Workers' Day should be about more than just organised workers

ON Monday, May 1, we celebrate International Workers’ Day, our last holiday for at least six weeks - which is a long time considering the slew of holidays we have had in the past few weeks.

I intentionally included the word “international” because South Africans sometimes forget to contextualise our struggle as part of what is happening in the world.

Workers’ Day, also known as May Day in some quarters, began in the US and some other countries in the 1800s when workers demanded an eight-hour working day.

The situation in South Africa was very different then, as we were still grappling with colonialism and the after-effects of slavery at the time, especially in the Cape.

Slavery was abolished only on December 1, 1834.

In the Struggle years, we unofficially celebrated May Day on May 1, when we remembered the contribution of workers and their representative organisations.

It only became a legal public holiday when South Africa became a democracy, although there were some employers who had given their staff the day off since the late 1980s.

Today the situation in South Africa is different, even though it is probably more in tune with what is happening in the rest of the world.

We are very much part of the global village and are afflicted with all the ills that exist elsewhere.

I could not help thinking, as I read about the row over the president’s (non-)attendance at Cosatu’s big May Day celebration, how what constitutes the working class has changed, and wondering whether, as we believed, the organised working class should still be at the apex of our struggle.

Before you accuse me of going soft in the head, I am merely thinking aloud which, I suppose, I am allowed in this column.

The reason for my question relates to the changes in South Africa over the years, where the number of people who qualify to be organised has dwindled significantly.

There are many people nowadays who are not employed. The official figure is around 26%, but it is probably higher.

There have been attempts to organise unemployed workers, but it is difficult because unemployed workers do not have the means to pay membership fees - which is often the lifeblood of representative organisations - but, if they are lucky, unemployment should be a temporary state.

It is easier to organise boilermakers or food workers because they are likely to be in their industries for a long time. If our economy improves, the membership of potential unemployed workers’ unions should decrease significantly.

But then there are also the people who are employed in companies or situations where it is difficult to organise.

Much has been made about the ability of small-to-medium enterprises to create employment.

Most of the people who work in these enterprises never get to belong to unions, either because their companies are too small to be unionised or the workers are too scared to be unionised for fear of losing their jobs.

In a situation where jobs are as scarce as they are in South Africa, many people believe it is more important to hold on to your job than to express working class solidarity by becoming unionised and potentially getting involved in strikes, which could lead to losing your job.

A generous estimate is that about 4million people belong to the various trade union federations and independent unions in South Africa. This means the majority of people who would be considered working class are not unionised and will probably never be unionised, because they fall outside of industries targeted by unions, because they are in companies considered too small to be organised, or because they are unemployed.

When one considers society is much bigger than people who belong to organised formations, whether these are unions or political parties, one should think of ways of gauging their opinions at all times when taking decisions about democracy.

The ANC is right that South Africans have voted them into power nationally, in most provinces and in most municipalities. But that does not mean that only the voices of the ANC’s roughly 700000 membership should matter in the debates going on about our democracy at the moment.

Each of the more than 30million people who are eligible to vote would feel that their voices should be heard in the current debates - irrespective of where they placed their crosses the last time.

How they are treated now might determine where they place their crosses in 2019.

South Africa is about much more than membership of political parties, just like Workers’ Day should be about more than organised workers.

As those of us who are privileged to have regular incomes celebrate our rights tomorrow, we need to also think about the people who do not have this privilege and how we are going to make sure that they have the right to enjoy it in future.

(First publshed as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 29 April 2017)