The challenges that organized labor continues to face in the current world are becoming more intense, not just in Africa but all over the world. Organizations of the working class have a very difficult path to navigate: how do worker-leaders give confidence to their union membership in times of retrenchment bloodbaths? How do members of unions relate to the issues that seek to liquidate their unions and weaken their position as an immediate bulwark against capitalist exploitation?
Challenges to organized labor
Neoliberalism has had a direct, detrimental effect on the developments we see in labor movements today, and, globally, on the broader working class. In the past three or four years, workers have seen massive reversals in the gains that they had struggled for.
Retrenchments, the automation of the workplace, and clampdowns by the state on the rights to strike and to associate continue to negatively impact organized labor. The worker-led victories of the 1970s and 1990s—such as progressive labor laws and codes—are being aggressively attacked through the neoliberal order of today. The onslaughts of cost-cutting and austerity we have seen in recent years have exacerbated unemployment and directly resulted in decreasing membership in unions. The direct impact of these can be seen through the example of one union in the small, landlocked southern African country of Lesotho: UNITE (United Textile Employees).
The union makes us strong
UNITE has been growing quickly and has more than 10,000 members. In 2021, the union led a historic strike of textile and garment workers. As reported by Peoples Dispatch, this saw nearly 38,000 of roughly 40,000 workers in this sector—which accounts for 20% of the GDP of Lesotho—down tools for more than a month.
UNITE has become the largest union in the country’s textile industry, quickly approaching the threshold of 50% worker representation in all firms in which it organizes. Demonstrating the power of organized labor, as it did over the course of the 2021 strike, was an important victory.
UNITE’s success at organizing workers has seen employers continue to, so far unsuccessfully, attempt to push UNITE out. Employers have turned to using their own “sweetheart unions” to advance this agenda, as in the case of the company Precious Garments.
Employers are justifying their attack on the union based on a free-market argument: UNITE is causing capital flight; therefore they cannot work with the union. They have gone as far as to write letters to the ministry of labor calling for the deregistration of the union.
At the height of this offensive against the Union, shop stewards were unilaterally dismissed from firms. The focal point of this attack was the dismissal of the union’s second vice president, Thathasela Mabatho. Here, employers used one of UNITE’s own members to collaborate against her to get her dismissed. In other cases, shop stewards and organizers have been denied entry into firms by employers while workers have been denied leave to attend political workshops during working hours. In some cases employers have gone as far as to deny workers representation by UNITE shop stewards.
The union had condemned these unfair labor practices and made an urgent application to the labor court in Lesotho. The court has since ruled in favor of the union. In its ruling, it said that UNITE could not be suspended in the workplace, and that Precious Garments and its general manager must pay the union’s outstanding dues. Put differently: the union must be recognized!
Precious Garments did not comply with the aforementioned order. The union filed for contempt of court against them and they won on September 13, 2022.
The judgment went on to state:
- “That the respondents were outrightly contemptuous of [the] court’s clear and unambiguous interim orders that were served on them. Respondents seem to […] have refused and or failed for no justifiable causes whatsoever to comply with [the] court’s clear interim orders.”
- “The applicant has all in all succeeded in establishing beyond reasonable doubt that the concerned respondents have been outrightly contemptuous of [the] court’s interim orders.”
- The second respondent “Foley Chien is hereby committed to prison for a period of 90 days or until such time as he has purged his contempt as the general manager and representative of [Precious Garments]”.
“The victory means a lot to the organization. […] The right of the workers to be represented by their organization is restored.”
— Solong Senohe, General Secretary of United Textiles Employees
The union has also radically linked struggles in the workplace with struggles in the community. This is something that only the finest trade unionists of our era have done. The revival of activism remains an important element of building trade unions that supplement the economic struggles of workers and the political struggle for socialism.
UNITE stands as an example of what working-class formations are dealing with in these times of capitalist crisis and aggression. The union’s victory in court also reassures the labor movement that reversals of the hard won rights of workers will not be accepted haphazardly and without a fight.
UNITE continues to agitate for socialism at all times and remains at the center of a peoples’ transformation: never wavering from placing people before profits!
Mbali Ngwenda is a member of the Pan Africanism Today Secretariat. He advocates for the unification of peoples’ organizations under socialism in the youth, culture, and education sectors. He is also a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party of South Africa.