A global working class in formation

With the rise of a working class rooted in the global South comes worker militancy in the same geographies. This is militancy that has yet to attract much notice in the advanced capitalist countries of the North.

One reason lies in the withering of labor movements across the North, and a belief in some circles, flowing from that withering, that the working class is shrinking and perhaps ceasing to be an instrument of social change. In part such viewpoints are due to a failure to see office workers in “white-collar” professions to be part of the working class. (Surplus value is extracted from them just the same.) In another part it is myopia — believing labor acquiescence in the North to be universally representative while failing to appreciate the rise of militancy on the part of super-exploited workers in the developing world.

Workers in the South, however, are developing new forms of resistance, and are now an integral part of a global working class, under-appreciated developments brought to vivid life in Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class* by Immanuel Ness. The industrial working class has not disappeared, but rather has been reconstituted in the South and in larger in numbers than ever before, in contrast to scholars on the right and left who “declared the working class dead.” In his book, Professor Ness argues:

“While the right wing declared the working class dead and a false construct, leftist scholars were also challenging the legitimacy of the working class as a force for social equality and transformation. Yet, more than 40 years after the onslaught of the economic, political, and intellectual offensive against organized labor throughout the world, the working class has a heartbeat and is stronger than ever before despite the dramatic decline in organized labor. … While it may be the case that the labor movements in Europe and North America are a spent force, it is their very defeats that have marginalized their existing supine and bureaucratic order and regenerated a fierce workers’ movement in the early 21st century.” [page 3]

Southern Insurgency coverThe percentage of formal-sector workers holding industrial employment in the South has grown from about 50 percent of the global total in 1980 to 80 percent. This increase is of course central to corporate strategy in the neoliberal era — as organized labor achieved successes, capital responded by moving production. This process has repeated, as Northern multi-national capital continually seeks out lower-wage Southern labor to exploit. That Northern capital has intensified its exploitation is demonstrated by the fact that profits being taken out of the South are rising faster than the inflow there of investment capital.

Southern traditional unions lost whatever militancy they may have once had through their co-optation into state and capitalist institutions. But in contrast to working people in much of the North, workers of the South have begun to build new types of organizations. Professor Ness writes:

“In more and more industries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, this new proletariat is forming bonds of solidarity through independent organizations demanding improved conditions for all workers, pushing existing unions to represent members and non-members, and forming alliances within communities to improve the quality of life for all impoverished workers. The workplace and community demands that are now made by the new industrial proletariat reveal the motivations of workers rooted in solidarity, and a fundamental opposition to neoliberal capital, inequality, and poverty.” [page 58]

Migrant workers are the most vulnerable, and suffer particularly unsafe and exploitative working conditions and pay. Liberal theories of migration ignore the structural reasons for migration, Professor Ness notes — neoliberalism creates unemployment and inequality, forcing involuntary movements; forced displacement in turns leads to slums, poverty and exploitation. Capital needs these migrations, and immigration, to increase competition for jobs and thus make work more precarious. Guest workers tend to earn barely enough to ensure their own survival and don’t contribute to their home economies, in contrast to World Bank and International Monetary Fund propaganda.

Precarious labor in India

The core of Southern Insurgency are case studies of three of the largest Southern economies: India, China and South Africa. The intensity of exploitation in each of these countries is high and resistance ongoing despite the use of force on the part of both capital and government. The first of these case studies, India, represents “a leading example of neoliberal imperialism,” Professor Ness argues:

“The actions of the Indian state have been decisive for multinational capital and its local agents by facilitating foreign investment in new manufacturing industries, safeguarding foreign investments, and commonly using legal rulings against workers and unions and unions fighting for democratic representation at the workplace. Moreover, state police are readily available to intervene on behalf of multinational investors seeking to thwart labor organizations. In India, the state police and the criminal justice system are not impartial intermediaries but partisans in support of corporations against the working class as it seeks equity and humane conditions in the workplace.” [pages 105-106]

Only about one-quarter of Indian workers enjoy regular employment and are eligible to be in a state-recognized union; three-quarters of workers are “contract workers” who have no security, are prohibited from unionizing and are paid 25 to 50 percent of the low wages of regular workers, barely enough to eat and pay rent. Although Indian law has permitted unions since independence, labor law has been flouted since the early 1990s by the state, capital and sometimes even unions. With traditional Indian unions, who are aligned with weakening political parties, failing to defend workers, a new independent formation, the National Trade Union Initiative, is attempting to organize non-union and informal workers, although the government refuses to recognize it.

Splitting the working class is at the core of multi-national capital’s strategy in India, actively encouraged by the state. One example is a fierce fightback at a Suzuki auto plant in 1991. Workers there used hunger strikes and two-hour “tool-downs” to press their demands, which included an end to the contract system. Management responded with a lockout, enforced by a police blockade, and a demand that workers sign a draconian “good conduct” letter to be allowed to return. Ultimately, Suzuki restarted production with scabs, enthusiastically backed by the state.

When Suzuki opened a second plant, the same scenario repeated, but this time the company hired goons who instigated violence, leaving more than 100 injured but only worker leaders jailed. Organized resistance continues in India despite continued repression, Professor Ness writes, and organized fight-backs, which consistently include demands for equal pay and conditions, are building needed class consciousness.

Organizing beyond unions in China

Although Chinese workers face the strongest state among the three case-study countries, they are also making the biggest strides. The very weakness of the Chinese union federation, Southern Insurgency argues, may give workers there more space to act collectively outside the constraints imposed by union bureaucracies and labor law. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions has been the sole national federation since 1949, and because good benefits and security were the norm during the Mao Zedong era, member unions have little experience in negotiating. Local branches don’t function as active organizations but respond only to rank-and-file disruptions of production. Unions are subservient to capital and negotiate without member input, but this makes them little different from Western unions, Professor Ness argues:

“Most existing union models throughout the world do not want competition from independent unions, so why should the [All-China Federation]? Labor unions in liberal democracies that fail to represent members’ interests are thus a poor model for the Chinese working class.” [page 126]

Labor law is largely not enforced in China; in part this is due to enforcement being devolved to the city level. Struggles tend to be ignited by failures to pay wages and thus tend to be spontaneous single-factory actions. Ironically, because workers are circumscribed by an inability to revolt regionally, nationally or across industries, the number of local revolts is higher than it would be otherwise. Younger workers are becoming more assertive in demanding better pay and retirement benefits, and privatizations and layoffs at state-owned enterprises are also behind a rising number of strikes.

Workers in the heavily industrialized Pearl River Delta region, sometimes led by floor supervisors, have forced companies to pay back owed wages and retirement benefits. Police repression has been deployed outside plants but the state has also pressured companies to pay what they owe their workers. Throughout, workers have relied on self-organization as they have received no help from their unions.

Wildcat strikes are the standard model of Chinese workplace bargaining, Professor Ness writes, a “class struggle” unionism outside official channels. A future Chinese labor movement may be emerging from these battles.

State and capital vs. South African labor

Parallel to the contract-labor system of India and the hukou migrant-labor system of China, South Africa extensively uses contract and migrant labor at the behest of multi-national capital. Neoliberalism has an added bitter component there because harsh labor policies are enforced by the African National Congress (ANC), which granted political rights to the country’s oppressed Black majority but left economic relations untouched.

The largest South African labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), formed as an ANC affiliate during the 1980s but became a “distinctly junior partner” to the ANC and the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party and began to lose credibility in the 2010s as it failed to oppose the harsh neoliberalism dictated by the International Monetary Fund. Working conditions are particularly poor for miners — mining is controlled by multi-national capital and is by far the country’s biggest industry.

COSATU and its National Union of Mineworkers affiliate have supported an increase in the use of informal labor because they can hold a dominant position by representing only regular workers and thus without the support of the majority of the workforce. When a wave of strikes nonetheless began in 2009, the unions declared the strikes “illegal” and backed management. In at least one case, the union called for a harsher punishment than management did!

Workers organized themselves, and asked a new union unaffiliated with COSATU, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, to negotiate on their behalf, which in turn won much greater pay raises. The National Union of Mineworkers reached a new low in 2012, however, after striking workers left that union and joined the Association during a strike. When management obtained a court order against the strikers, the National Mineworkers sided with management and sent goons to join with company goons to impose a violent denouement; 34 were killed and scores injured in what became known as the Marikana Massacre.

A fresh wave of strikes commenced in 2014, with Association negotiators obtaining significant wage increases. In parallel, a metal workers union has called for more militancy and for nationalizations; in response, COSATU expelled it. Worker militancy continues to rise and with the fracturing of the union movement, a realignment seems to be coming. Professor Ness writes:

“While the future configuration of the unions remains to be determined, it is clear that rank-and-file workers are helping to build oppositional unions that are shaping a struggle against economic imperialism, insisting on ending the system of exploitation and inequality that remains a fixture in the post-apartheid era.” [page 178]

Strength in worker radicalism

Southern Insurgency concludes by asking if existing labor unions can contain the development of independent working-class organizations. The actions of Indian, Chinese and South African industrial workers are reshaping traditional unions, and workers can’t rely on bureaucratic unions leaders to defend themselves, the book argues:

“It is the development of worker radicalism that will shape the form and survival of decaying traditional unions. … [T]he results of these rank-and-file struggles are mixed, but the evidence … demonstrates that these movements are gaining traction, and achieving real wage gains and improvement in conditions.” [page 189]

This latest book by Immanuel Ness is a needed corrective to the false idea that resignation to neoliberalism is universal, and the examples of militancy that he presents are not simply a necessary corrective but demonstrate that improvements are only possible with organized, self-directed actions. In a world more globalized then ever, workers of the world truly do need to unite — a global working class can only liberate itself through a global struggle.

Immanuel Ness, Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class [Pluto Press, London 2016]

Advertisements

Remembering the Marikana massacre on the third anniversary

Activists gathered across South Africa, and in London, New York and Oakland, to commemorate the third anniversary of the Marikana massacre, the deadliest South African massacre since Soweto.

A deadly massacre under an African National Congress government. And not the only shooting of workers, merely the worst under the harsh neoliberal assault overseen by the ANC.

South Africa’s apartheid system was overthrown in a negotiated process forced by a massive international popular movement backing the ANC, but the party has turned its back on popular forces. (This and the next two paragraphs based in part on The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein.) During the long years of struggle by the ANC and pitiless repression by the National Party, the apartheid-era rulers in South Africa, the guiding document of the ANC was its “Freedom Charter.” The charter, adopted after democratic consultations in 1955, calls for the right to work; to decent housing; freedom of thought; nationalization of mines, banks and “monopoly industry”; and land distribution so that all South Africans can share in the wealth of their country.

Marikana DayAlthough the ANC had the moral authority to carry out its program, its negotiators tragically (and unwittingly) gave up all economic control, forfeiting their ability to carry out any aspect of their program, with the result that, two decades later, the economy is firmly in the hands of its numerically minuscule White business elite (which is tied to international markets). The country’s eyes were on the political talks between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, in which the ANC decisively was the victor against the National Party’s attempts to dilute its loss of government control.

But in the parallel economic talks, which drew little attention, the ANC gave away everything. The central bank would be independent of government (as financiers demanded), National Party government finance officials would remain in office and the ANC government would sign on to everything demanded by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and all international trade agreements. Having done so, the ANC took office handcuffed, and having tied themselves to financial markets, those markets applied further discipline by attacking the South African economy at the first sign of anything that displeased them. From pleasing markets and giving financiers repeated assurances, it proved a short path to President Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, imposing austerity — a 180-degree turn from the Freedom Charter.

Workers face attacks by management and unions

Mining is a critical component of the South African economy, and the foreign multi-national corporations that own South Africa’s mines mistreat local workers with impunity. (This and the next paragraphs are based on Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class by Immanuel Ness.) Workers are often housed in substandard housing that lacks water and electricity, and an increasing number of miners are hired as contingent workers. Not only do mine workers not receive support from the National Union of Mineworkers, the NUM actively joins with managements in oppressing its rank and file.

Nor do they receive support from the country’s largest labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) — in February 2012, NUM and COSATU declared a strike by mineworkers illegal and actually took a harder line against the workers than the mine owner did! Mineworkers continued to bypass the union, or organize through an independent grassroots organization, Amcu, as mineworkers pressed to raise their monthly minimum wage from about US$400 to US$1,150. Two workers were shot by snipers on August 11, and the next day, fearful of returning to the mine, workers gathered on a nearby hill.

The management of the company that owned the mine, Lonmin PLC, called in the police. Lonmin sought to have the strike declared illegal and demanded workers surrender the crude weapons that had fashioned to defend themselves. NUM drove a vehicle equipped with a loudspeaker through the nearby settlements, declaring the strike illegal. Workers gathered on the hill again the morning of August 16 and were encircled by armed police. At 4 p.m., police opened fire, killing 16 workers as television cameras recorded and another 18 were executed off camera after fleeing the initial killings. Another 78 were injured.

An investigation headed by Judge Ian Farlam, appointed by President Jacob Zuma, found that police anticipated the killings hours earlier. Professor Ness, in Southern Insurgency (to be published by Pluto Books in October) provided this summary of the preparation:

“On the morning of August 16, more than eight hours in advance of the police shootings, aware the dozens of workers might be killed in a police assault, Colonels Klassen and Madoda of the [South African Police Service] ordered four mortuary vehicles to the scene from the health department, each with a capacity to carry eight bodies. The report also implicated senior government officials, including ANC and former NUM general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, a shareholder and director of Lonmin as the events leading up to the Marikana massacre were unfolding. … [A]n email from Ramaphosa to Albert Jamieson, Lonmin’s chief commercial officer, written one day before the massacre and concluding the strike was not a labor dispute but a ‘criminal’ action that required ‘concomitant action.’: ‘The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labour dispute. They pare plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such. There needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.’ ”

Nonetheless, the commission pinned the blame for the massacre on the workers:

“[T]he tragic events that occurred during the period 12 to 16 August 2012 originated from the decision and conduct of the strikers in embarking on an unprotected strike and in enforcing the strike by violence and intimidation, using dangerous weapons for the purpose.”

Pushing back against government whitewash

The Marikana Support Committee, in rejecting that conclusion, declares:

“This statement is offered as a fact that we have to accept. But it is an opinion. There is no evidence to back it up. The Marikana Support Campaign considers this finding as a gross defamation of the miners. At the same time, despite a run of evidence to the contrary, Farlam and his Commissioners exonerate Ramaphosa and other government ministers. Lonmin is substantially exonerated.”

The Support Committee is calling for a new probe, “a civil society-led inquiry based on the evidence.”

The National Union of Metalworkers of South African (NUMSA), a union expelled from the COSATU trade-union federation after challenging the federation to break with the ANC and the ANC’s neoliberal policies, also sided with the mineworkers. In a statement issued for the third anniversary of the Marikana massacre, the metalworkers union said:

“The Marikana Massacre in 2012 signified the degeneration of our country into a Police State, as evidenced by the continued usage of police and excessive force to undermine popular dissent from below. … The mining industry, like many other key sectors of our economy for many years have been heavily dependent on Black and African working class cheap labour, for its profit maximisation and wealth accumulation strategy. … It is our view that the Marikana Report that was released to the public by President Jacob Zuma was a spit on the face of Marikana’s widows and victims’ families, since it was a whitewash and was intended to make the fast fading ANC-government look caring in the eyes of the working class.”

After two decades of ANC governance, South Africa is the most unequal country on Earth. The country’s gini co-efficient, the most common measure of inequality, was the world’s highest at 0.65 in 2011, according to World Bank statistics, and that the number has not likely improved since. About 57 percent of South Africans live in poverty, and unemployment is 26.4 percent at the same time that only 80 percent of industrial capacity is being utilized.

It is not only divisions along racial, national and gender lines that divide us and block necessary solidarity, it is also the North-South division. An injury to one is an injury to all, regardless of where.

Power concedes nothing without a demand

We struggle because there is no alternative. We need to struggle because none of us can know when the spark will come. To not struggle is to give up.

Photo by Patrick Prémartin

Photo by Patrick Prémartin

I couldn’t help thinking about this subject again while helping out at an Occupy Wall Street information table last Sunday. As usual, there were many perspectives contending, but there was a distinct undercurrent of despair. Some articulated that as frustration that more people can’t be reached faster, but another subset was rooted in the idea that all is already lost, that we are already running out of time. From the latter it is a short journey toward giving up.

The process of organized resistance to injustice is called “struggle” for a reason — it is never easy. Frederick Douglass said it as well as it can said be a century and a half ago in words that will always bear repeating:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

During this process, success always lies over the horizon. Sometimes we struggle for something we won’t see in our lifetimes; history is replete with such examples. Sometimes we know we won’t see it in our lifetimes, but the call of a greater good animates us. Sometimes we do taste victory. But when? We can never know ahead of time.

One strike among many

Take Russia’s February Revolution of 1917, when the tsar was overthrown. People persevered for decades in conditions far worse than anybody in an advanced capitalist country faces. The movement waxed and waned; strikes and even peaceful marches were drowned in blood. St. Petersburg, then the capital, was racked by waves of strikes in the first weeks of 1917 amidst shortages of all kinds.

Put aside for the moment your opinion about the eventual course of Russian history; the people struggling to survive at this time shouldn’t be held responsible for the wrong turns the October Revolution later took. On one particular day, tens of thousands of women textile workers walked out, then went to the metal factories and asked the men working there to join them. They did, the strike spread and within two days a general strike took hold. In another five days, the tsarist régime was finished — one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships brought to an end.

Why that one day? Why that one strike among hundreds of actions? We can never know. The most we can say is that on that particular day, Russians had finally had enough. This amazing feat, overthrowing an autocratic régime that had endured for centuries, occurred as most of the leaderships of the various political parties and organizations were in Siberian exile, in foreign exile or in jail.

Yet there was no spontaneity at work. Russia’s socialists had tirelessly laid the groundwork, and although the tsar’s secret police had decimated their ranks and so many had paid with exile, banishment, hard labor, jail and execution, the ideas could not be stamped out. The talks of the socialist agitators, the words of the socialist newspapers, pamphlets and fliers, resonated with the experiences of Russians — not only in the cities, but in the countryside and in the army and navy. It was this practical work, carried out over many years, that provided the people of Russia with the tools necessary to understand, and then change, their conditions.

They changed their conditions even though most were so under-educated that they were illiterate; even though a omnipresent propaganda insisted that the tsar ruled as a direct representative of God and there could be no change; even though police, militaries, death squads and secret police promised swift retribution against anyone questioning the natural order, the only order that could be.

Dignity in the face of inhumanity

Take a more recent example, South Africa. The apartheid régime seemed impervious. Disdainful of world opinion, determined to hold power at any cost, murdering or shipping to island prisons its opponents with impunity, consigning the Black majority to grinding poverty and daily humiliation — how could optimism that a better day would come be sustained? Yet is was.

I remember vividly the day Nelson Mandela made his first speech after his release. The only picture we had of him had been that of a young man with a fierce expression. Now here he was, an older man with gray hair. I was startled by his appearance before remembering we were seeing him three decades older, all at once. I couldn’t quote to you a single word of what he said that day, but it was perhaps the most memorable speech I have ever witnessed. What I do remember is the dignity of Nelson Mandela. Dignity. He was not broken after 27 years in prison, not at all. But beyond that, the African National Congress leader was fully human.

He would not allow his humanity to be taken away, no matter how cruel his oppressors. Nelson Mandela made that speech because he was part of a movement. Only an organized movement could have brought that day. A movement willing to engage in struggle. Another African National Congress leader, Steven Biko, summarized a most important lesson in these words:

“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Throwing up your hands in despair, declaring that nothing can be done so nothing should be started: You are oppressing yourself more effectively than any dictatorship, any sham democracy, any rule of financiers. To say “they” are too strong or too vicious, whomever “they” are, is to give up on living. Such an attitude is the surest route to your material conditions getting worse, to the next generation living under harsher conditions.

Everything of human creation is temporary. Everything of human creation will come to an end. Whether the next system will be better or worse, whether we or our descendants will be more or less free, is up to us.