In the wake of the largest number of killings during a strike in South Africa since the white miners’ strike of 1922, when 153 workers died, it is appropriate that we reflect on the classics of the workers’ movement. Strikes bring sharply to the fore the contradictions within capitalism and often lead to the reconfiguration of class forces.
The 1922 strike led to the 1924 Pact government that laid the basis for an alliance between white workers and Afrikaner nationalism. Two decades later, in 1946, another miners’ strike, which led to the death of nine workers, resulted in the creation of an alliance between black labour and African nationalism. It was, however, the 1973 strikes in Durban that were to lay the foundations for the emergence of a powerful workers’ movement in South Africa.
The 1973 strikes were not led by trade unions; in large part they were the spontaneous collective actions of black workers responding to apartheid’s cheap labour system. As young left intellectuals at the time, we searched for ways we could give this surge of worker militancy a sustained strategic and organisational focus. Influenced by the powerful shop steward movement in Britain, we followed closely its development and the books that emerged from it.
The one that caught our imagination and influenced our teaching and political practice was Huw Beynon’s Working for Ford. I received a copy in 1974 and reviewed it in the South African Labour Bulletin, the journal we had set up to record, analyse and conceptualise this new social movement. Industrial relations at the time in South Africa was dominated by the paternalistic idea that there was a basic harmony of interest between management and labour. Working for Ford made clear that the workers’ struggle ‘can only be remedied by a fundamental change in the entire basis of production. The political transformation of society . . .’ The edition in which the review was published (June 1974) was subsequently banned under the Publications Act for promoting ‘worker unrest’, mainly because of an article highly critical of the treatment of workers at British Leyland in Durban.
There were three ways in which Working for Ford influenced the way we saw shop stewards. The first was the concept of working-class factory consciousness that Beynon saw manifest in the shop stewards at Halewood. ‘A factory consciousness,’ Beynon wrote, ‘understands class relations in terms of their direct manifestation in conflict between the bosses and the workers within the factory. It is rooted in the workplace, where struggles are fought over the control of the job and the rights of managers and workers.’ This led to a concentration in the early years on building support on the shop floor by winning visible concessions from management over unfair dismissals in particular.
Second, if the stage for this conflict is the factory floor, its organisational manifestation is not the trade union bureaucrats but the shop stewards committee. Hence factory class consciousness finds its historical antecedents in syndicalism – developed in Britain in the shop steward movement that occurred during and after the first world war. At the core of these emerging unions in Durban was the notion of direct democracy, of accountability of worker leaders to the rank-and-file, report-backs and mandates.
Third, and for me this was the most important question raised by Working for Ford, how does one explain why some workers define their interests in collective terms and become shop stewards and others in ‘individualistic’ terms and become supervisors?
Beynon rejected an explanation of activism in terms of different types of personalities. ‘An adequate account of shop-floor activism and leadership,’ he argued, ‘needs to go beyond the personalities of the people involved and consider the ideology of the activists and the organisation within which they are active.’ Beynon located the roots of activism in the values of shop stewards and the structural contradictions of capitalism most starkly manifested on the factory floor.
Working for Ford was written 40 years ago and a lot has happened to the British shop steward movement since then. In South Africa these early unions went on to establish links with working class communities and were to play a central role, as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), in the struggle for democracy. Labour was not seen as a commodity but rather as creative human activity. I remember also discussing Hilary Wainwright and Dave Elliot’s The Lucas Plan: a new trade unionism in the making? with shop stewards and considering how production could be made socially useful.
But for the South African labour movement the Marikana massacre on 16 August, when 34 striking workers were killed may yet prove the kind of turning point that 1922, 1946 and 1973 turned out to be. For the workers’ movement what is clear from Marikana is that worker leaders need to go back to the shop floor, listen to the workers’ voices and rebuild the kind of shop floor movement that is so effectively analysed in Working for Ford.
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram