Why did you join a trade union? Or, why are you thinking about joining one? Maybe it was the low pay or the long hours. Perhaps the humiliating searches, breath-tests and lie-detector tests. Maybe it was a bullying supervisor, a sexist HR or a racist manager. It would not be unusual if it was all of these things in one workplace. This daily abuse and exploitation pushes workers to look for a way to defend themselves. They quickly discover that most of their workmates and colleagues feel the same way. The need to unite is obvious – workers are the majority in the workplace; the bosses and their managers a minority.

Workers organising themselves to use the power of their greater numbers is of course the basic idea of a trade union – the principle of ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’. When workers are organised they can defend themselves and struggle for improvements to wages and other working conditions. But often things are more complicated than: unite, fight and win. Why? After all, the working class has proved over and over again that it is willing to struggle for a better future. The number of strikes in 2017 was the highest ever since the Department of Labour began recording them. The months of April, May and June 2018, also saw a record high number of community protests.

These struggles can and do win important victories. But after a generation of majority rule it is clear that the problems in South Africa are extremely deep. We will argue below that the crises of low-pay, poverty, inequality and unemployment cannot be solved by the capitalist profit system. To win permanent improvements – a living wage, decent working conditions, permanent jobs, high quality and affordable housing, efficient and reliable services – workers need to struggle to fundamentally change society.

Crisis of leadership

To do this, workers need to be organised. For most working class people a trade union is the first step – though this is just the start of the journey that class conscious workers must travel (see Part 5 below). Trade union organisation gives workers discipline, unity and power. Because the economy is the heartbeat of any society, a strike, or even the threat of one, gives organised workers an extremely effective weapon. For these reasons organised workers in the trade union movement play a decisive role in working class struggle.

But over the past twenty years the trade unions have faced a growing crisis of leadership. Corruption has become widespread and class independence and democratic worker-control weakened. From being the driving force in the struggle to change society many trade unions have become part of the status quo. Nearly 75% of workers are not even members of trade unions. Those that are members are divided. There are currently 190 registered trade unions in South Africa spread across four trade union federations.  In many sectors one united employers’ organisation sits across the table from a pic ‘n’ mix of unions whose leaders are more interested in members’ deductions than in unity against the bosses.

A crisis of working class leadership starts with the wrong ideas; it is ultimately a crisis of programme. Overcoming it requires uniting workers around a programme that expresses the fundamental interests of the working class. We will explain below why this can only be a socialist programme based on the revolutionary ideas of genuine Marxism.


Trade union leaders without a socialist programme ultimately accept the bosses’ control of the economy and therefore the bosses’ ‘right’ to exploit workers. Of course, they cannot usually say this to workers. They have to dress it up – sometimes in ‘revolutionary’ language. But the result is the same. Such leaders see trade unions’ role as limited to negotiating the terms of exploitation but not challenging their capitalist foundation.

For example, workers in Cosatu are sold the idea of the ‘National Democratic Revolution’ by the SA Communist Party. This implies that following the end of apartheid capitalism must be given time to develop before a revolutionary struggle for socialism can begin. Workers need to limit their struggles until the time is right – so far there are 24 years on the clock! This programme has led Cosatu into alliance with the ANC which since 1996 has had an openly pro-capitalist neo-liberal programme entrenching poverty, inequality and unemployment. Cosatu members strike against the ANC government and its policies one day and then are told by their leaders to vote for it the next.

In some Nactu unions nationalist ideas still have some influence. These ideas suggest that black bosses are not ‘bad’ because of their class position in society– that they make profit by exploiting workers’ labour – but because they have forgotten to stand in solidarity with their black brothers and sisters. These ideas limit workers from building truly independent working class organisations and from developing a clear understanding of the class struggle.

Crucial time

But the crisis of leadership has not stopped workers from searching for a way forward. The mineworkers’ strikes in 2012 were a decisive break in the situation. Demanding a R12,500 per month minimum wage these heroic unprotected strikes by-passed the ‘official’ structures of the trade unions. The Cosatu-affiliated NUM, until then the biggest union in the country, crumbled as mineworkers tore-up their membership cards in their tens of thousands. Mineworkers rejected the entire system of ‘sweetheart’ unions that the ANC government demanded from Cosatu as part of the ‘terms and conditions’ of their Alliance. The price of this over-due rebellion was paid in blood by the 34 mineworkers murdered at Marikana.

Even before Marikana workers were increasingly questioning the direction of Cosatu. But the massacre sped this up and led to greater polarisation within the federation. Many workers grew in their determination that “something must change”. Reflecting members’ anger over Marikana the metalworkers’ union NUMSA decided at a Special National Congress in 2013 not to support the ANC in the upcoming elections. This led to further turmoil within the federation. NUMSA and Cosatu general secretary Vavi were both expelled. Many affiliates went through local or regional splits as a result leading to the creation of new trade unions.


Out of this shake-up of the trade union movement the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) was launched in April 2017. This was an important development that has further challenged the status quo. Saftu’s successful 25 April 2018 strike against the ANC government’s new poverty-level minimum wage and attacks on the right to strike has again forced workers in other federations to question the direction of their organisations. Their leaders condemned the strike and supported the government’s attack on workers.

This poses more sharply than ever the need for workers in every trade union to clarify their programme. There are many important questions that still need to be answered. How do we stop corruption in our trade unions? How do we defend class independence and democratic worker-control in our organisations? How do we ensure our leaders do not climb into bed with the bosses? How can organised workers link-up with the rest of the working class? What attitude should we take to politics, parties, elections and parliament? What is our understanding of the role of the capitalist state and its legal framework of labour law and collective bargaining? And, crucially, must we accept the capitalist profit system as ‘the best there is’? Or is socialism an alternative within our reach? For us these are all questions of programme. To begin to answer them it is necessary to go back and examine the ‘first principles’ of workers’ struggle, checking our foundations in order to re-build a class-independent and united movement of militant, democratic worker-led trade unions. The MWP is committed to this task. We appeal to you to join us if you agree with what you read in the pages ahead. Become part of the conscious and organised struggle for revolutionary trade unionism.

Continue to Capitalism and the Trade Unions