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Labour’s future hangs in the balance

- Edward Webster

Workers still have power and agency but sustainable collective organisation is under threat from the Fourth Industrial Revolution

In our recently launched book Lynford Dor and I show how new technology is “making”, “unmaking” and “remaking” new forms of work. Historically, technological change has always been contested and has led to intense struggles between capital and labour.

However, as American sociology professor Beverly Silver has argued, new “technological fixes” have often led to contradictory developments, aiming to weaken organised labour in existing strongholds of the labour movement, but at the same time creating new opportunities to organise elsewhere.

Could this new technology, the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, mean the “end of labour”, or are we at the beginning of a new cycle of union growth? Spanish sociologist Manuel Castels argued that unions were products of the past. The network society, he wrote, results in labour becoming localised, disaggregated, fragmented, diversified and divided in its collective identity. Above all, he said, labour unions were unable to represent the new workers, act in the new workplaces and function in the new forms of organisation. 

Predictions of the “end of labour” are not new. Labour experts in the US were doing so as early as 1936. But they had hardly done so when the US experienced an upsurge of a new type of union — shop floor-based industrial unionism in the car plants of Detroit.

It was not the end of labour, but the end of a particular kind of union — the craft union based on the power of skilled worker. With the rise of “Fordism” the workplace was being transformed by the emergence of a new kind of worker — the semi-skilled machine operator — and a new kind of worker organisation, the industrial union. 

It was the new bargaining power conferred on unskilled and semi-skilled workers when mechanisation replaced craft skill that led to the rise of an increasingly confident semi-skilled black labour force in SA, creating in the 1980s a powerful shop steward movement in the country’s industrial heartland.

Three responses 

In our book we identify three responses by labour to this new phase of accumulation — the age of globalisation and digitalisation. The first response is what Dutch labour expert Jelle Visser calls dualisation. Here established unions organise only one section of the workforce — those workers who have stable “permanent” jobs — and ignore the growing number of precarious workers.

We show how many employers have been able to in effect recreate a “dualistic system of labour control”, the bedrock of the factory regime under apartheid. In other words, a return to a factory regime based on one group of workers who are afforded collective bargaining rights and “despotic control” for another group. Unions have responded by defending the interests of only their members, which is reminiscent of the approach taken by the white craft unions under apartheid. 

The second response to the challenge of globalisation and digitalisation is what Visser calls substitutionism — here employers and workers are experimenting with ways of giving workers a voice but they are not recruited into membership-based trade unions. Some of these responses are initiated by employers. For example, direct forms of communication that give workers a voice over their immediate conditions, or legal firms such as Scorpion or Legal Wise that offer services to workers.

Other initiatives have come from organisations sympathetic to workers. The Casual Workers Advice Office is an example where an NGO has facilitated the organisation of casual workers in the factories east of Johannesburg into workplace-based informal committees. This response could lead to the growth of unions.   

The third response is where unions successfully revitalise. But as Visser argues, to do so unions need “the courage to innovate and experiment with new forms of association, use digital tools, and broaden unions’ reach through coalition-building with other civil society groups”.

The clearest case we have of successful union revitalisation is the Amalgamated Transport & General Workers Union in Uganda. By reframing informal boda boda (motorcycle) riders as workers and therefore potential union members it was able to expand the union from a declining 5,000 members to more than 100,000 members.

Fourth response 

However, our research points in the direction of a fourth response, one in which traditional unions aren’t revitalised but instead new workers experiment with new forms of power and hybrid forms of organisation among the growing swathe of precarious and informal labour in Africa.

In our studies of food couriers in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Accra we found that these platform workers have begun to develop union-like hybrid collectives offering mutual aid. The app, we discovered, is a double-edged sword — while it extends control over workers in unprecedented ways, it technologically links the couriers, and through WhatsApp groups they begin to self-organise. Last year they organised a “strike” by collectively disconnecting.

We call this an experimental trend that is emerging in parts of the Global South. But the scale of the informal economy (in much of Africa it covers 90% of the workforce) and the resulting reserve of labour makes it difficult to build sustainable worker organisation. Where work is precarious and workers easily replaceable, it is difficult to build a workforce that is able and willing to pay regular membership fees to a union. The result is collective action without sustainable collective organisation.

Our research highlights that precarious workers do have agency and power. New and hybrid forms of organisation are forming on the margins of the global economy. But more than ever in the history of capitalism society’s future is uncertain and the future of labour hangs in the balance. 

• Webster is a professor in the Southern Centre of Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and author, with Lynford Dor, of “Recasting Workers’ Power; Work and Inequality in the Shadow of the Digital Age”.

This article first appeared in Business Day