The 1st of May marks International Workers’ Day and celebrates wage labourers and the working class. In a country that has an unemployment rate of 26,5% and where up to 5% of those who are employed do not have as much work as they would like (they are “underemployed”), it’s easy to be cynical about this public holiday. But we really shouldn’t be, because May Day is a commemoration of the triumph of workers.
The first May Day commemoration dates back to 1886, when 300 000 workers in the US went on strike to demand an eight-hour work day. In South Africa May Day, or Rally Day as it’s sometimes called, celebrates the contributions of trade unions, labour movements, and the Communist party in the struggle for better working conditions for black people during apartheid.
Trade unions played a pivotal role in securing the rights and social protections that the labour force has today. The eight-hour working day, minimum wage, sick leave, maternity leave, and paid leave are all owed to the bargaining power trade unions wielded.
But the fight against the exploitation of workers for profit has cost many lives over decades. In 2012, South Africans watched in horror as miners were gunned down by police at Marikana following a wage dispute with Lonmin mine. The deaths of the miners at the koppie reminded us that the workers’ struggle for a dignified way of life is far from complete.
Patrick Craven, spokesperson for the newly-formed South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), told the Daily Vox that trade unions are still important in ensuring that workers are not exploited and underpaid by their employers. “Without trade unions, workers would be utterly powerless. Employers would be able to push down wages to the lowest level, at which workers couldn’t survive. It’s only through organisation that workers can stop that, can negotiate collective agreements, and secure at least a minimum wage,” he said.
Some, like Craven, believe the working class is worse off now than before. According to Statistics SA, in 2010, the median monthly earning of employed South Africans was R2 800. More than 5 million South Africans are currently unemployed.
“Inequality has widened, unemployment has continued to edge upwards, and millions still live in poverty,” he said.
Jay Naidoo, former Cosatu general secretary, said another threat to the security of the working class is the rise of technology. “The production process has changed and if we start to look at the advances in technology in the next decade, more and more wealth that was created by human beings will get replaced by machines.”
It’s a problem that businesspeople the world over are struggling with. Earlier this year, philanthropist Bill Gates suggested that governments should tax companies that automate production in order to slow down the rate at which people are replaced by technology, and to give society more time to figure out what the cost of making those jobs redundant would be to society.
One of the main issues levelled at trade unions in recent years has been that they fail to listen to those they represent and that members feel unheard and misrepresented.
Naidoo sees a huge gulf between trade union leadership and the workers on the ground. “Too often today we have leaders who do not listen to their members, just like the politicians do not listen to the people,” Naidoo said, adding, “That’s why … protests often get violent, and that’s why we have a Marikana.”
If trade unions are to survive into the future, they need to find ways to build accountability between their executives and their members.
Shifts in the global economy have also changed the dynamics of the class struggle. With the rise of project-based work – the so-called “gig economy” – workers’ rights are becoming more precarious.
”If you look at the global economy, increasingly that work is becoming more informal, more based on people working from their homes rather than from offices. So that has huge implications for the nature of work and therefore the nature of the working class in the world,” said Naidoo.
Craven said that as more jobs are outsourced and casualised, and labour brokers continue to be used, workers are becoming more “individualised”. “They simply have to look out for themselves and that puts the employers at a huge advantage,” he said.
Naidoo said that, with rising levels of unemployment and the growing informalisation of sectors, trade unions need to start looking into new models of organisation to include this section of the working class.
“There’s a lot of conversation around the world about how you would organise these workers and how you build the link between workers in the formal sector, workers in the informal sector, and workers who are unemployed,” he said.
Naidoo said that if trade unions want to hold those they challenge to account, “they can still have political aspirations but the idea is that they should be independent of political parties. Whoever is in power, they must be able to negotiate with them on the basis of independence.”
The trade federation Cosatu has come under criticism over the years for failing to challenge its alliance partner, the ruling ANC on issues like corruption and the economy.
Trade unions, he said, need to go back to basics – but they should also pursue issues outside of the workplace if they are to regain their credibility with the public.
He said that in the ‘80s, unionists fought for “not just the rights of workers on the factory floor, but the rights of the workers’ children to have quality education, the rights of our people to have political rights.”
Reporting by Mihlali Ntsabo and Nolwandle Zondi