Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero