This paper was submitted to the 1973 Durban Strikes Celebrating 50 Years Conference
Conference on Fifty years since the 1973 Durban strikes
Durban University of Technology,
26th-28th January 2023
In this paper we revisit the work of Karl Polanyi and our attempt to apply it to the restructuring of work in our book Grounding Globalisation: Labour in the age of Insecurity (published with Rob Lambert in 2008). We introduce Burawoy’s (2010) convincing critique of the ‘false optimism’ of contemporary Polanyian labour studies, but we contrast Burawoy’s ‘uncompromising pessimism’ with Silver and Zhang’s (2009: 174) somewhat more optimistic argument that ‘where capital goes, capital-labour conflict follows’. This returns sociology to Marx’s theory of the inherent logics of capital accumulation and the fundamental contradictions of wage labour. The paper will be framed by Silvers’ notion that capital unmakes, remakes and makes working class formations. The theoretical aim of the paper is to put labour process theory in conversation with the power resources approach and political economy. We will illustrate our argument through an historical case study of the changing nature of work and sources of workers’ power in a leading Durban manufacturer of domestic appliances, Defy Appliances. We will divide the paper into three parts. We begin by tracing the origins of the company at the beginning of the twentieth century as Durban Falkirk, when workplace control was exercised by white craft workers through their monopoly of skill, i.e. structural power based on workers’ position in the labour market. Colour and craft coincided, and the vulnerability created by the challenge from cheaper non-union black labour gave craft exclusivity a racial form. A contest took place over ‘skill’ as new technology introduced mass production and the new semi-skilled worker in the 1930s in what was then Durban Falkirk. We identify the new form of structural power, based on workplace bargaining power, conferred on unskilled and semi-skilled workers when mechanisation replaced craft skill, creating an increasingly confident semi-skilled black labour force. This culminated in the 1973 Durban strikes, when a challenge from below emerged and a powerful shop steward movement rose confronting racial despotism. The second part of our paper examines the origins and development of associational power and the conflicts that took place in Defy in the 1970s and 1980s over representation and working conditions. The creation by the end of the eighties of a powerful nation-wide industrial union of metal workers led to capital’s spatial fix through the location of two of Defy’s factories to the low wage ‘independent’ apartheid homelands – in both KwaZulu and the Ciskei. The third stage begins in the 1990s with globalization and South Africa embrace of neo–liberal economic orthodoxy. Defy increasingly introduced short term contract labour and the union failed to organize this new segment to the labour market. This, and large scale unemployment, weakened workplace bargaining power, allowing for the return of market despotism. The paper ends with the take-over of Defy in 2011 by the Turkish multinational Arçelik, the world's second-largest white goods manufacturer. We conclude by raising the question as to whether this globalization of production constrains workers power or whether it opens up the possibilities of a new source of structural power that could be mobilised in transnational activism.