How can workers defeat outsourcing and win R10,000?
A critique of Tshwane EFF Student Command’s abuse of APSA
20 June 2017
by Shaun Arendse
A strike of outsourced workers is underway at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). It began on 22 May and is now in its third week. It has been organised under the banner of #OutsourcingMustFall (#OMF), not least because it is impossible to organise a protected strike of workers under the neo-liberal capitalist regime of outsourcing. The division of workers under many different contractors is designed by the bosses to weaken workers’ organisation and leave the few pro-worker laws worthless.
But over the past two years #OMF has pioneered tactics to build principled unity across the divisions encouraged by the bosses at a time when the workers’ movement itself is fragmented and divided.
Unfortunately however, in Tshwane, EFF Student Command activists, using (or rather abusing) the Academic and Professional Staff Association (APSA) have acted in an extremely divisive manner, weakening the struggle against outsourcing at TUT. This is very dangerous, as a defeat at TUT against the background of the current ebb in the student’s struggle for free education will embolden managements across higher education to snatch back the gains made by workers and students.
We have no doubt that the vast majority of APSA members are genuine trade unionists only interested in furthering the interests of the working class. Neo-liberalism has stripped away many of the privileges of previously ‘professional’ occupations and pushed sections of the middle class into the working class. We must celebrate that academics are taking their rightful place in the labour movement. But the way that EFFSC’s Tshwane leadership is using APSA on the ground is proving divisive and damaging.
#OMF was launched in November 2015 following the highly successful #FeesMustFall mass movement of students. Building on that momentum, #OMF organised outsourced workers across the higher education sector in Tshwane. Heroic, unprotected strike action in 2016 defeated outsourcing in the Tshwane universities. Agreements were won to insource all workers on increased wages. In some cases wages would climb as high as R10,000 p/m.
There has never been any secret that #OMF was initiated by us working closely with our members in the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA). However, we were clear from the start that #OMF could never succeed as the narrow property of any one organisation. We always welcomed anyone, or any organisation, as long as they supported the struggle against outsourcing.
Unfortunately, the EFFSC’s Tshwane leadership abused #OMF’s open and democratic approach from the start. Early in the campaign, they broke the outsourced Unisa workers away from the Tshwane-wide #OMF campaign. They encouraged a strike at Unisa that took place in isolation. Among many avoidable mistakes, more than 200+ security workers lost their jobs under the EFFSC’s leadership. The other serious consequence of this student-led ‘adventure’ was to weaken the Tshwane-wide campaign which began a united strike some weeks later.
From the point of view of the EFF students this ‘manoeuvre’ had one purpose: to prove their credentials as ‘the most radical’ and ‘the most militant’. This is the very definition of sectarianism, which means to place the interests of your own organisation ahead of the interests of the working class as a whole. It was a scandalous abuse of workers’ willingness to struggle. It seems that it was during this episode that EFFSC leaders caught sight of APSA.
At that stage APSA was an organisation that only existed at Unisa. Even now, APSA does not claim more than 1,500 members nationally. To our knowledge, all of their members are in Tshwane. APSA did not begin life as a trade union but, as the name indicates, a ‘staff association’ open only to Unisa academics. To its credit, the ‘old’ APSA leadership had decided it was necessary to have a process of ‘transformation’ within the organisation, and to move away from its narrow focus on academics. With EFFSC’s Tshwane leadership calculating that they could use university workers to boost their ‘militant’ credentials, and APSA looking for a more radical direction, the two began working together to break APSA out of Unisa and into other institutions.
Across Tshwane today, APSA is the project of EFFSC. Indeed, it is impossible to tell where the leadership of APSA ends and where the leadership of EFFSC begins. On the ground their activists are one and the same.
The EFF and the Workers Movement
Many in the workers movement have made an accurate characterisation of the EFF and whose interests it represents. Its programme is ultimately the programme of the frustrated black middle class/aspiring capitalists. Whilst their programme is dressed up in radical, even socialist rhetoric, it ultimately aims to use the capitalist state to shift power (and wealth) from the still dominant white capitalist class to their aspiring black counterparts. As is always necessary for a movement that represents the interests of a minority class, it is necessary to dress-up their programme in order to try and mobilise the masses behind it.
The EFF’s attitude to struggle confirms this. Whilst they are effective at organising ‘show pieces’, such as their march to the JSE, or even their disruptions in parliament, the EFF has zero interest in mobilising a genuine mass movement, let alone one based on the working class. The democratic traditions of the working class, its experience and capacity for self-organisation, are viewed as a threat to the EFF’s demagogic style of leadership, which unfortunately their student leaders mimic. The EFF’s focus remains tightly on electoral politics and the institutions of the capitalist state.
The EFF’s cadre is overwhelmingly drawn from the black middle class (including students and ex-students) rather than workers. Its ‘mass’ base, to the extent that it can be said to have one, rests on the unemployed and middle class youth. Reflecting this social base, the EFF, especially its Student Command is most comfortable with crude anti-working class nationalist ideas. But these ideas have always been a dead-end for workers’ struggle because they prioritise and even counterpose racial solidarity over class solidarity.
The EFF’s leader, Malema, has consciously kept the EFF at a distance from the workers movement. On the other hand, whilst some organised workers will have voted for the EFF as a ‘radical’ alternative, the EFF has made no serious inroads into the organised working class (beyond a certain impact among the Rustenburg mineworkers under unique circumstances, though again, this has been consciously limited by the EFF leadership to simply asking for the mineworkers’ votes). Most conscious workers do not trust the EFF; and the EFF does not trust organised workers. The role the EFFSC’s Tshwane leadership is playing in APSA is the exception that proves the rule. It is no accident that given these characteristics of the EFF, it is finding its point of entry to the workers movement via the middle class milieu of the universities. It confirms the above analysis.
It goes without saying that the engagement of young people and students with the workers movement, from whatever class background, should be welcomed and encouraged. Indeed, it was #FeesMustFall that pushed the issue of outsourcing firmly onto the agenda of the workers movement. During that mass movement campus assemblies uniting students and workers were a common feature. This was central to what made that movement so powerful.
But unfortunately, as the mass movement ebbed, an unhealthy attitude from some of the politically affiliated student structures emerged towards workers and workers’ struggle. These structures came to view workers struggle as a tap to be turned on and off for their own benefit. A competition over ‘who could lead the workers?’ developed. This mistaken and arrogant approach unfortunately informs the EFFSC leadership’s campaign to build APSA – as an auxiliary to their student structures. Winning the ‘leadership’ of university workers would strengthen the EFF’s student base and their ability to grab headlines by disrupting the campuses. Such a strategy can never work in the long-term. Workers will not long tolerate such methods. But in the short-term it can cause significant damage to the struggle.
The 2017 TUT Strike
Throughout 2016 all the workers struggling under the #OMF banner (with the exception of Unisa as explained above) took the decision to join GIWUSA. But despite GIWUSA having an overwhelming majority amongst TUT workers, #OMF’s open and democratic approach remained a principled positon. Before the strike began, TUT’s student structures were approached to support the workers, as were the campus unions organising permanent staff. As long as they supported the struggle against outsourcing they would be welcomed.
Inevitably, GIWUSA organisers and shop stewards would play an important role in the leadership of the strike, having organised TUT workers since early 2016. But they would lead not as GIWUSA officials, but rather as members (or even simply as advisors) to the workers committees elected to lead the strike. These committees were open to workers from any organisation, or none, to ensure the broadest and most united leadership possible.
But from day one EFFSC worked to undermine this tried and tested framework for unity in struggle. This included ignoring the workers’ committee and the elected strike leadership, calling their ‘own’ meetings of workers and spreading gossip and lies to undermine workers’ confidence in GIWUSA. They have disrupted meetings between workers and management, meetings that were demanded by workers, dragging the strike on longer than necessary as meetings are suspended in chaos.
Even in the build-up to the strike, EFFSC activists were moving around TUT’s campuses, and in the name of APSA, lying to workers that they were #OMF whilst agitating against GIWUSA. This weakened #OMF’s work to unite and prepare workers for the strike. The main role of EFFSC at this time should have been to mobilise students in support of the workers. But this was something they never even attempted because, by their own admission, it would have made them “unpopular” during exam time!
Poaching – Not Struggle
EFFSC’s and APSA’s genuine support for the current TUT strike would have been welcomed. Indeed, it was asked for. If APSA has the ideas and strategy capable of beating the TUT management then we will be the first to listen. We want to hear how this stubborn management, linked by a thousand threads to the ANC’s kleptocratic BEE elite, mired in nepotism, and willing to use hired thugs to attack striking workers, can be defeated. If, after hearing that, workers decide to leave GIWUSA for APSA, how could we possibly complain?
But this is where the real agenda of EFFSC’s Tshwane leadership is exposed: never once have they put forward an alternative strategy to defeat outsourcing at TUT. They simply agitate for ‘more militant’ and ‘more radical’ action – code for committing acts of violence against workers not on strike and students and vandalising TUT property. This is not an alternative, it is just posturing. Instead of keeping the focus on management, EFFSC leaders put their energy into diverting workers’ legitimate frustrations with the hardships of the strike, against GIWUSA.
The reality is that the EFFSC Tshwane leadership does not support the current strike at TUT. They do not see the strike as an opportunity to defeat outsourcing. For them it is nothing more than an opening to poach members from GIWUSA for their APSA project. Their opportunistic calculation is that they must shatter the unity of the workers in order to do that. The struggle against outsourcing is entirely secondary to that agenda. Indeed, the defeat of the strike would be the best outcome for the EFFSC Tshwane leadership’s agenda. If that happens, we can predict now that they will work tirelessly to lay the blame at GIWUSA’s door. They will then come to the workers with a ‘solution’ – join APSA.
In the nearly two-year old struggle against outsourcing across Tshwane’s higher education sector the efforts to build a broad and united campaign have been constantly undermined by EFFSC leaders who repeatedly force ‘organisational rivalry’ on to the agenda at the expense of the struggle itself.
The Way Forward
At the University of Pretoria, GIWUSA is calling for a university assembly of all progressive students and workers, and their organisations, to build principled unity. On the issue of union ‘competition’, we are clear: whatever can increase the organisation and unity of workers for victory in this struggle is progressive. Organisations musty bring their ideas and in an open and democratic way submit them to the judgement of workers and students.
Even now, #OMF would welcome the support of EFFSC and APSA on a genuine and fraternal basis. Not just for the current TUT strike but in the general struggle against outsourcing. However, we think it extremely unlikely that the leadership of the EFFSC can change given the politics of their ‘mother body’. Therefore our appeal is aimed firstly at APSA members: defend your union and build it in on the genuine ideas and traditions of the workers movement. Struggle! Solidarity! Socialism! Unite with progressive organisations and together struggle to defeat outsourcing and win R10,000.