The end of labour or the beginning of a new cycle of union growth?

by Mar 1, 2024Article, Labour

This is an edited version of a talk I gave at the 6th Conference of the International Association of Strikes and Social Conflict (IASSC) in Cape Town on 6th February 2024.  

Instead of clocking in with their timecard, as at a traditional workplace, ‘gig’ workers log into an ‘app’. In so doing, they become subject to a new business model based on a form of authoritarian algorithmic management.

Eight years ago, I noticed a growing number of motorbikes on Johannesburg’s pot-holed roads. They were delivering food to private homes. Platform capitalism, in the form of Uber Eats, Mr  Delivery, and Takealot, had come to Africa. It had created a new work paradigm where workers are managed through online platforms, monitored directly, and expected to produce measurable outputs. 

Instead of clocking in with their timecard, as at a traditional workplace, ‘gig’ workers log into an ‘app’. In so doing, they become subject to a new business model based on a form of authoritarian algorithmic management that: 

  • translates consumers’ demand into orders workers must deliver; 
  • determines what tasks workers must execute, where and when; 
  • directly or indirectly determines how much money workers will be paid for the execution of particular tasks; and 
  • through the algorithm, directly or indirectly controls the execution of the work and the worker’s performance at work. 

As we argue in our recent book, Recasting Workers’ Power: Work and Inequality in the Shadow of the  Digital Age, instead of the bright new world painted by the global tech companies, what is emerging is a return to the working conditions of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the current world of platform work could be described as a form of ‘digital Taylorism’.

End of Labour?

There is a widespread view that the individualisation, dispersal and pervasive monitoring that characterise work in the ‘gig economy’ have made gig workers unorganisable. Worker resistance is increasingly futile, the experts say; it is the end of labour.

There is a lot going for these arguments. There is no question that there has been a decline of union membership and density, especially in the Global North. However, what we argue in our book is that the new technology is a double-edged sword – it extends control, but it also connects the riders together through the new technology. Precarious workers, we discovered, were experimenting with new hybrid forms of worker organisation, including different types of associations that blur the distinction between traditional unionism and informal workers’ associations, co-operatives, micro-businesses and savings clubs (stokvels).  

We focus our attention on the restructuring that takes place at the workplace level, which we describe as a ‘labour process fix’. Through these labour process fixes, capital ultimately seeks to buy labour power from workers on a more ‘flexible’ (that is, exploitable) basis, which entails bringing a whole new section of the working class into the economy for the first time. In our interest in understanding what future there may be for labour, we return to the foundational logic of Marx, and primarily the idea that ‘where capital goes, capital–labour conflict follows’.  

We explore how such fixes, particularly capital’s introduction of new technologies and new forms of labour control in production, generate struggles from both older and newer sections of the workforce. 

The Power Resources Approach (PRA)

The PRA is an organisational tool that we use to identify different sources of power and the new forms of worker organisation that are emerging. There are two key concepts which provide the basis for this approach: structural power (the power stemming from labour’s position in the economic system and production process) and associational power (the power arising from collective political or trade union associations). We identify two other sources of workers’ power – first societal power and then institutional power. Societal power can be expressed in two ways – by building coalitions with other social groups, such as social movements, and by influencing the public discourse. The concept of institutional power was introduced by researchers from Germany, who saw institutionalised labour rights and dialogue procedures as sources of power that labour could rely on even when structural and associational power were weakened. 

Recasting Workers’ Power

The empirical heart of the book is a series of case studies of precarious work in Africa. Confronted by weak structural power, workers enhance their bargaining position by drawing on other sources of working-class power, such as associational, societal and institutional power. Their power is, in other words, recast. What implications does this recasting of power have for the future of labour?  We identify four responses. 

First, through externalisation and casualisation there is on-going marginalisation of traditional trade unions in Africa. Instead of organising the new layer of precarious workers, established unions are being marginalised by defending existing strongholds. In focusing on those workers in stable jobs, they are reproducing the dualities in labour markets.  We call this second response dualisation. 

A third response is substitution. This describes a scenario where unions are no longer the only actors, and other organisations such as NGOs, social movements and cooperatives fill the vacuum of workers not having adequate representation by providing specific services and alternative organisational strategies

Finally, unions successfully revitalise. The clearest case we have of successful union revitalisation is the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union (ATGWU) in Kampala. By reframing informal ‘boda boda’ riders (motorbiker riders) as workers and, therefore, potential union members, they were able to foreground associational power and dramatically expand the union from a declining 3,000 members to over 100,000 members. By forming an alliance with the established union and gaining concrete support from the International Transport Federation (ITF), the boda boda riders were able to draw on associational and institutional power, which led to a decline in police harassment. 

Our book points in the direction of a fifth response, where workers are experimenting with new forms of power and hybrid forms of organisation among the growing swathe of precarious and informal labour in the Global South. We call it an experimental trend. 

The question raised by our book is whether these embryonic forms of worker organisation are sustainable and could become the foundations for a new cycle of worker solidarity and union growth.

Edward Webster is Professor Emeritus at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of Witwatersrand and a long-standing analyst of the South African labour movement.

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