South African Union Militant & “Race to Bottom”

This web site recently ran a story on longshore workers in Oakland, California, being led through a picket line by their leadership. It cited what we imagined to be a telephone conversation between the local president and the president of the International. At its root, the position was that the ILWU must keep the employers happy, or else they will lose work in one way or another. Now, we have a report on a union leader in South Africa who takes a completely different view of things. This report is directly relevant to what is happening in unions in the US and around the world. It also raises some more complicated issues.


An article in the Wall St. Journal of October 28 reports on the role of a more militant union leader in South Africa – Irvin Jim of the auto workers union. According to the article, Jim has fought for double-digit wage increases and has led several strikes.

Jim has also criticized the ANC government, which he accuses of following neo-liberal policies. His union will reportedly discuss leaving the alliance with the ANC and forming a new political party in December.

If these reports are accurate, this could be big news.

However, there is also another side to this story.  “If it continues the way it is going, we’ve got choices,” said Jeffrey Nemeth, president of Ford Motor Co.’s southern African operations, referring to labor unrest. “Any multinational will choose to invest where the best opportunity is for returns and predictability,” the WSJ reports. They write further: “BMW said the labor unrest knocked South Africa out of the running for a new production line that would have expanded the company’s investment and jobs in the country. “We will not add more models or volume to this plant until we see things have changed,” said BMW’s managing director in South Africa, Bodo Donauer.


Jim accuses the auto makers of engaging in “economic blackmail”, which of course they are, but that is to be expected. The question is what to do about it. Jim has taken the first step by reportedly saying that they won’t engage in the “race to the bottom” – a welcome shift from the position of most union leaders, including in the US. What is the alternative?

A first step would be international solidarity in deeds, not just words. It would not take much for Jim’s union to send teams of auto workers to meet with their counterparts in other parts of Africa and elsewhere in the world. If workers in the industry strike in one country, then the industry should be shut down everywhere. That may sound like a huge step, but without that, workers will be forced into the race to the bottom.

The article says that Jim says he’s a Marxist. That is the natural conclusion from these pressures. After all, ultimately we cannot control what we don’t own. Joint global action would be important, but ultimately workers will have to take possession of that privately owned capital and determine for themselves how it will be used.


Categories: Africa, labor

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