Should the trade unions boycott present state institutions?


In this contribution John Appolis argues that there is a need for trade unions and the left in general to open a debate on whether to participate in the present state institutions


In March this year the Rosa Luxemburg

Foundation arranged a discussion on the left’s attitude to the role and participation in bourgeois institutions. This is a question that should also be of concern to the trade union movement. 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 exists an unquestionable acceptance of the political and legal legitimacy of these bourgeois institutions within the ranks of the trade union movement. Nowadays participation is taken as an absolute norm, a given, an ‘automatic reflex’. 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 even temporary suspension of participation from them would be taboo, frowned upon and considered to be ‘ultra-left’.

This is in direct contrast to the situation when the progressive trade union movement was still in its infancy. At that time the trade union movement was deeply divided on its attitude towards bourgeois institutions. These differences were refracted through the debate on registration, and on participation in the then Industrial Councils (the forerunners of the present bargaining councils).

Broadly speaking there were two factions within the progressive trade union movement. On the one hand there were the unions aligned to the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) advocating for registration and possible participation in the Industrial Council system. On the other hand, another set of trade unions argued for the rejection of registration and for the 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 1956.

The participation position

FOSATU viewed registration and participation as a tactic, a means to achieve the long-term objectives of the unions of non-racialism, of restricting the role of the state in industrial relations and to struggle for the principle of worker control over their trade unions. FOSATU therefore sought registration on its own terms. It wanted to force the state to accede to unions the right to determine the composition of their membership without state interference.

FOSATU argued that it was important to tactically exploit the legal space offered by registration in order to make further inroads into the workplace. According to FOSATU, the legal cover of registration would facilitate access to the workplace, a very important gain considering the general hostility of employers towards the emergent unions. Registration would allow unions 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 FOSATU further contended that the independence of unions from the apartheid industrial relations system was 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 the 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 the potential pitfalls intended by the apartheid state.

The boycott position

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 argued they would only register if the state institutes the desired changes and therefore waited for more reforms from above, from the state. In principle and in practice the position amounted to a boycott of registration.

According to WPGWU, registration would undermine the right of workers to freedom of association and right of workers to control their unions. Registration would 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 would be forced to join the industrial council system where the conservative white unions had veto power over the admission of unions. In order to obtain a seat on the industrial council independent unions would be compelled to become respectable and moderate their ‘radicalism’. Unions would be confined to a form of bargaining at industry level where the balance of power was in favour of employers, whereas the strength of the independent unions was at shop floor level. Industry bargaining, however, engenders the reliance on experts, decision-making by leaders and consequently a widening gap between the leadership and workers would develop.

This reliance on registration and membership of industrial council for the existence of trade union would turn unions into bureaucratised welfare institutions. A process of legalism would engulf the union because there would be a tendency to rely on the legal procedures to obtain and enforce rights. The strength of workers and organisation would be ignored and undermined. The rule of law would reign supreme. For the boycotters, the unions did not need legal protection to push back employers. The power of workers has done that up to then and would continue to do so. Instead of advancing the struggle of workers registration would lead to the weakening of the unions.

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.

The post-apartheid period: to participate or not to participate in state institutions?

These two main positions on how to approach the new apartheid-state reforms were informed by different approaches to understanding the nature of the apartheid state, different understanding of the processes of social change, and the state of working class organisation and consciousness.

In the post-apartheid period, however, little debate has taken place about how trade unions should approach participation in state institutions. As I have indicated, there is an automatic assumption that the interests of the working class are served by participation in principle. This assumption, however, is based on a number of serious theoretical and political errors. While it is not possible to exhaust this issue here, I would like to draw attention to some of the key errors committed by the leadership of COSATU.

Nature of the state

One of the key issues demonstrated by the debate in the 1980s 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 state institutions.

Today COSATU is committing the same errors of its predecessors in its understanding of the state. Instructively COSATU characterises 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.

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.

Participation as a principle

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.

Independence of trade unions

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 voluntarily dissolving the union if the apartheid state was to forcibly compel unions to register. Instructively the principle of trade union independence from the capitalist state is not dependent on the form of the state – it does not depend on whether the state is 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.

The state of the working class movement

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. And today, more than two and half decades later, the South African trade movement displays the worst concerns raised by the boycotting faction. The labour movement today 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 the unions have 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 lull.

One could say that the prognosis of the boycotters has become a reality but, within the context of a post-apartheid democratic state. It can be argued that there exists, today, a case for the boycott of the bourgeois institutions, especially ones like NEDLAC, which have only managed to suffocate the unions.

Probably 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, our understanding of the process of social change and of the appropriate ideological and political tools we need to undertake the necessary change. In addition, the question of the state of the working class movement in South Africa today would also come to the fore.

John Appolis is a union activist in GIWUSA, and is also active in the APF (Gauteng)

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