Seidman’s (1996) article, entitled: ‘Social-Movement Unionism in Transition: Labor and Democratization in South Africa’, examined how the labor movement in democratic transitions in South Africa emerged and how this affected industrialists and working-class people. The labor movement later excluded the right of the majority of the working classes, the black workers, in the proposed labor legislature. Due to its long time apartheid policy, South Africa’s labor movement is quite complicated compared to other industrialized “core” countries.
Seidman’s concrete explanation on the social systems in South Africa provided help in understanding how apartheid policy results in a struggle between White minorities and Black majorities. Seidman also compared the labor movement in Brazil and South Africa due to strikingly similar characteristics. Compared with South Africa, however, Seidman did not vividly describe Brazil’s case since Seidman did not introduce Brazil’s history. According to Seidman, unionism basically gained strength and support from workers and the community upon connecting workers’ demands with the communities’ interest that later created a broad working-class movement.
Due to industrialization, the working class expanded in numbers and gained the ability to negatively affect the economy simply by disrupting production. Later, this enormous power seriously threatened business productivity. As Seidman emphasized, despite workers’ discontent with capitalism, workers actually benefited from the process of capitalism. The same article also cited an observation that U. S. labor laws were, in fact, unfavorable to workers and this condition became the key to the successful strategy of the largest union in the U. S. , the Service Employees International Union, or the SEIU, that eventually brought about U. S. workers’ victory over employers.
What makes unionism in South Africa different from other social-movement unionisms is its tripartite economic forum that shapes national economic policy where state, business, and labor union leaders participate and negotiate. However, this forum does not represent the interests of all workers and the communities’ demands. It only represented the demands of white workers that are employed in the formal sector of the economy although the labor movement gained strength from black workers who were employed in the informal sector.
In addition, the forum proposed a final bill that actually undermined the basis of unionism. It limited bargaining only to union members. In other words, most black workers were excluded since these were non-members of any recognized union. This is common in newly industrialized countries like South Africa. However, this phenomenon will be different when this happens in other industrialized ‘core’ countries where, and because, a significant percentage of the labor force is in the formal sector of the economy as union members.
I believe that organizing a union action is usually accompanied with a series of obstacles that must be addressed. Seidman forgot to point this out in the article. However, Seidman successfully supported the main argument that social-movement unionism played a great role in protecting workers’ rights albeit eventually excluding the majority of black workers in South Africa. Essentially, the article provided a concrete explanation of changes in the context of democratizing political systems in South Africa.