Putting Politics into Practice: The Importance of Democracy and Education in Unions

by Pitso Mompe (ZACF)

Counter-cultureTrade unions have played a major role in defending workers’ rights against the bosses and politicians, also in advancing workers’ interests. This is why, even today, workers are still loyal to their unions. However, there are obstacles within the unions – one being the union bureaucracy, of paid and full-time officials. This can develop its own interests, undermining the unions.

This is a challenge faced by many unions. This bureaucracy is at times unable to represent workers’ grievances effectively: they often spend more time fighting amongst themselves for certain positions within the union instead of for workers’ rights. Due to this bureaucracy, which is structured hierarchically, higher positions hold more power, including in terms of decision-making. Those in leadership are often full-time and recieve much higher salaries than those of the workers they represent. This means they often want to prevent union actions that threaten their own positions, like long strikes.  

Another lurking danger is that of such leaderships’ interests shifting towards protecting those of bosses. By spending more and more time in cosy offices in discussion with these bosses instead of in workplaces checking the working conditions of their union’s members, officials can easily drift – becoming increasingly accommodating and conservative. Where they sell out completely, or become very corrupt, the union collapses or splits – to the harm of the workers. In South Africa, there is the further problem that the union bureaucrats also get involved in the state.

If this is so, why do workers not defend their own rights and advance their own interests themselves?

This is a challenge faced by workers. Workers tend to be disorganised and divided, for a number of reasons, such as job or sector, race, tribe, language, gender, area etc. As such, those from the same area, those that share the same culture, race, language, or beliefs and so on, separate themselves from others, often feeling superior to others. This separates one worker from another and fosters division in the working class where unity needs to exist. History has taught us that trade unions are capable of organising those of different cultures and backgrounds as workers despite these and other differences – even if not all have historically achieved, or even attempted, this.

So what is the solution? Looking at the question of what is to be done, clearly working class politics in the trade unions plays a major role. Not empty slogans and rhetoric, but a genuine politics of practice. Racial, ethnic, sectoral, geographical etc. divisions between workers can only be overcome in the process of building class-consciousness, which requires a central role for trade union education, based on clear politics.

Education can also help combat bureaucratisation – by providing workers with the confidence to trust themselves and challenge their leaders. However, education doesn’t only mean classrooms (although this is crucial); class confidennce is also built in practice, in the process of workers acting for themselves together. This fact carves out a central role for trade union democracy and participatory politics. Workers in South Africa, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, built a strong tradition of workers’ democracy and workers’ control in their trade unions. They also cultivated a strong sense of working class identity and pride. It is this that we need to go back to.

We as anarchists, or syndicalists (anarchist trade unionists), say that workers’ democracy is not the same as capitalist “democracy”. The same applies to the notion of workers’ politics – which is not the same as the politics of the state and government. Here we are talking about a democracy where unions will be restructured and rebuilt on a solid foundation of democratic discussion, consensus building (where possible), and decision-making through-out all its structures.

One where worker-members would elect shopstewards who are recallable and who only act on the basis of mandates from these workers at their workplaces and in the union – never on their own and never for the bosses. Those elected would also report back to workers after meetings to keep workers informed, and/ or to get fresh mandates. This model, of democratic discussion and decision-making, of mandates and report backs, should be applied to all union structures: from the workplace or local branch to national executive committees.

What we mean by workers’ control is, firstly, workers directly controlling the union themselves – not via union officials. Secondly, workers have to ensure their control by encouraging, nuturng and insisting on democratic involvement of the membership in the life of the union. Thirdly, workers should outnumber officials in the various union structures, to ensure that ordinary workers’ voices remain dominant.

These are the basic principles of anarchist trade unionism – of syndicalism – and anarchist organisation. In these ways, workers could make their unions work for them, not for the interests of a handful of officials. Through workers democracy and workers control the rank-and-file membership develop a sense of control over their lives. This is done via a working class politics in the trade unions that allows the worker to develop a type of class consciousness that is needed in the struggle against capitalism, the state – against all forms of domination and oppression.

Using these practices and experiences, workers can also prepare themselves to take over, and run, the workplaces themselves, including mines, farms, factories and offices. Democratic union structures can play the key role in this new system of bottom-up control. That is syndicalism.