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The Changing Meanings of Labour

Author: Leonard Gentle


The term “Labour” (as in Labour movement, organised Labour, Labour Party, labour standards etc.) has long been associated with two concepts:

·         the working class as a social force, and

·         trade unions as an organisational form   

But this dominant perspective on the term “Labour” is not the only one. This is not a dictionary matter, nor something to be decided by some official agreed definition, by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), for instance.

It is a political debate.


Questioning the dominant narrative

There have always been different perspectives around the term “labour” and the associated concepts. Each of these perspectives have been accompanying different strategies, political programmes and organisational forms. So it has been over some 150 years, in different countries and regions.

With all these differences one version has been a dominant narrative that has informed many activists:

“The working class consists of those who do productive labour and who suffer exploitation in that capitalists appropriate their surplus labour. Workers have therefore formed organisations called trade unions to defend their share of the social surplus. The aggregate of many trade unions acting together constitutes a labour movement.”

But each of these terms in the narrative can be interrogated and more nuance discovered.   

For instance questions have been posed as regards the status of women performing unpaid domestic labour or reproductive work in general. Is this not equally productive labour, even if not waged? And what of those people who are unemployed, the so-called “Reserve army of Labour”. Are they not working class?

For much of the last 100 years, in the major industrialised countries where waged work was the norm for livelihoods for both men and women, these nuances could be debated on the periphery whilst the ongoing struggles of the days were being waged by those sections of the working class – waged productive workers – who carried the greatest social weight. Even in many countries in the global South, where large peasantries existed, a small but significant section of full-time, waged workers played a role in expanding national liberation struggles. But this is no longer the case…          

Equally we may ask whether trade unions have always been the primary organisations formed by workers to defend their share of the social surplus? And then we may raise the ensuing question:  is a labour movement a collective of trade unions?       

Labour as an “interest group”

There are no lack of instances of oppression and unfairness in contemporary society – and always when people of whatever social category experience such oppression they don’t just accept but contest it.

Traditional liberal perspectives give moral legitimacy to these struggles as that of competing “interest groups” and seek mechanisms – laws, institutions – to allow for their mediation and resolution. Identity politics – which shares many of the premises of liberalism – also adopts this approach of “competing oppressions.”

Today there is the whole arena of liberal constitutionalism and human rights which seeks to narrow the meaning of “labour” and labour movements to that of an “interest group”, competing with a range of interest groups in society. In this perspective the interests of labour need to be balanced against those of other interest groups, all of whom have equal rights. States then become regulators of these competing rights and labour actions and objectives are appropriately codified in law.

Labour as a metaphor for Social Justice

More radical perspectives see the central role of the working class as both a subject and object of historical development and the possibilities of social justice. Marxists, in particular, have laid claim to the idea that the working class - uniquely – is not just another “interest group” in that, in pursuing its daily collective interests, it is compelled to shake up the whole edifice of society and open the way to revolution and human emancipation.

For many in this view Labour as a code for the working class, is also a metaphor, for social change and social justice.

From this perspective – and in answer to the above questions – reproductive labour, paid or unpaid, is productive labour, and the working class is a category beyond those in paid work and includes the unemployed.           

For the past 100 years this contestation between the broader and narrower meanings have been taking place, in various ways.

Collective self-organisation: trade unions uniquely qualified?

In its broadest sense the working class has many forms of collective self-organisation, through which it lives its life: sports clubs, neighbourhood groups, benefit societies, co-operatives, immigrant networks, church groups, trade unions, political parties, campaigns etc.        

In no country in the world is the trade unions, taken as a whole, the majority organisational expression of workers, even of the employed workers. To be sure South Africa has a relatively large trade union density at near 30%, but in some major industrialised countries, like the USA, this can drop to less than 6%.

Nevertheless despite this “numbers question” many on the Left have argued that trade unions are unique amongst all the different forms of working class organisation and that their social weight and significance is far greater than their numbers.

Why? Some would argue because the trade unions organise workers as a collective at the point of production, and because trade unions as collectives of workers doing bargaining about wages and working conditions contest the social surpluses produced by the working class and thereby contest the terms of exploitation of the working class.

But is historically true that trade unions have played this role more than other organisational forms or even that trade unions have always had some quintessential form?

Not according to the historical record…

There is no consistency in the historical record that suggests that trade unions are the primordial organisations of the working class or that they are the ones most devoted, by their very nature to contesting the exploitation of the working class.

Internationally, the trade union movement has often gone through periods of stagnation and co-option only to be revived by internal rebellions against the established industrial order.

Trade unions originated in Britain as “trades unions” – where the older term “trades” referred to the skilled trades of craftsman. The movement arose from 2 sources; one conservative and protective of the old guilds and craftsman resisting the hordes of newly-proletarianised, deskilled workers; the other a militant offshoot of the 19th century radical Chartist movement. The first shop stewards were factory (or “shop”)-based representatives who led a radical democratic movement against the craft unions in the late 19th century and established the modern labour movement.

Similarly in the USA, the older craft-based American Federation of Labour (AFL) experienced a revolt by industrial workers in the 1920s against the sweetheart nature of the AFL and its protection of skilled white workers. These militant industrial workers – newer immigrants and many black, grouped under the Congress of Industrial Organisations – fought the labour elite and forced it into an amalgam, the AFL-CIO, which is still the USA’s trade union centre today.

In Britain at the turn of the 20th century workers who had set up trade unions but had no political party set up the Labour Party. And then as the parliamentary party shifted towards the centre the trade unions – with membership greater than the Labour Party – often occupied a space to the left of the party. In Germany, however, the original Social Democratic Party preceded the trade unions, vastly exceeded them in terms of membership. There the trade unions occupied a space on the extreme right wing of the party.

In Zambia in the 1990s the ZCTU group of trade unions anchored of Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) which fought on a World Bank-supported programme of Structural Adjustment and privatising the copper mines against the needs of an urban and rural poor.          

In South Africa for the least 15 years community-based social movements have been at the forefront of working class struggles while the trade unions have largely stuck to LRA-regulated wage struggles and generally insured labour peace. In the South Africa of the 1920s it was the ICU which was most representative of the working class, although it was only nominally a trade union and was rather, in today’s language, a social movement of the urban and rural poor. When it was compelled to become a “proper” trade union under the advice of William Ballinger in 1929, it collapsed.     

Despite this evidence, so many on the Left would argue the centrality of the trade unions from “first principles”  because they, falsely, conclude that the exploitation of the working class occurs “at the point of production.”

Production, reproduction and consumption        

Marx’s critique of political economy was broad-ranging. But for our purposes let us focus on three strands. One strand was Marx’s critique of classical political economy’s labour theory of value as the idea that value is about the amount of labour time spent in production. This led to the obvious rejoinder that capitalists would favour lazy workers.

Instead Marx amended this position to the notion of “socially-necessary” labour time. While labour produced value, it was only possible to give expression to this process in a world of competition between capitalists for the sale of commodities, which would reward the process by achieving a sale in the context of this competition. Meaning that labour was only productive labour in the capitalist sense when it was able to realise value in the form of consumption/sale. So production and consumption had of necessity to be related.

A second strand is his notion of surplus value; that is the difference between the value produced (as realised in a sale) as against the value of the workers’ labour power. Increasing surplus value can be done either by extending the value creating-period (i.e. what Marx called absolute surplus value) or by reducing the value of workers’ labour power (i.e. relative surplus value).

Capitalists exploit workers both by commanding their labour power in production and by suppressing the value of their labour power in reproduction. So the exploitation of the working class is both about the production of value by the worker and the issue of the reproduction of the working class. In the case of the Keynesian welfare state the cost of reproduction could be transferred onto the state rather that the individual capitalist, but under neo-liberalism this has reverted, largely, to the extended families of the working class, and essentially women. 

A third strand was to insist on the notion of the necessary unity of the circuit of capital – from reproduction, to production and the realisation through sale/consumption. A break in this virtuous cycle is the source of crisis for capitalism.

Without this understanding – of the relation between production, reproduction and consumption we cannot understand exploitation, the working class and capitalism itself. It is false to see the working class as defined solely by the sphere of production.

Working class struggles not limited to the point of production

Working class struggles are waged across the whole circuit of capital and certainly both within the sphere of production and the sphere of reproduction.

So a working class contesting its exploitation and anchoring a movement for social justice is not dependent on the existence, in some kind of a priori “first principles” sense, of “point of production” organisations, i.e. trade unions.

This is a matter of a concrete analysis of struggles at any given time rather than a matter of “first principles.”

Then why this historical significance of trade unions?

Having said all this and doing precisely such a concrete analysis it is undeniable that a trade union centred labour movement has had significance in both the global North and in Africa – particularly since World War 2. 

In many African countries workers in certain strategic industries had capacity to play an important initiating role in beginning national liberation struggles by going on strikes, e.g. dock workers in LM in Mozambique, railway workers in Senegal, mineworkers in Zambia. But often the attainment of independence by a national liberation movement or party brought about new institutions of governance which “locked in” trade unions into a kind of labour market chamber of the state (e.g. Mozambique, Zimbabwe). This despite the fact that many African countries had only a small working class, outside those key strategic industries,  and were mostly agricultural, peasant-based societies.

This locked-in nature of trade unions was the Southern equivalent of what occurred in many countries in Western Europe after World War II. Most European elites had either been Nazi or fascist (Germany, Italy), occupied by the German army or disgraced collaborators of the Nazis. So European reconstruction at the economic level went together with having to reconstitute systems of statehood and governance. In many countries this offered unique opportunities for trade unions and parties with trade union wings to be strategically located to serve within the upper echelons of governance, e.g. Belgium, Holland, Germany.

Although these European countries shared common features of corporatism with their post-colonial African counterparts it is important to see that this has had different strategic implications for the social justice project. In Europe this could be seen (for some decades) as a strategic strength, In many African countries it has become a sign of a strategic weakness.

But is this set of circumstances present today, in the last 30 years of neo-liberalism?

So what about the “meaning of Labour” today?      

In three articles we will set out to show three things:

  • Firstly, the term Labour has always had different meanings. A dominant narrative that lumped together labour, working class and trade unions has always had a degree of inadequacy.
  • Secondly, the fundamental changes in all social relations that neo-liberalism has brought about over the last 30-odd years has changed the nature of productive and reproductive work – and thereby the working class itself – to the extent that the inadequacies of the dominant narrative have now become obstacles to conducting emancipatory struggles. 
  • Thirdly, we will look at  significant instances of new forms of organising, new strategic choices in a number of countries across Africa and Europe.
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