employment of about 2 000 Thai workers on site, he says. This, in spite of the fact that state-owned enterprises are supposed to create local jobs, Nhlapo says. Denel, for example, produces armoured vehicles for export. The aluminium used in the eight tyres on each vehicle comes from Sweden.

The Section 189 notice – signifying intention to retrench workers – and word that companies were under business rescue came in thick and fast from the steel companies. The unions soon realised that dealing with each notice to retrench piecemeal was not going to be easy.

Croucamp says that if government takes too long to respond to the task team’s demands and the industry collapses it will take 10 to 15 years to get the industry back. While Numsa is the majority union in the sector, Solidarity represents 28 000 workers in the industry.

There is also consensus about the elephant in the economic room: China. The Chinese want to build a huge steel manufacturing plant in South Africa. Croucamp says the market cannot sustain it, and it “will be the final nail in the coffin”.

Concerns about dumping steel
“What’s important is that these industries feed into each other. Construction, motoring … they are all in trouble,” he says. There are concerns about China dumping steel in South Africa, something Croucamp says ruined the steel industry in Australia.

Nhlapo says a task team of this nature is unusual in that it was formed independent of government. Although such a team exists in the mining industry, it is a government initiative and not one led by labour and industry. “While government has often spoken about saving the mining industry, we realised nobody was talking about the steel industry,” he says.

In 1994, manufacturing used to employ 800 000 workers. The number has halved since then. Total gross domestic product contribution went from 24% to 11%, he says. “We said this is more than a metal industry issue. It’s a country economic crisis,” says Nhlapo. “But we don’t see urgency from government. Employers have long made submissions about how to save the industry but nobody came back to them.”

Separately, the members of the team are on opposite sides of the political divide. For now, ideology can wait. “We are a trade union. We have taken a stand that we are approaching this as a trade union movement,” Nhlapo says.

Henk Langenhoven, chief economist of the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa, says the team has reached consensus on many issues. “Everyone is in a crisis. It’s a pity it had to get to this point.”

Langenhoven says the task team’s formation is significant. “This [crisis] has actually brought it together – the severity of the situation has been a catalyst,” he says. He adds that the crisis is “seven years in the making”.

“The sector hasn’t recovered since the financial crisis of 2008.”

Lucien van der Walt, Rhodes University sociology professor, says there have been similar attempts in the past in other iterations, including a sector summit job programme. Regarding their success, he says: “Mileage varies; it depends what is at stake.” But generally, their success has been minimal. “Usually, compromises are made but they aren’t enforced. The success of these attempts depends on how strong unions are to ensure that the compromises are enforced.”

    Sarah Evans is a Mail & Guardian news reporter.

Read more from Sarah Evans

Twitter: @SarahPeace6

[ANALYSIS] + PDF: Lucien van der Walt, 2015, “From Living Wage to Working Class Counter-power”

New article: Lucien van der Walt, 2015, “From Living Wage to Working Class Counter-power,” South African Labour Bulletin, volume 39, number 2, pp 35-39

pdflogosmallGet the PDF here

**Based on a talk given in Kenya, this article argues that, while official minimum wages and other improvements are welcome gains, they are inadequate in an exploiting system based on the rule of the few. It is necessary to pose the more ambitious demand for a ‘living wage,’ set by the working class, and to enforce this by building powerful, autonomous, self-managed, conscientised and universalist class-struggle movements opposing all oppression. Rejecting ‘privilege’ theories, it argues that all sectors of the working class benefit from demands and campaigns that secure equal rights, equal treatment and equal wages, against divide-and-rule systems, and in which strikers build alliances with communities and users. A ‘living wage’ movement of this type should be located in a larger project of building a popular counter-power that can resist, and then topple, ruling class power.

Lucien van der Walt, 2015, ‘South African Labour Bulletin’, volume 39, number 2, pp 35-39

p. 35
Whilst a living wage is part of the struggle, it should not be the end in itself but should link to broader working-class struggle to build a counter-power that overthrows the existing power structure, writes Lucien Van Der Walt.

The wage system is at the heart of the subjugation of the broad working class – workers, their families, the unemployed. Not owning independent means of existence – for example, land or productive machinery – or governing power – for example, real decision-making – the working class is compelled to work for wages, in order to survive.

Even those who do not have waged employment are reliant, through family members, on wages by those who are employed; the unemployed are, above all, unemployed workers. In this sense, the working class are ‘wage slaves’: unlike slaves bought permanently by masters, the wage slaves must seek out masters, and sell themselves, by the hour.

Since wages are always below the level of workers’ output, workers are exploited through the wage system: they are paid less than the value of what they produce, the surplus value accruing to employers.

These employers are the state, including the state corporations and army, and private employers, especially corporations, but also including small employers.The big employers constitute a ruling class, owners of the state and of capital, including of state capital, and the political and military elite.

Exploitation is closely linked to a larger system of domination – economically, culturally, socially, politically – by the ruling class – those who control means of administration, coercion and production – over the popular classes as a whole. Besides the working class (broadly understood), the popular classes include the peasantry (the small family farmers, exploited through rent, taxes and monopolies).

It is through two pyramid shaped structures that the ruling class – a small minority – has centralised power and wealth in its hands, these being states (centred on state managers: political and military elites) and corporations (centred on private capitalists), which work together.The struggle for higher wages is, in short, a struggle against the ruling class.

A minimum wage means a wage below which workers cannot be paid.This might apply to specific sectors – for example, farming – or specific jobs – for example, teachers.

It is better to have a minimum wage than not, since it provides a ‘floor’ below which wages cannot fall. Certainly, employers – state and private – prefer not to pay minimum wages; it limits their power.

But a minimum wage is not the same as a living wage, and the workers’ movement should fight for living wages, instead of minimum wages.

A living wage is a wage upon which working-class people can live with dignity and justice.

A living wage is a wage that meets working-class needs – not just subsistence needs (costs of living), but also larger social and cultural needs, enabling a dignified existence. It should also be set at levels that remove, as far as possible, divisions in the working- class – that is, also help achieve the political need for working class unity against all forms of oppression.

And since these living wage goals bring the working class into direct conflict with the existing social order, the living wage struggle needs to be part of a fight for  much for radical changes.

Minimum wages, where they exist, are normally set at the lowest levels of barebones subsistence (food, shelter, clothing etc) agreeable to employers. In almost all cases, minimum wages are set below the level unions and workers demand. Given inflation and rising costs, statutory minimum wages fall in real value, allowing employers to effectively cut wages to below basic subsistence.

p. 36
And while workers are constantly told to compare their wages to workers in other countries and sectors, there are no maximum wage settings to limit employer incomes.

A large part of the problem with  the minimum wage is how it gets set – at the level of affordability to employers (including the state), plus calculation of the most minimal ‘basket’ of subsistence costs.

Normally the calculation is done in a way that, first, underestimates
workers’ financial needs, and second, limits that calculation to the most basic items of subsistence, that is, the lowest possible cost of living.

There is no single way to calculate minimum wages, but the calculations are controlled by states and other employers, who devote extensive full-time resources – accountants, lobbyists, negotiators – while unions lack this capacity and control.

This is the background against which minimum wages set by governments generally fall below required levels for basic subsistence.

A living wage is something much more radical. First, it involves a much more generous estimate of basic subsistence needs – not just living from hand-to-mouth, steps away from starvation.

Second, it recognises that workers’ needs are not simply  food and shelter. People also have needs that are social (for example, the ability to participate in society, with dignity, without exclusion, without barriers), and cultural (for example, spending time with family, time for enjoyment, time for education and self-improvement).

Minimum wages are currently set narrowly, and primarily in the interests of the employers i.e. they prioritise the needs of the ruling class, which benefits from the exploiting wage system.

Biased, top-down calculations by and for the ruling class should be replaced with wage policy from below: it should instead be the working class that defines  the level of the required wages. Rather than rely on state and employer calculations of ‘basic’ needs, the working class should – through forums and campaigns and movements – set the living wage level that it needs.

It should then campaign vigorously for its adoption, and impose this in the teeth of ruling class opposition.The situation where wage calculations are restricted to small groups of experts – both within unions, but, above all, in the state and the corporations – must end.

Third, the setting of a living wage level also requires consideration of larger issues of equality and justice. Society is not just based around  the division between classes, but is also divided within classes, along lines like race, nationality and gender.
These divisions mean, for example, that immigrant workers earn lower wages, in general, than national workers, are concentrated in worse jobs, and face problems that national workers do not face –

p. 37
for example, popular prejudice and police terror against immigrants as immigrants.The same can be said about the situation of working- class women, minorities, rural workers etc.

This situation of disparities is sometimes misinterpreted as a system of ‘privilege’, because one group in the working class (for example, national workers) is ‘privileged’ by being treated somewhat better than another (for example, immigrants).

But the problem with the ‘privilege’ theory is that the inequality between the two harms the interests of the whole working class; it primarily benefits the ruling class, in that it divides the working class, weakens unions, confuses people about where their problems arise, increasing the rates of exploitation.

For example, two groups of workers – immigrant and local –    get pitted against one other, seeing the other as the enemy.  But there is nothing to gain for national workers if immigrants are terrorised by police as immigrants; it is not a ‘privilege’ to be terrorised at a lower rate.

It is not a ‘privilege’ for national workers to get slightly higher wages than immigrants, or to be exploited slightly less: on the contrary, this situation forces national workers – themselves already severely exploited and oppressed – into competing for jobs with immigrants by accepting lower wages and more exploitation.This then opens the doors for ‘xenophobia’, which leaves the ruling class safe, as the working class devours itself.

Therefore, a living wage definition must also ensure  equality and justice.The living wage must aim at equal wages, redress for past wrongs, and just and unifying wage levels, as part of fighting against the specific forms of oppression faced on the lines of gender, race and nationality, the fight for equal rights and treatment -a class movement against all oppression, not an individualist politics of ‘check your privilege’.
This universalist approach helps bridge the divisions in the working class – thus, the demand for the living wage can help meet the political need to unite the working class, by overcoming myriad forms of division and oppression, with a common struggle.

Effectively, winning  the  same  wage levels for all workers in a given sector  will  remove  the  downward pressure of the extra-low wages of a  sector  of  workers, unify  workers around a common set of demands, elaborated  together, and  directly challenge  the  specific  problems faced by the most oppressed sections.The  struggle  itself  helps forge  unity, overcome  sectionalism.

This same principle needs to be expanded across industries, as a way of removing the same disparities within the economy; across the gap between full-time and casual workers, and the employed and unemployed, as a way of bringing workers into a single labour  market with decent conditions; and globalised, as a way of removing the same disparities between countries.

That is, the demand for a living wage should aim for a universal, and ultimately, international, living wage – as part of a project of working class unity.And since the demand for a living wage requires campaigns and actions, this also requires building international solidarity, against divisive politics and ideas.

Wage levels are, in the final analysis, shaped by the balance of power – not the cost of living, or labour market conditions.Therefore, winning a living wage requires widespread mobilisation and education by the working class, from below.

Without powerful workers’ organisation – above all, effective and democratic unions – wage levels cannot improve. Better wages will not arise from appeals to the conscience of employers, or through the law.They rest, ultimately, on punitive actions based on popular organisation, including strikes.

This also requires organising beyond the workplace. Alliances need to be built with other parts of the working class, including those affected by strikes and other actions.To do this, it is essential to link workplace struggles to neighbourhood issues, to
strengthen campaigns, otherwise the division between workplace and community will undermine the struggle.

This means raising issues  from communities and making them part of strike or campaign demands.

For example, if the electricity workers strike, over wages,  this will affect communities. It is necessary to explain what the strike is about, and why communities should support workplace struggles, but it is also necessary that workplace struggles support neighbourhood demands – for example, electricity strikes should include neighbourhood demands, such as for higher wattage connections in working- class neighbourhoods, at lower prices.This also means giving thought to selective strike actions –    for example, blacking out elite suburbs, not working-class townships. It also means that higher wages should not be paid for by higher electricity charges, where employers ‘rob Peter to pay Paul.’

Actions that destroy facilities, disrupt examinations and services to the working class, lead to industry closures – these should be avoided.

Strikers have an ethical obligation to the larger working class – but none at all to the

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ruling class, which they are forced, by their situation, to confront and resist and challenge. Rather, the aim should be to unite the whole working class, and win better conditions for the whole working class.

Finally, it is also essential to remember that wage struggles are inadequate.

They are essential.They improve the living conditions of people. They develop confidence in the ordinary people’s ability to change the world in which they live. If workers are afraid to fight for the most basic things – money to live upon – they will never be able to fight for anything more – like changing society into something better.

But better wages are not enough.

The wage system itself rests on a deep system of social and economic inequality, between the popular and ruling classes, and divisions and oppression by factors like race, gender and nationality. The best wages cannot remove the basic system of class rule and its attendant inequalities.

Thus, struggles – including at work -should never be reduced to wage struggles.They should escalate to include demands for greater control – by the working class – over the workplace and over working-class neighbourhoods, as well as greater popular class unity.

This means building counter- power: the organised power of the broad working class, participatory, pluralistic, democratic, and outside and against the state, creating workplace and community/ neighbourhood structures that provide the basis for resistance in the present – and lay the organisational basis for a new society.That is, structures that can become the governing power in society, replacing the top-down systems of state and capital with an egalitarian society of working- class  self-management.These include  democratic  unions, and neighbourhood movements –  this is not a project of building a political party.

This project rests on self-activity and autonomy. It means, for example, rather than cooperating with employers to improve productivity through productivity deals, a programme of developing a workers’ veto on retrenchments -that is, implementing a refusal to be retrenched.

Building counter-power does not mean cooperation with the state, or the corporations, or running in elections. It is, instead, about relentless struggle against state  and capital, as well as against divisions in the working class, and against all forms of oppression and exploitation, while expanding the role of counter-power in daily life.
Building counter-power means locating all struggles in a larger project to fundamentally change society, by removing the systems of economic and social inequality, and a system of political power -including the state – that play a key role in entrenching these systems.

This requires building widespread counter-power that unifies all the sectors of the popular classes, unifies on the basis of justice, equity and struggle, and shifts power from the ruling class to the popular classes, and from the state and the corporations, to the counter-power of the people.

It is an illusion to think that the state can be used to entrench justice, including living wages. All states, without exception – no matter how red their flags, or socialist their slogans – are controlled by minority ruling classes; constitutions are pieces of paper, ignored unless working- class people enforce them through struggles, not litigation. Even then, the balance of power shapes how laws are interpreted and applied, if at all; so, it is only through strength – struggle, autonomy, self-managed counter-power – that anything can be won.

Unless the working class and the popular classes build the power to enforce their demands – including wage demands – upon the ruling class, they will never win those demands.The balance of power shapes income distribution, how and where decisions are made, who is rich and who is poor, and who lives, and who dies.

But all victories – even the greatest – under the existing system – capitalism and the state – are partial. Better wages are continually eroded by issues like rising prices, and rising unemployment.

Furthermore, a better-paid wage slave, is still a wage slave.The deep system of dispossession that forces people into wage labour, has to be uprooted.The highest wage does not remove exploitation; the system cannot operate  unless workers are paid less than the value of their production. Exploitation does not have to mean a low wage: it means only that workers are paid less than the value of their production.

The deep class system is also based on a basic disparity of power and wealth, across society, in everything from the running and finance of schools (always worst for the working class) to the structure of the economy (which is why it is possible to have a country with mines producing gold, which has no real use, yet a massive shortage of houses).

Fundamental change means displacing the ruling class from power, through counter-power, implementing a new society, based on participatory and democratic planning of the economy and society.This requires a continual project of struggle, autonomous

of the ruling class – including the state, including the parliament and state elections- and it requires conscientising the mass of the people on the or need for a larger struggle for self-management, the removal of hierarchy, and social and economic equality – that is, a project of revolutionary counter- culture, running  alongside  with and strengthening the counter- power.

Building counter-power and counter-culture is only possible by engaging with struggles for immediate reforms, including wage struggles.

Through such struggles – and not through abstract plans – the mass of people get mobilised; their victories increase their confidence; their defeats teach valuable lessons, including in the importance of solidarity and unity, and the common interests of the broad working class; a working class that will not fight to put bread on the table will never manage to fight to completely change society.

The argument that fights for minimum or living wages are too moderate – that struggle must ignore this as a distraction, and proceed straight to ‘revolution’ (or failing that, to riots and so on)- is wrong. Wage battles, like all immediate struggles, are limited, but they are a step on the road to deep changes.

A real change in society will not arise from a simple collection of partial struggles and victories, however ‘militant,’ but  preparing for a decisive confrontation – where the accumulation of massive counter-power – infused with counter-culture – can displace, permanently, the existing power structure.

There is no short cut, since this project requires widespread  mobilisation and conscientisation; smaller struggles, sometimes emotive, sometimes ‘militant,’ are valuable, but never enough; there needs to be a quantitative (in terms of numbers and structures) and qualitative (in terms of growing mass confidence, organisation, consciousness and power) change.

This requires careful work, not a leap of faith; the small struggles are the foundation of the great struggle, not a rival, not a substitute, but only a step in the right direction.

** Lucien van der Walt is an industrial sociology professor at Rhodes University.This is part of a presentation on ‘Paying Living Wages: A Reality or Mirage?,’ delivered at a colloquium organised by the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KRC) Consortium, Panafric Hotel, Nairobi, Kenya, 27-28 November 2014.

Lucien van der Walt: discussing state of the unions in South Africa

Mail and Guardian here

‘Workers do not have a good story to tell’

30 Jul 2015 16:09 Sarah Evans

Between the second quarters of 2014 and 2015, union membership in South Africa decreased by 17 000 members

Levels of unionisation in South Africa remain stable relative to other countries, but union membership is on the decline.

Analysts and unionists put this down to a number of factors, including mass retrenchments in key sectors and a failure on the part of unions to organise non-permanent workers, and to keep their workers who become unemployed inside unions.

Between the second quarters of 2014 and 2015, union membership in South Africa decreased by 17 000 members.

About 3.7-million workers in South Africa are union members. This is according to the Statistics South Africa Labour Force Survey, released this week.

A survey by the South African Institute of Race Relations, released in February this year, revealed a 26 % decline in union membership between 1994 and 2014.

A perceived distance between trade unions and their workers is often cited as a key factor which drives workers away from unions, and towards cheap, private legal services such as LegalWise.

This is particularly true in the mining sector, where several mining companies are now threatening to retrench thousands of workers. Lonmin could retrench up to 6 000 workers as it restructures its operations, while Anglo American Platinum has said it will reduce its workforce in the Rustenburg area from 24 000 to 16 500 workers. Globally, Anglo American is cutting its workforce by a third. Harmony Gold is also considering retrenchments, while Kumba Iron Ore has closed one of its mines, with 1 160 workers losing their jobs.

Cosatu’s political crisis reached its apex at its special national congress in July, sealing the fate of the expelled metalworkers union Numsa, as well as former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

But Cosatu’s labour market policy coordinator Patrick Phelane told the Mail & Guardian this week that if one were to take a broad view of the problem, “membership is not only declining due to the factors that are often stated”.

He was referring to the popular view that workers are leaving unions because their interests are not represented.

“Explosion” of casualised labour

Retrenchments and increasing levels of casualisation and outsourcing are central to the declining numbers, he said.

This view is shared by Igshaan Schroeder, coordinator at the Casual Workers’ Advice Office in Johannesburg. Schroeder previously told the M&G that an “explosion” of casualised labour, even in sectors not traditionally associated with non-permanent work, means that more and more workers are not unionised.

This is because non-permanent workers are difficult to organise, and unions admit their failure to come up with creative ways of unionising these workers.

However, Phelane said there has been some growth in membership, particularly in the transport sector.

Professor Lucien van der Walt, professor of sociology at Rhodes University, said that South African unions typically did not hold on to their members when they were retrenched. In this way, unemployment was compounding the problem.

“That’s a failing on the part of unions,” he said.

Van der Walt said that while any loss of membership is a cause of concern, it is still “remarkable” how sustained the levels of unionisation have remained in South Africa in spite of mass retrenchments in many sectors.

He said that outside of industries such as agriculture, union membership is sometimes as high as 40% of the workforce.

He said the trend is for unions to shed members in industries which are facing job cuts, such as mining.

Organise the unorganised

While mining is certainly in trouble, Phelane and Van der Walt agree that the retail sector, with its high rate of casualisation and outsourcing, is bleeding.

Phelane said, “We have to organise. We just have to come up with new ways of recruiting members. We also have to identify where enterprises are being created. We need to organise the unorganised.”

Van der Walt said that this was not just happening in the private sector.

“In large parts of the public sector there is also large attrition of jobs,” he said. This is a sector where Cosatu has tended to grow its membership thanks to large public-sector unions.

But it is also a sector where labour is increasingly outsourced.

“For example, you’ll find a police station using a private security company, or government institutions that use private cleaning companies,” he said.

Outsourcing “fractures the workforce,” said Van der Walt.

In this regard, an example could be made of Wits University, which has faced heavy criticism for its outsourcing of labour.

Wits’ vice chancellor Adam Habib has previously said that insourcing support services at the university was crucial to transforming the institution, as outsourced labourers were often “grossly exploited and sometimes abused”.

But Habib said the university did not have the funds to insource these services.

Van der Walt said the result of this fractured workforce was that there were many different negotiating platforms.

So cleaning staff negotiated with the cleaning company, and security services negotiated with private security companies.

“This makes it harder to unionise these workers,” he said.

Phelane says there are around 235 000 workers who are not organised in the metals sector. This is a sector where upstart the Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa (Limusa) is now competing with the country’s biggest union, Numsa. Limusa is now part of Cosatu, Numsa’s former home.

Phelane said that besides that opportunity, Cosatu recognised that it had to find ways to organise workers in the informal sector.

“It is very, very difficult to organise those workers. But it is not impossible,” he said.

Castro Ngobese, Numsa spokesperson, told the M&G that the union’s membership had grown over the last three years, from about 290 000 members in 2013 to well over 360 000 members.

Ngobese attributes this to “quality services”, but also Numsa’s decision to expand its membership base along the value chain, “because of the way the industry is changing”.

This resulted in Numsa organising workers outside of its traditional, manufacturing base – something that irked Cosatu with its policy of “one union, one sector”.

“Some of the new members that we’ve received are not from our traditional base. They are from sectors like transport, aviation, where workers are disgruntled with the service they get from their previous unions,” Nbobese said.

Ngobese says Numsa faces a threat in the steel industry, where mass retrenchments are looming.

He said the union is looking at ways to mitigate against this.

As Cosatu admits, another union weakness is the movement’s failure to recruit workers on short term contracts, or “casual” workers.

Winning, delivering

This speaks to a need for unions to get better at organising, and to develop new methods of organising in general.

Van der Walt cites Numsa as an example of where this has been achieved with some success.

“Numsa is expanding the boundaries of who it can unionise. The other thing is what attracts people to a union is that there’s a record of winning and delivering.

“NUM lost a huge amount of members in platinum, as it was seen as distant, corrupt, and too close to power. I think NUM is improving though after the shock it got with Amcu.

“When it comes to organising, Numsa is far more militant and successful,” he said.

Compared with other countries, like Zimbabwe, where unions are being “slaughtered” by massive restructuring, as well as the political environment, and the US, where unionization is decline, Van der Walt said it is also true that union membership in South Africa is stagnant.

“This is a sign that unless the unions begin to find ways to organise workers who are employed in other types of ways, they will not grow.”

However Van der Walt says reform is not impossible.

For example, the first trade union federation to be formed in South Africa, the Federation of South African trade unions, was formed in 1979, following the 1973 strike wave in Durban and Pinetown.

“The union federation was formed during an extremely repressive government regime. It was a time when workers could be fired on the spot for wearing the wrong T-shirt,” said.

And so the challenge for unions was “more a political question, of unions developing strategies of organising the broader working class”, he said. This includes the unemployed, workers who are not employed through traditional means, and workers in the informal sector.

Ngobese said that for unions to remain relevant, they must remember that workers can walk away from them at any time, and so their issues must be paramount.

“Unions must focus more on workers’ issues, as opposed to being politicians’ lackeys, going around talking about the “good story to tell”. Workers do not have a good story to tell, he said, referring to the ANC’s 2014 election slogan.

Ngobese said that union’s alignment to political parties was hurting workers.

Sarah Evans is a Mail & Guardian news reporter

Lucien van der Walt: discussing crisis in COSATU’s SACCAWU union

Mail and Guardian here

Massive union on brink of collapse

20 Mar 2015 00:00 Sarah Evans

Saccawu is being sued for R30-million by its provident fund but has been given a last chance.

One of trade union federation Cosatu’s biggest affiliates is one missed deadline away from being liquidated, potentially leaving 140 000 workers without a union, in a low-wage sector in which labour is regularly outsourced.

The South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union (Saccawu) has one more chance to pay R30-million to its provident fund or face liquidation, and probable dissolution.

Although negotiations are continuing to prevent it, analysts have asked whether the development means Cosatu has “taken its eye off the ball”.

The union’s debt stems from allegations of the misappropriation of funds. Its provident fund, under curatorship since 2002, has sued the union for money allegedly siphoned off through an investment fund. But the union has denied the allegations.

The union missed its March?9 deadline to pay back the money or face liquidation. Apparently Cosatu’s top brass recently made a last-minute appeal to the provident fund’s curator, Tony Mostert, for another extension.

If the union is liquidated, it will have no control over its finances and its assets will be wound up. Mostert said liquidation would be a last resort because it would have dire consequences. He had given the union one more extension, “but if they default again, it’s game over”.

Retirement funds are safe
Cosatu also asked him to allow the union access to some of the money in its bank accounts to pay staffers’ salaries, which Mostert agreed to. But, he said, the provident fund was healthy, so the workers’ retirement funds and disability benefits would be safe if the union collapsed.

Lucien van der Walt, a professor of sociology at Rhodes University, said the potential collapse of the union would leave workers exposed in a sector in which casualised labour was prevalent and in which the organising of workers was particularly difficult.

Although there might be smaller unions in the sector, there was no other the size of Saccawu that could absorb workers on a national scale, he said.

“While the situation differs vastly from retailer to retailer, labour broking is cheaper for companies instead of having a big group of permanent workers,” Van der Walt said. “It also allows employers to outsource industrial relations.”

He said workers were often divided into smaller groups in the sector. For example, packers might be organised separately from cleaners in the same shop. Or waiters might be organised separately from kitchen staff in a restaurant.

A number of companies had maintained good relationships with Saccawu, but some large retailers had taken a hard line against unions over the past two decades, in what was already a low-wage sector. “Losing the single biggest union in the sector would leave workers especially exposed,” Van der Walt said.

Richard Pithouse, a politics lecturer at Rhodes University, said the crisis in Saccawu and other unions was indicative of a “serious, entrenched crisis in Cosatu from which there is no easy exit”.

‘Disaster for workers’
“It’s clear that when unions collapse that it’s a disaster for workers. As soon as workers are not organised, bosses will push back as far as they can, both in terms of outsourcing and in changing working conditions. A part of the crisis of Cosatu is that a lot of the union leadership has become distant from workers.”

Pithouse said part of the problem was the idea in the trade union movement that the South African Communist Party (SACP) was the vanguard of workers and would provide the intellectual muscle. But the SACP had become mainly concerned with supporting the ANC and President Jacob Zuma.

“There appears to be an attempt to contain workers, not to empower them. The logic of trade unions, which is to advance workers’ struggles, has been inverted.”

Saccawu is not the only embattled union in Cosatu. The Communication Workers’ Union was hit hard by the strike at the South African Post Office, which arose from divisions between casual and permanent workers, as illustrated by research conducted by Professor David Dickinson from the University of the Witwatersrand.

The Food and Allied Workers’ Union was also dealt a blow by the Constitutional Court in 2013, when it was ordered to pay damages to two workers it had failed to represent adequately in a labour dispute.

Van der Walt said many unions were “rudderless. Cosatu has been concerned with infighting within its central committee, and a lot of that is around trying to get rid of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa [Numsa]. Cosatu took their eye off the ball.”

He said part of the problem was that the unions were at a political impasse. They recognised that the government was part of the problem but were too deeply invested in the ANC to take action.

Van der Walt said the government was as bad as the private sector for not always enabling large-scale unionisation. Retrenchments and labour broking were rife on the shop floor, even at the state-owned Post Office.

Proximity to power
Pithouse said the unions’ original argument was that their proximity to power would give them influence. “The one thing that the unions did take a position on was labour broking, and it went nowhere. It shows that proximity to power isn’t always the way to change things.”

The question was whether this was bad strategy on the part of the unions, or whether it was symptomatic of a bigger system they had bought into. But the result was control of the workers and a patronage network for the union elite.

Pithouse said the economy was increasingly debt- and consumer-based and was no longer built on mining and industry. “So retail is where the money and the jobs are.” This made the potential demise of the biggest union in the retail sector “disastrous”.

Mazibuko Jara, the national secretary for the Numsa-aligned United Front, said Saccawu’s potential collapse and the infighting among Cosatu’s leadership presented an opportunity for the broader labour movement to renew itself.

“What is required is unions that are controlled by workers and unions that think carefully about their political allegiances,” he said.

Saccawu did not respond to requests for comment, and Cosatu’s spokesperson, Patrick Craven, said it would be unwise for him to comment until the matter had been discussed at a senior level in the union federation.


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