Organizing the unemployed in South Africa
by John Appolis
Editor’s note: John Appolis is a leader of the The General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA). He joined it when he and other militants were purged from one of COSATU’s affiliates. He is also active with the Anti-Privatization Forum.
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Johannesburg, South Africa--The trade union movement has, on many occasions, dedicated itself to the organizing of the unemployed. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), for instance, at its ninth National Congress in September 2006, reiterated the urgent need to organize the unemployed and, to this extent, adopted many demands relating to the unemployed. In most cases however there is no systematic theorization of, firstly, the nature and role of unemployment in the capitalist accumulation regime, and secondly, the organizational strategies and adjustments necessary to undertake such an endeavour.
GIWUSA's experience of organizing the unemployed over the past three years has shown that there is no substitute for the hard, solid and sustained organization of the unemployed. The relegation of this task to an appendix of organizers’ overall work is not sufficient. Further, once-off mass campaigns and general strikes around the issues of unemployment, whilst very necessary and to be undertaken and supported, only serve to illuminate the problem. If this type of action is not either preceded or followed by the actual organizing of the unemployed, then again there will be no real forward march in this arena.
THE NATURE OF UNEMPLOYMENT
This theorization of the nature of and role of unemployment under neo-liberal capitalism not only places our organizing initiatives on a sound and sustained footing but also provides a buttress to the propaganda of the government that it cares for the unemployed. Recently the government trumpeted the fact that the economy has created new formal jobs. What it does not show is that the rate at which jobs are being created is vastly inadequate to stem the tide of unemployment. Ironically there are already attempts afoot on the part of the Reserve Bank to choke off consumer-driven economic growth by the raising of interest rates.
This contradictory nature of official economic policies is endemic to the neo-liberal agenda of the South African ruling class. Unemployment in the country is structural, permanent and mass. Since the 1970s formal employment has been in steady decline. This decline is a direct result of the structural changes that have occurred in the economy where the primary sector has diminished, new technological changes accompanied by a fundamental reorganization of work were effected. Hardest hit were mining and manufacturing jobs. The picture that graphically emerges is that, if you fall in the age group 16-34, you most likely would not find a permanent job--statistically 70% of this age group have never worked. More significantly, 56% of all unemployed people have never worked.
A major contributor to the unemployment crisis has been the macro-economic growth strategy of the government--the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Programme (GEAR). It is commonly recognized that government’s program of privatization, liberalization of trade through the removal of tariffs, financial liberalization and fiscal austerity since 1996 are the main culprits. Under the ANC government’s watch more than one million jobs were lost between 1994-2003 in both the public and private sectors.
The pretense that it has a strategy to tackle the crisis of unemployment rings hollow upon close scrutiny. The so-called government strategy of setting up a public works program in the form of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) to provide short term employment whilst waiting for economic growth to absorb the unemployed has been shown to be a complete failure. The EPWP offers short-term employment but the structural economic problems are not transitional problems. The EPWP only delivers a maximum of 200,000 temporary jobs each year. These jobs are considered not additive, i.e., it is not 200,000 in year one, rising to 400,000 in year two and so on. The government has committed itself to halve unemployment by the year 2014, but to achieve this target, at least between 400,000 and 750,000 additional formal jobs per annum need to be created.
The underlying assumption inherent in the EPWP, that unemployment is a transient problem, is fundamentally flawed. And it is situated within the conservative fiscal policies of the government and is designed within the budgetary constraints of the medium term expenditure framework.
EFFORTS TO ORGANIZE THE UNEMPLOYED
With this understanding in mind, the union in 2003 formally integrated the Masibambane Unemployed Project (MUP). Initially, the MUP organized only ex-members of the union, but as the MUP became known in the townships, workers from other industries and trade unions started to join the MUP.
The initial response of MUP was to encourage these other unemployed workers to approach their own unions to get them to undertake similar unemployed organizing initiatives. Once these endeavors proved to be in vain, the MUP had to deal with the question of who are the unemployed. Out of this question flowed a further question: should Masibambane organize all the unemployed or only retrenched and dismissed workers? This is an ongoing debate within the structures of the union and MUP.
In addressing the problem of unemployment and the associated social problems, MUP has embarked upon a number of campaigns.
CAMPAIGN FOR FIRST PREFERENCE: At the time of retrenchment negotiations, trade unions–including GIWUSA--ensure that the retrenchment agreements contain the "First Preference Clause." This means that when new employment opportunities arise in the company that has retrenched workers, then the retrenched workers are to be given first preference to access those opportunities. However, employers have largely ignored this provision and have employed other people with no regard to their obligations under the retrenchment agreement.
The MUP along with GIWUSA have targeted these companies, staged marches, negotiated with employers on this matter and declared disputes where no agreements could be reached. This is an ongoing campaign.
THE PENTION SURPLUS CAMPAIGN: There is the second campaign initiated by MUP. It is calculated that there is an 80 billion rand [$11 billion] surplus in different pensions funds throughout the country. This surplus came about because workers were not paid out their share of the surplus in the pension funds at time they were either retrenched, dismissed or transferred out of the funds.
CO-OPERATIVES: In 2004 the MUP initiated discussions on co-operatives as possible ways of generating income for members of MUP. A series of workshops were organized outlining what co-operatives are, the government’s proposed legislation and the requirements for setting up co-operatives.
CAMPAIGN ON THE RIGHT TO WROK, TO AN INCOME AND POVERTY ALLEVIATION: In August 2004 the MUP launched this campaign. Its basic rationale was that our members are unemployed for a very long time, that unemployment is not our problem, and that we are willing and able to work but there is no work.
The present Unemployed Insurance Fund (UIF) is totally inadequate. Access to the UIF depends on how long a worker has contributed to the Fund. Nevertheless, it has a maximum of 12 months. After a worker has used up the UIF, then there is no access to an income from the government.
To structurally integrate the unemployed, the union has effected a constitutional change where a member remains a member when he/she becomes unemployed. The implication of the constitutional change is that unemployed members have rights and obligations simliar to the employed members. One requirement is that the unemployed members must participate in the structures of the MUP.
For historical reasons MUP is based in Gauteng and in five townships. In each township where it is located there exists a MUP Committee that meets once every fortnight. On a monthly basis delegates from the MUP Committees meet in a co-ordinating committee and delegates from the co-ordinating committee attends the Union’s Branch Executive Committee (BEC).
Our experience has shown that organizing the unemployed is doubly difficult in a context of rampant job insecurity, casualization, outsourcing and abject poverty. What we must remember is that the workplace of today is unrecognizable from that of the previous decade. The structural reorganization of work has brought in its wake a divided, fragmented working class with workers locked in a competitive battle for survival against each other. This competition between the different layers of workers requires careful mediation on the part of the union.
For instance, in respect of the First Preference Campaign, tension arises between the permanents and the unemployed because where employment opportunities --whether permanent/causal/temporary--arose after retrenchments, it is sometimes found that relatives of permanents have been brought in to fill them.
Within the ranks of the unemployed there are competing interests between the young and the old. Our First Preference Campaign and Pension Surplus Campaign incorporate largely the older members of MUP. This generates tension over the prioritization of campaigns, allocation and utilization of scarce resources. Further, the Union has to balance the utilization of its scarce resources--be it person power, infra-structural resources–between the needs of the subscription-paying employed members and that of the MUP. The Union itself is small and independent with a membership of 14,000 and totally reliant on union subscriptions for funds. Understandably the need to find an appropriate balance between ensuring a constant inflow of funds for the continued financial viability of the union and undertaking the organizing of the unemployed becomes more acute for a small union like ours.
Despite the difficulties thrown up by the socio-economic context and the union’s organizational make-up, the unity thus far forged between the employed and unemployed has assisted the Union in making advances. At times of strikes, MUP became an important ally in showing solidarity by staging pickets and discouraging the unorganized unemployed not to scab. We can only hope to build on these first steps.
Published by News and Letters Committees