WSF (1998): “Unions must organise the unemployed”

WSF (1998): “Unions must organise the unemployed”

From Workers Solidarity, magazine of the Workers Solidarity Federation, volume 4, number 2, fourth quarter 1998. Complete PDF is here

About 30% of all economically active people in South Africa are unemployed. The trade unions must organise the unemployed into unions. There is no reason why the unemployed should be left isolated and suffering.

The bosses and government are responsible for causing unemployment, and unemployed workers should pressure on them to provide jobs.

If the unions do not organise the unemployed, then these millions are left starving. They are then used by the bosses as scab labour during strikes. Workers and the unemployed have the same interests. They are both part of the working class. COSATU used to have an Unemployed Workers Co-ordinating Committee to deal with these issues. It was closed down in the early 1990s due to corruption. But it must be revived, and run in such a way that the previous problems of corruption do not come back.

ORGANISING THE UNEMPLOYED: LESSONS FROM FRENCH WORKERS STRUGGLE

“Work is exploitation. Unemployment is misery. It is this society which must be changed”
A slogan of CNT-AIT [Paris], a French revolutionary trade union based on libertarian socialism (anarcho-syndicalism)

In many countries there have been successful movements to organise the unemployed. In December 1997 and January 1998 tens of thousands of jobless people demonstrated in dozens of French cities. The government does pay a small allowance to the unemployed, but it is very small, and does not apply to people under 25.

Initially the protests were aimed at securing a “Christmas bonus” of extra money for the unemployed. But other demands also began to be raised. These included free transport, a call for the extension of unemployed benefits to youth between 18 and 25, and an increase in payouts. Also, there were demands that there were not electricity cut- offs for people who could not pay, and that outstanding debt on electricity be cancelled.

The protestors used many militant tactics. These included occupations of government welfare and unemployment offices, electricity companies, and repossession agencies. There were also blockades of roads and railways lines. In some cases groups of protestors went into fancy restaurants, ordered meals, and then refused to pay. Other times, people went to luxury shops and handed goods to the unemployed.

FIGHT UNEMPLOYMENT NOW!

Workers can fight unemployment. We must call a general strike against joblessness. Our demands should be forty hours working week with no loss of pay. This will allow jobs to be shared. Why must we work 50-60 hours a week, while one in three people is unemployed? We must also demand more jobs- for us it does not matter if these jobs are in government or the private sector. In addition, workers should totally oppose any and all attempts at retrenchments. When we are threatened with big lay-offs or the closure of the factory we should occupy it and demand our jobs. Even if there is no chance of jobs being saved at the workplace in question, we must demand that we get new jobs at union wages in the same area.

The important thing is to FIGHT. The ability of bosses and governments to pay low wages and retrench workers is determined by the overall balance of power between these elements and the working class. That is why it needs union backing, and a solid campaign- and not just resolutions.

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About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).