by Terry Bell (First published in City Press, December 26, 2021)
Adapt or die! That is an expression that should be echoing — and taken very seriously — especially throughout the global labour movement at a time of massively growing joblessness and the ongoing decline of trade union membership.
The expression is a brief paraphrase of the argument put forward by the evolutionist, Charles Darwin in his book, Origin of the Species. There he maintained, looking to the evolution of life through the ages, that those species that survived were those that best adapted and adjusted to changing environments.
In more modern times, the actions of the human species are responsible for triggering potentially catastrophic environmental change. In this context, it is a question of not only adapting to change, but influencing the pace and direction of change, that is critical to survival.
And, long before the onset of Covid, such debates had begun, dealing with growing joblessness, the impact of the fourth industrial revolution and, increasingly, climate change and carbon emissions.
As we move into the third year of this pandemic, all the contradictions and evidence of change and the need to adapt have been highlighted as never before. As have all the shortfalls by business, governments and the labour movement.
It is here that the labour movement, for all its current weaknesses and fragmentation remains critical. Because trade unions are still the largest potentially unifying organisations available to the overwhelming majority of humanity, their survival or demise is important.
This is a movement that emerged out of the cruelly vicious exploitation of the first industrial revolution and persisted through the global reach of colonialism and imperialism. Then women and men who had — and still have — only their labour to sell in order, legally, to survive, banded together to fight ruthless employers — and were fiercely opposed by the owners of industry.
Around the world in different ways, this was a brutal, bloody history of sometimes incredible heroism and tragedy. But labour successes in those early — and many later — battles inspired an often utopian internationalist movement that called for real democracy; for people to have the fullest possible control over every aspect of their lives.
This movement looked beyond the symptoms to the cause, which it defined as capitalist exploitation. Or, in the more recent South African incarnation, “apartheid capitalism”.
The call was to upend this system to enable workers to produce, not for private profit, but for people. It was a time when revolution was in the air.
When brute force and bloodshed failed to crush these emerging union movements, the employers and the governments they supported, adapted. Unions were recognised, negotiations saw the introduction of laws moderating exploitation. The concept of gradual reform took over from radical change and revolution.
The idea of the “social compact”, of the equivalence between the owners of capital, the workers they employ and governments that are usually at least partially influenced by capital was broadly accepted.
The consequence, as capitalism globalised, ignoring boundaries, was that unions remained, to a large extent, locked in their regional and national ghettoes. The poison of nationalism in its various forms, encouraged by competition between rival countries and companies, had infected them. In South Africa in recent times, this has manifested itself in nasty bouts of xenophobia.
But over recent decades, the economic and social environment has been changing and the labour movement, by and large, has failed to adapt. This point was made in a 2019 booklet produced by the International Labour Organisation.
Entitled Trade Unions in the Balance. it revealed that, globally, trade union membership had declined by more than 23% since 1980. The author, Dutch sociologist Professor Jelle Visser, has painted four scenarios for the future of trade unions.
On the basis of the trends observed over the past 20 or 30 years, he points out that trade unions will become marginalised and “gradually fade away”. Or they could effectively retreat to servicing only professionals and permanent employees in large corporations and state enterprises, leaving as “outsiders” the vast majority of the working class.
However, Visser noted that there were already alternative organisations emerging, usually among workers in the precarious “gig” or zero hours economy. Often backed by human rights groups, they could, in time, become substitutes for traditional unions.
But Visser also admits that the individual unions and the labour movement as a whole, could be revitalised. However, to do so would mean expanding beyond their current membership base and succeeding in organising parts of the “new unstable workforce”.
Today a “precariat” is steadily taking the place of the traditional proletariat in much of the industrialised world. This is the mass of mainly younger workers who live precarious lives without any job security.
In the local context, the situation is much worse, with up to 80% of young workers without even precarious part-time employment. This is the majority of the young working class — yet it remains outside the ambit of an admittedly fragmented labour movement.
There could be moves by the unions to assist the jobless masses and their non-governmental structures such as Abahlali baseMjondolo and the eKhenana Settlement. It happened in the recent past at the height of the apartheid struggle when unions such as the Metal and Allied Workers linked with communities in townships like Alexandra.
There was also a suggestion, some 20 years ago from the Federation of Unions of SA to have trade unions provide organisational expertise and help food production in urban settlements. But it never took off.
There was also the example in 2009 in Argentina which saw the emergence of FaSinPat (Factory Without Bosses). There workers, together with the local community, seized democratic control of what remains a highly successful ceramics plant.
Time now, perhaps, to resurrect such concepts in order to better adapt to an already changed reality. But this should not again be restricted to dealing with symptoms alone. Until and unless the cause is fully addressed, humanity will continue to adapt, maintain the underlying system — and perhaps slowly die.