Is Revolution Inherent in Wage Struggles?
Endless worries and struggles about wages are part of life under capitalism. Over the last four decades the ruling classes have clamped down ferociously on the wages and conditions of workers, who resisted with limited success.1 Wage struggles tend to become revolutionary when workers break out of the constraints imposed on their resistance by the labor relations system, which is made up of institutions such as dispute resolution bodies, negotiating forums and labor courts designed to regulate relations between workers and employers.
Leftists have debated the potential of wage struggles to contribute to either the reform or the overthrow of capitalism since at least the 1830s. In time a view became dominant that saw everyday struggles to improve wages and working conditions and the unions that organized them as inherently reformist. A recent example of this view said:
“Unions by their very existence affirm and reinforce capitalist class society. As organizations which primarily negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions with employers, unions only exist in relation to capitalists. This makes them almost by definition reformist institutions, designed to mitigate and manage the employment relationship, not transform it.”2
Despite the ‘almost’ qualifier in the last sentence, the first sentence leaves no doubt that the author views unions as supporters of capitalism who are inherently and structurally reformist, because they primarily take up wage struggles. In other words, the focus on wage struggles causes unions to be reformist.
Among self-identified revolutionaries, a range of strategic positions are compatible with this view. Leninists argue that this is the reality that makes a vanguard party necessary. Vanguardists must enter wage struggles in order to win workers away from its inherent reformism to the revolutionary ideology guiding the political work of the party. Insurrectionary anarchists reject ‘inherently reformist unions that reinforced capitalist society’ and turned towards propaganda of the deed. Even proponents of revolutionary unions often counterposed special revolutionary struggles aiming at ‘overthrowing the state’ and ‘abolishing the wage system,’ to everyday inherently reformist wage struggles. The fact that many revolutionaries support wage struggles for tactical and moral reasons, does not mean that they do not see these struggles as inherently reformist.
The case for seeing everyday wage struggles as inherently revolutionary is stronger than for seeing them as inherently reformist. Ultimately, the importance of this case is in its implications for revolutionary strategy. If wage struggles are indeed inherently revolutionary, it would provide the basis for a mass movement of workers that becomes revolutionary and anarchist in its politics without needing ideological tutelage.
In making the case for this view, we can look at examples from South Africa, where I live. Like any other place, South Africa has particularities that should be kept in mind. However, when it comes to the issues under discussion, this country should not be seen as exceptional. The examples here are understood as illustrations of wage struggles, reformism and revolution in the era of neoliberal labor relations.
What is Reformism?
At its most basic, reformism is a set of political practices that seeks changes within the capitalist system. We can add to this that the changes it seeks are progressive in nature in that it expands freedoms, reduces inequality, and promotes social solidarity.
Beyond this basic level, the meaning of reformism shifts over time and under different circumstances. In the European socialist and worker movements of the late nineteenth century it came to mean seeking gradual, piecemeal changes that would over time lead society from capitalism to socialism without a violent revolution. This particular brand of reformism disappeared under the impact of World War I and the Russian and other revolutions that happened in its aftermath.
By the end of the 1940s, after World War II, reformism came to mean seeking changes that delivered a capitalist system with strong rights for workers and other dominated groups. In Europe and the US, it was associated with Social Democracy, labor parties and welfare states, while in the Global South many movements for independence became its flag bearers. Socialist and revolutionary rhetoric were widely used, but this reformism was not about replacing capitalism with socialism. Instead, its overall aim was described as ‘capitalism with a human face.’
The point is that reformism changes in its ideological content and political relations. These functional changes reflect and influence changes in the relations between social classes and groups. This specific content and dynamics of reformism must be confronted, because revolutionaries will not defeat reformism by simply denouncing it.
The position that ‘trade unions and wage struggles are by definition reformist’ may sound revolutionary, but it is actually the declaration of defeat while the struggle is still on. It is a refusal to take responsibility to build revolutionary trade unions and to fight revolutionary wage struggles under present conditions. It is a refusal to seriously confront the question ‘what is reformism?’ In fact, it is simply a refusal to confront reformism.
Revolutionaries who are serious about overcoming reformism have to ask: what has reformism become in the current era of neoliberal dominance? What has it become in the current moment of the Covid-19 pandemic to which the world’s ruling classes responded with massive power and wealth grabs?
Observing Current Mainstream Unions
One of the reasons why this idea, that unions are inherently reformist, is so popular is that the present-day mainstream and best-known unions are indeed reformist. In South Africa the union mainstream is made up of four federations or national trade union centers. Despite important differences, they can all be described as reformist in the sense that their practice amounts to seeking change within the neoliberal capitalist system. Before we go into why and how this happens, let me briefly describe the politics of these union federations.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is the best known and biggest of the federations. In politics it follows the leadership of the governing African National Congress (ANC), which Cosatu has supported throughout the twenty-six years that it has enforced ever more brutal forms of neoliberalism on South Africa. During this time, it has become an established practice for Cosatu leaders to become members of the ANC government. The current president of South Africa is a former Cosatu leader as is the minister of finance. Both of them are hardcore neoliberals and maintain relations of mutual support with the leaders of the union federation.
The Federation of Unions of South Africa, the second of the federations, is openly conservative in politics. It is formally politically non-aligned but regularly steps into the political arena to support causes and politicians that are indisputably neoliberal. Unlike the other three, this federation does not hide the fact that it supports capitalism.
The third mainstream federation is called the National Council of Trade Unions, which historically was associated with anti-Apartheid movements other than the ANC. Presently, the federation believes in the need to build consensus with the capitalist class and the state. In present-day politics its positions on policy and governance matters are similar to that of Cosatu.
The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) is the last of the four mainstream national union centers. It was initiated by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa after the latter was expelled from Cosatu for calling on that federation to stop supporting the neoliberal ANC. Saftu comes across as more radical than the other federations, especially in its open opposition to the ANC government. However, to the extent that this is true, it is a case of a more radical reformism, because the federation’s most radical policy proposals and campaigns are all firmly along the lines of social democracy and the welfare state.
In summary, the politics of the mainstream unions in South Africa, like in most places in the world, range from conservatism to neoliberalism to social democracy. Most observers form their opinions of unions based on their impressions of these big federations. Smaller unions outside the mainstream are therefore less important in creating the dominance of the view that unions are inherently reformist. This does not mean they are less important for worker struggles. They may be more important to the future, as some of them may be the ones keeping open the possibility of revolutionary unionism on a mass scale. Now, however, most of them are either reformist or too unknown to serve as inspiring examples of revolutionary unionism. As a result, observing present day wage struggles and unions gives an overwhelming impression that unions are inherently reformist.
The Political Practices and Structures of Reformism
Why is reformism dominant in the union mainstream and how is this dominant position created? The near universal dominance of reformism in the trade unions shows that it is backed by powerful social forces. In South Africa, like in capitalist societies generally, the most powerful social force is made up of the coalition between the elites that dominate state and business organizations. Usually, in the Global North, these groups cannot be told apart socially, but due to South Africa’s history of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the state elite comes from the Black middle and capitalist classes and the business elite from the white monopoly capitalists who are the heirs of colonial robbery. The latter is often referred to as white monopoly capital (WMC). The highest ranks of this state-business elite operate as a unified entity in politics, despite occasional disputes and complicated organizational arrangements. Reformism derives its content, structures, and power from the backing it receives from the state-capitalist ruling class.
State officials get their power from holding posts in state organizations to which their income, privileges, status, and powers are attached. Capitalists get their power from owning property that either is money or can be turned into money, which is used as capital. Both these groups are ferocious in their struggles to acquire, defend, and legitimize their hold on their posts and property. They do not share easily; they only share when doing so is necessary to defend or increase their power and wealth. The levels of backing the state-capitalist elite gives to the practice of reformism can be seen in the money and posts they make available to the practitioners of reformism.
The whole parliamentary process can be counted as part of this. Historically, parliament was conceded as a means to neutralize and co-opt insurgent movements into capitalist politics. It continues to play this role. This can be clearly seen in the labor legislation that it passed.
These laws set the standards for wages and job security and prescribe the procedures through which they are determined. The richest, white capitalists demand the poverty wages and job insecurity that the neoliberal ideology and politics of the state consistently impose on the working class, with legislation being one of the state’s most important weapons.
South Africa’s minimum wage, for example, is R21,69 (US $1.49) per hour at the moment, with the exception of farm, domestic, and public works workers for whom the minimum is even lower.3 Despite grave complaints from capitalists about unaffordability, this wage of R4226,29 (US $290) per month for a 45 hour workweek, fits in with the need of neoliberal capital to pay poverty wages. The fact that it is prescribed per hour instead of per month fits in with capital’s demand for flexible, insecure labor. This minimum wage was deemed too high for the workers the state employs on temporary contracts in its public works programmed. These workers are paid R11,93 (US $0.82) per hour.4
What processes get these results for the state-capitalist ruling class? Apart from the parliamentary process, the key institution that shaped the National Minimum Wage was the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), a statutory body where government, business, labor, and community representatives negotiate on economic, labor, and development issues. In reality the main functions of Nedlac are to co-opt the trade unions and some NGOs onto the neoliberal agendas of the ruling class and to ensure that any resistance stays within its bounds. The National Minimum Wage, presented as an intervention to improve the wages of the lowest paid workers, is a prime example. As rewards for their cooperation, the trade union officials get some of the same payments, privileges, and powers as senior state officials. In addition, the capitalists reward them with payments, seats on boards, shares in companies, and exemptions from the drudge work performed by their members. Nedlac is also a springboard from which union leaders can advance their careers as politicians, state officials, business managers, and even capitalists.
The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), a statutory body for the resolution of labor disputes, also played an important role in the shaping and implementation of the National Minimum Wage. Reformism is spelt out in the very name of this institution. Its function is to assume the role of an impartial mediator and arbitrator and give workers a sense that some possibilities of just and fair outcomes are built into the process. The CCMA is, however, very much a state institution and is by no means impartial when it comes to the interest of the state-capitalist ruling class. In fact, a commitment to a strong state and prosperous capitalist economy is written into its mandate.
Trade union officials are rewarded in similar ways through the CCMA as through Nedlac for their co-option into ruling class agendas. Former unionists fill a large proportion of CCMA posts and current unionists fill the seats on its board for sizable payment. The CCMA also provides reformist unionists with an alternative to revolutionary struggle, while at the same time their capacity to represent workers at the CCMA is one of the few remaining selling points that these unions use to recruit workers and collect membership fees.
Bargaining councils are also important institutions through which reformism is imposed on wage struggles and unions, although they do not play an important role in the implementation of the National Minimum Wage. Bargaining councils operate at the level of industries or economic sectors, and their main function is to promote ‘labor peace’ by providing a forum for negotiation and dispute resolution between the bosses and the trade unions. Reformism is also written into the way it functions, and it achieves this through, among other things, multi-year agreements that include undertakings not to strike around wages and other important issues. In exchange, bargaining councils offer many advantages to trade union officials in the form of different posts and payments.
So reformism operates through structures that were deliberately designed for this purpose. Parliament, Nedlac, the CCMA, and bargaining councils are important institutions through which reformism is practiced and mainstream trade unions and especially their leaders and officials are the practitioners. They help to keep the wages and benefits of the workers within the scope that serves the needs of neoliberal capitalism and the state-capitalist ruling class. In return, they are rewarded with posts, privileges, and payments. If we add up the monetary value of all the posts in parliament, cabinet, state institutions, company management and boards, plus all the payments in the form of salaries, allowances, shares, and bribes that go to trade unionists as rewards for their reformist collaboration with the ruling class, it comes to billions. This shows the high value the ruling class places on reformism.
Finally, this shows something important about the nature of present-day reformism. It is no longer about a gradual transition to socialism or to capitalism with a human face. Present-day reformism is about helping the ruling class enforce the most brutal forms of neoliberal exploitation on the working class and closing down the legitimate avenues of resistance to that.
Choice and Agency Make Revolutionary Wage Struggles Possible
In the struggles for higher wages and the general conduct of trade unions, the social power of the ruling class exerts severe pressure in favor of reformism. Yet, this is not enough. Reformist practice requires the active choices and participation of union leaders and groups of workers as well as the passive, if grudging acceptance or neutrality of workers. When workers and unionists choose to break out of the neoliberal limits imposed by reformism, the possibility of revolutionary wage struggles and unions becomes real.
The ruling class does not leave this choice to chance. In addition to the rewards and enticements offered to reformists, there are systems of obstacles and punishments designed to suppress revolutionary approaches. The most important of these is violence.
Violence and Repression Support Reformism
Workers who step out or even threaten to step out of the framework that keeps wage struggles inside reformist boundaries, face serious threats of violence. The ruling class deploys hundreds of thousands of police officers and security guards, and those are just the ones we can see. In addition, they operate organizations of informants and provocateurs and they maintain the armed forces to intervene should the cops, guards, and spies become overwhelmed. In normal times, there are specialized units that focus on intimidating, attacking, and even killing workers who threaten to step out of line, but as soon as worker struggles involve large numbers and threaten the system, the whole armed, violent force is unleashed.
In 2012 the ruling class displayed just how far they are prepared to go. In response to a wage strike at Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, they effected a massive militaristic mobilization and perpetrated a massacre on striking workers. The Marikana Massacre rightly became the emblem of state violence against workers fighting for higher wages. Yet, except for the sheer number of workers killed, it is not unique. When farm workers in De Doorns in the Western Cape went on strike for higher wages in the wake of the Marikana Massacre, they faced a similar militaristic mobilization by the police and private security forces, who killed three of the strikers. Apart from these well-known cases, smaller scale mobilization of armed police and security forces against striking workers is a routine occurrence in South Africa. Every worker who dares to go on an ‘unprocedural’ strike—one not approved by the system—is sure to face the risk of being shot at with rubber bullets and live ammunition.
For the imposition of neoliberal reformism on the struggles of workers, the sticks of intimidation and violence are at least as important as the carrots of payments and posts.
What Makes Wage Struggles Revolutionary?
The strikes targeted for the most violent suppression give an indication of the characteristics that make revolutionary wage struggles and unions different from reformist ones. Strikingly, it is not a matter of ideological self-identification. If you would ask participants in Cosatu, Nactu, and Saftu the question “are you a revolutionary communist?,” a higher proportion may answer “yes” than if you ask participants in the Marikana and De Doorns strikes.
The Marikana and De Doorns strikes were revolutionary because the workers chose to break with the norms, practices, and structures of the neoliberal labor relations system. These breaks included the way they framed their demands, the channels through which they pursued their demands, and the way they organized themselves.
Neoliberal norms around wages prescribe that trade unions should demand percentage increases on existing wages around the inflation rate. This ensures that wages remain within the existing poverty rates. In Marikana and De Doorns, workers based their demands on a calculation of what they need. This was a fundamental break with the norm of neoliberalism, despite the fact that calculations by researchers have shown that meeting the demands of the farm workers, for example, would still have left them officially poor.5 The danger to the neoliberal system was that the principle of basing wages on the needs of workers would replace the principle of staying within the range of the wage structure inherited from colonialism and Apartheid.
Instead of channeling their demands through the bargaining councils, the CCMA, and the trade unions that operate within them, the Marikana and De Doorns workers confronted the capitalists directly. Even subcontractors, labor brokers and service providers were bypassed. These are the agents of neoliberal externalization, where subcontracted companies act as intermediate employers and workers end up not officially employed by the companies they actually work for, creating conditions for super-exploitative workplaces with little or no labor organization and rights. This bypassing of the official labor relations channels was closely related to the demands. Workers knew that they would never be able to fight under the banner of what they need if they used the official channels. Although it is also true that this bypassing in and of itself is clearly a threat to the system as demonstrated in other cases where workers do this in support of minimal demands. The managers of the system know that once the official labor relations channels are bypassed, the workers have removed a crucial cap on their demands.
Both the Marikana and the De Doorns workers were organized as strike committees whose basic structure was the assembly of all the strikers. The state and the capitalists did not see these organizations as unions, because they did not have the features of the unions that are adapted to their role of class collaboration. Unsurprisingly, these latter unions also refused to recognize organizations that operated without paid officials, centralized decision-making structures, and legal registration as workers’ unions.
As an indication of the dominance of the neoliberal adapted form of unions, many self-described revolutionaries also did not see these structures as legitimate worker unions. Yet, there is no reason why these strike committees cannot be seen as worker unions. The circumstances of their birth, their role, and their structures are certainly similar to revolutionary unions of the past. They were outsiders to the neoliberal labor relations system that were born out of mass struggles that practiced direct democracy. They had no paid officials and bypassed the official channels of neoliberal labor relations. These differences with the mainstream unions made them both more legitimate and revolutionary.
Wage struggles and unions become revolutionary when workers frame their demands based on their needs instead of neoliberal norms, act on them directly and not through official neoliberal channels, and organize in ways that put the workers in charge of their own struggles. Marikana and De Doorns workers set the most visible examples of this, but smaller scale examples happen every day. Every serious wage struggle has elements of it. Whenever workers feel strong, they break with the norms, negotiation channels, and union models of neoliberalism and, by doing so, make revolutionary wage struggles and unions possible.
Questions Raised by Revolutionary Unionism
The argument is that wage struggles and unions are not inherently reformist and that, in fact, it makes more sense to see them as potentially revolutionary. The dominance of neoliberal reformism requires the willful collaboration of union leaders and a critical mass of members. When workers and unionists choose not to collaborate, revolutionary wage struggles and unions become possible. Mass strikes in 2012 of mine workers in Marikana and farm workers in De Doorns are the best known, but far from the only, examples of cases where workers chose to break with the system and its agents.
Revolutionary unionism and wage struggles raise many questions that fall outside the scope of this argument. The fact that they are not discussed here does not mean they are less important. They are necessary subjects for other discussions and articles. For the sake of recognizing their importance, some of these questions here:
- What are the best tactics to pursue this strategy of revolutionary wage struggles and unions? Specifically, how should revolutionaries relate to the structures of the neoliberal labor relations system and to the reformist unions and their members? This includes the question of whether revolutionary unions should register with the Department of Labour.
- How should revolutionary unions relate to sections of the working class who are outside of the wage relation? The most important of these are women and others who work in households without wages; unemployed people; informal traders; and small-scale farmers.
- What should the membership requirements of revolutionary unions be? Should there be ideological preconditions?
- How should revolutionary unions take up struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, environmental injustice, and other oppressive systems and ideologies?
- How should revolutionary unions relate to political parties?
These and other questions arise once you have accepted the politics of revolutionary wage struggles and unions.
Revolutionary unions arise in many instances where workers break with the capitalist system and launch militant struggles for demands based on their needs. However, it is important to note that historically, the struggle for revolutionary unions has come to be associated with anarcho-syndicalism. This is one of the key reasons why this assumption, that wage struggles and unions are inherently reformist, is uncritically repeated by self-declared revolutionaries with a sectarian disdain for anarchism.
A situation arises where anarchists are the only political tendency who self-consciously stand for an immediate practice of revolutionary unionism. The implication cannot be avoided. While one does not have to be an anarchist to stand for and practice revolutionary unionism, the historical situation places a responsibility on anarchists to renew both critiques of reformism and practices of revolutionary unionism.
Ronald Wesso lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a founding member of Autonomous, a union of job seekers and precarious workers. Ronald joined the rebellion of high school students against Apartheid in the 1980s and has been active since in labor, land, and community movements. He works as a researcher and popular educator supporting feminist, land, and labor activist groups. He blogs at Black & Black
- Sarah A. Donovan and David H. Bradley. 2019. Real Wage Trends, 1979-2018. (Washington DC: Congressional Research Service.)
- Barry Eidlin, “Why Unions Are Good — But Not Good Enough,” Jacobin Magazine, January 6, 2020.
- Kabous le Roux. “New Minimum Wages (R3700 to R4230): ‘Not Enough for a Household to Survive on.’” CapeTalk, February 10, 2021. https://www.capetalk.co.za/articles/408374/new-minimum-wages-r3700-to-r4230-not-enough-for-a-household-to-survive-on.
- South African Government News. “National Minimum Wage Increased to R21.69 per Hour.” Sanews.gov.za, February 10, 2021.
- Department of Labour of South Africa. “Farm Workers Strike in Western Cape and Sectoral Determination Review: Department of Labour Briefing.” Pmg.org.za, accessed November 7, 2021. https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/15393/.