NUMSA Bulletin article on Worker Education
“Workers education for worker’s power”
Trade unions are the biggest and most potent social movements in the hands of the working class since the emergence of capitalism in the 18th Century. The unions have been at the centre of struggles for change since the early days of capitalist industrialisation, followed by the most significant working class experiment in taking over of state power through the Great October Russian revolution in 1917 (and) in our case, the struggles that defeated apartheid as a statute in South Africa.
As a form of organisation, trade unions came into existence primarily so that workers can unite and take a collective action in response to the most heinous exploitative practices of the system; horrible working and living conditions for workers and their communities, also signified by the widespread usage of child labour in the newly established factories, terribly long working hours, low wages and hazardous working conditions amongst others
In the South African conditions, the system has a long history of being horribly racist and as a result developed and grew to build by far the largest economy in the continent through the super exploitation of black and African labour, and it is out of these conditions that we have as a matter of historical record some of the most heroic trade union and workers struggles ever witnessed in the era of capitalist development, subsequently the emergence of the most well organized and highly political conscious workers organisations in different stages of our time
Workers unity and solidarity
Even though NUMSA is by far the leader in terms of worker education amongst the trade unions in the country we are not necessarily the union that gave birth to the culture and practice of worker education.
In a paper titled, Worker Education in South Africa: Lessons and Contradictions Salim Vally writes that “While systematic and widespread worker education in South Africa emerged in the wake of the 1973 strikes in Durban, the country’s tradition of worker education can be traced back to the formation of the first union for black workers in 1919”
Worker education in South Africa immensely contributed to the birth to the type of union activist and leadership that understood and efficiently practiced a very advanced system of democratic worker control of trade unions. Education in trade unions must be credited for helping to develop class consciousness that entrenched working class unity and solidarity, because it empowered workers to dismiss the ideas and practices that were meant to make workers to merely focus on the factory floor issues irrespective of what was happening in the broader society outside of their workplace, and in some instances, this helped the trade union movement to unite behind common interests of workers and the working class, sometimes even beyond narrow divides like political affiliations
In the late 1980’s I had a privilege as a very young student activist to be directly exposed to working class unity in action; as part of my initiation into working class politics and I still remember vividly, a Port Elizabeth COSATU local shop stewards’ council meeting chaired by comrades Thembinkosi Mkhaliphi (CWIU) and Oscar Mngwanza (NUMSA), whilst Phil Goduka (FAWU) was the local secretary at the time. The purpose of the council meeting was specifically convened to finalize plans of the agreed COSATU and NACTU protest march against LRA in October 1989
The federation’s council meetings at the time were usually open to different shades of activists, this particular one was also attended by the local UDF leadership, led by comrade Bongani Gxilishe and his collective. They had an interest in the shop steward’s council because they wanted to turn the whole anti LRA protest into a political rally under their leadership, and push for their organisations’ political program and thus, as it appeared to COSATU leadership, relegate the workers issues into a proverbial backseat. A serious stand-off then ensued in the council as the federations’ local leadership and shop stewards refused to allow this to happen because, according to them, the UDF’s expressed intention had a potential of endangering workers’ unity by alienating NACTU, and subsequently compromise the two federation’s intentions to galvanise widespread support for the planned protest against the Labour Relations Act
This kind of a stand demonstrated exceptional qualities of a class conscious trade union that puts the interests of workers and the working class above political affiliation, not that political affiliations or alliances for the trade union were not important; especially during that period of heighten political resistance against apartheid in the country including the fact that COSATU itself was an affiliate of the UDF.
The comrades in NACTU were not part of the organisations affiliated to the United Democratic Front and for COSATU it was important to confront the state as a united front of trade unions. In short, the UDF was ultimately allowed to demonstrate with the workers as long as they agreed to submit to a program of a united leadership of NACTU and COSATU on the day of the march.
The anti LRA march of 1989 was one of the biggest trade union led protests ever seen in the history of worker organising in the region and those who come from Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage and were active during that period can attest to that
To make sense of this, so that it is understood in its proper context especially by those who may want to see (discredited) workerism in that 1989 P.E. COSATU local shop stewards’ council decision of putting workers’ unity first let’s take some points from the late general secretary of NUMSA, comrade Mbuyiselo Ngwenda who was also Central Committee member of the SACP as he once emphasized a point that, for him “the line of demarcation is very clear. Where I have to represent workers mandate, even if it differs with the mandate of the party, I would pronounce on it and I would engage in defence of that mandate” he further declared, so that there is no confusion, that “I’m a communist in a trade union movement. I sponsor my ideas… I originate my ideas from a particular socialist and class perspective”
Education through local shop stewards councils
Because of historical reasons the South African black labour force is composed of a significant number of workers who did not complete high school education, and this is not by accident, it is part of an old design whose intention is to further exploit labour and keep the systemic racial and class inequalities unchanged, and therefore trade union education has been very effective in building a counter strategy to create higher levels of consciousness even under these conditions, to reproduce organic grassroots working class leadership with a kind of a societal imagining that is driven by a complete break with values that chain society into the deceptiveness of capitalist development that (in reality) continues to exploits, oppress and excludes the vast majority of the population
In organisations like NUMSA and its predecessors, education has always been intended to both build the kind of socialist and class consciousness demonstrated by the 1989 P.E. COSATU local, and on the other hand, to empower the union to defend members from the daily naked exploitation at the point of production by combing into the shop stewards training a consistent program based on understanding the law, and how to use it to defend workers on a daily basis. Some specific examples on this are also mentioned by Kelly Forrest, in the book titled Metal that will not bend, a history of NUMSA (1980 – 1995) and these include amongst others, training for organisers and shop stewards on trade unionism and the law, as well as organising and bargaining practices
At a political level, ideas of socialism have also been very much in the vocabulary of trade unionists, especially NUMSA, even during the days of apartheid when organisation’s like the South African Communist Party were banned by law in the country, and the key centres and drivers, the schools of workers’ education (and ideas of socialism) in essence have been the local shop stewards’ councils where real and practical workers democratic control of the organisation became the tool that built conscious leadership from below. These locals created the spark that illuminated the growth of an individual shop steward into becoming a worker representative, an educator, a leader and a socialist whose mission is to combine the factory floor experiences and struggles with the broader societal issues
The locals have always wrestled with the notions of building a movement for socialism inspired by the practices of radical democratic worker control shop stewards’ councils in the process of development trade union democracy across the country
In practice, the unions used the local shop stewards’ councils to build auxiliary structures like education, health and safety, campaigns, and gender sub committees (amongst others) connected to factory sub committees of similar nature to enlarge participation for council members under the leadership and guidance of the local office bearers, or local executive committees, and these grew and developed into a centre for workers’ power and radical alternative education. The practice of worker education in the trade union movement avoided a formal “teacher knows it all” and “standing in front of the class approach” where an official or leader transmits ideas from his or her head, into the heads of shop stewards. That system couldn’t work for a trade union because the purpose of education has always been and continues to be the building of an action oriented organisations, to improve organising and struggle.
That is the reason why trade union education has always been essentially democratic and is built from direct experiences of workers themselves, the students organisation, COSAS captures it very well with it’s a slogan “Each One, Teach One”
There is a particular historical tradition in NUMSA’s education that has enhanced this, and it took a form of robust exchanges of ideas in political discussions at the local levels, and it was referred to as “Siyalala la” (we are sleeping here) where shop stewards and activists of the union stayed the night over at the union office discussing political issues the entire time. These platforms were a creative way of workers combining their desire for knowledge and adapting to conditions of poor public transport for township dwellers, making the best out of a terrible working class conditions.
Rebuilding these local councils as the centre of power and re-education
The primary organ of workers’ power and democracy in the trade union is the local, directly accountable and deriving mandates from the workers in the factory floor. This organ is fuelled, as its blood, by the long running traditions and practices of education in the labour movement
The workers from the factory to the local, today are confronted by an escalated job loss blood bath, deepening social inequalities, wage freeze, under employment, rising levels of poverty, climate catastrophe, neo liberal austerity measures employed by the so called democratic government, deepening daily miseries experienced by working class women in particular and widespread corruption especially at the local municipal level
To respond to these current realities, the local has a mammoth task of mobilizing workers into battle ready forces ready to take on the mighty scheming and deceiving bosses and their political parties, and to develop the capacity and skills to fight there needs to be some serious effort towards raising consciousness levels that will lead to building and strengthening of local grassroots working class organisations and including their various auxiliary committees