Worker organising during the farm worker strike

by Ronald Wesso
The workers who initiated the strike and the vast majority of those that joined them did not belong to a trade union, but it does not mean, as some have suggested, that they were not organised. In order for us to understand the question of worker organising during the farm worker strikes, we have to focus on the substance of organisation, on what it is and what it does in principle, even if it does not conform to the prevailing norms that characterise organisations in general. In other words, the fact that worker organising were not taking place in a framework of offices, monthly subscriptions, professional organisers and a denoted hierarchical distinction between leaders and followers, does not negate the fact that there were agreements between people to work together in more or less clearly defined ways towards common aims. These informal networks were of course formalised during the course of the strike as farm worker committees, which became the main forum through which workers conducted the strike until they were marginalised and to some extent neutralised. The story of the farm worker committees is the story of worker organising during the strike, but of course we can only understand them if we understand how they related to the other organisations that took part in the strike, namely, trade unions, NGOs, community based organisations and political groups. In this article I will give an overview of these organisations, their nature and role, while not claiming to be able at this stage to present a comprehensive history of their participation in the strike. I will argue that the organisational innovation of the farm workers in large part consisted in adapting to the new realities created by neo-liberalism, which means that the workers were far in advance of the established unions and the union aligned NGOs and political groups. I will also argue that with this organisational innovation, the workers outstripped their own political consciousness, which allowed them to be pulled back into the organisational forms of the established unions. This latter process signalled a change in the power relations between strike participants, with ‘unorganised’ seasonal workers increasingly losing control of the struggle, which is coming under the domination of trade unions collaborating with neo-liberal capitalism. The information I draw on is based on personal observations.

The Farm Worker Coalition
Early in the strike the Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE) and Women on Farms Project (WFP) took initiative to call together all the organisations and groups of workers involved in the strike. This became the Farm Workers Coalition, known at different times as the Coalition for a Living Wage and Decent Conditions for Farm Workers, the Strike Coalition and the Farm Worker Rights Coalition. The coalition became the key, in fact, the only site that brought together all the strike participants at one time or another. Crucially it was the only space where so-called unorganised workers, who were actually organised in farm worker committees, from different areas could come together. On a practical level it was the NGOs that kept the coalition functioning and together. Of the unions it was only CSAAWU that participated consistently and appreciated the value of the coalition. Other unions were inconsistent and sometimes undermined the coalition. But it was the farm worker committees, despite being unable to attend all meetings, which rooted the coalition among striking workers and provided the coalition with militant energy and mobilising verve. With the decline of the farm worker committees in the aftermath of the strike, the coalition runs the risk of losing this base among the workers that actually initiated and conducted the strike and becoming a coalition of NGOs and unions of permanent workers.

The farm worker committees

The farm worker committees started as local, informal networks between workers. They mostly consisted of seasonal workers who were not members of unions, and their geographic base was often the informal settlements and hostels that are home to these seasonal workers. An interesting thing about them is that while migrant workers would tend to make up the majority of their members, their spokespersons were often permanent residents of the area living either on farms or in the townships. In De Doorns these committees became formalised over the last three years as workers attempted to launch some strikes.

These committees were and are radically different in their organisational structure from the other organisations involved, though not in their political allegiance. Some of these distinct organisational features were:
• They were locally based, with all members living within walking distance of one another and of meeting venues, cutting out dependence on third parties for day to day communication.
• The members centrally included seasonal workers, women, migrant workers and even the unemployed.
• They did not get outside funding, nor did they depend on employers to deduct subscriptions. Their method of fund raising was to appeal to community members to make a contribution of say R10 each as the need arose. An important consequence of this was that revenue and expenditure remained under the control of the members.
• The committees had an open organisational structure – all residents of the informal settlement were invited to meetings taking place on an open space in the centre of the settlement and a lot of them came. Meetings were not restricted to farm workers or formal members only.
• There was a relative absence of hierarchy. This does not mean that there were no leaders; there were, but they depended on natural authority not formal and structural power, even in those cases where the committees elected them as chairpersons and so on.
• There was no paid staff and management, although like I said there was a clearly discernable layer of recognised local leaders who were themselves farm workers.
• They were not formally registered as NPOs or trade unions, and as such were excluded from the statutory processes that surrounded the struggle. This exclusion also meant the absence of a layer that was committed to and co-opted by the negotiation and consultation processes controlled by government and employers.
• Farm worker committees did not possess any money with its potentially corrupting effect.

Politically the farm worker committees and their leading activists saw themselves as disgruntled ANC supporters and specifically Zuma supporters. They thought of themselves as fighting against racist farmers and the DA, as well as certain specific aspects of ANC policy, but not against the ANC as such. In De Doorns for example ANC councillors formed an important part of the strike leadership. The minister of agriculture, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, was welcomed as a friend early in the strike. And throughout the course of the strike workers sang songs in support of President Zuma in his efforts to get re-elected at the ANC conference in Mangaung in December. Of course this ANC allegiance was not absolute or uniform among the farm worker committees, but it was nevertheless the dominant feature of their political orientation.

The farm worker committees were the true organs of the farm worker strike through which farm workers also participated directly in the Farm Worker Coalition. They were the ones who initiated the strike and who became the vehicle for farm workers to formulate their demands and launch the actions that placed farm workers at the centre of public attention in a way that they have not been before. However, the committees, specifically in De Doorns, soon ran into problems. After about two weeks of striking and being the targets of very intense suppression by the police, private security firms and labour brokers organising scab labour, the workers were eager for concessions. The employers, under the guidance of the government, were immovable in their refusal to negotiate with the farm worker committees. They would only negotiate with trade unions. With levels of unionisation very low among farm workers, the committees turned to Cosatu, or more accurately, to Tony Ehrenreich, Cosatu provincial secretary and ANC leader in the Cape Town City Council, to represent them.

This was the start of a process of cooptation and absorption of the farm worker committees into the unions and the eventual neutralisation of the farm worker committees. The features of the process were:
• Workers started joining the unions in their masses
• Farm worker committee leaders became union office bearers
• Established union leaders like Tony Ehrenreich and Nosey Pieterse became the public face of the struggle
• Negotiations between employers, the government and unions took the centre stage and farm worker committees were excluded and marginalised
• There was a decline in the number and visibility of farm worker committees.

At the moment this process is not complete; it is still a matter that is being contested. However, the magnificence of the militancy of the farm worker committees and the contrasting ease with which they were neutralised by effectively two union leaders requires explanation. This explanation lies in the organisational structure and the political orientation of the farm worker committees. The organisational structure allowed for the unmediated and therefore unmuted expression of the desires and views of the most exploited and angry sections of the workers. This was why the farm worker committees were so successful in initiating, spreading and sustaining the strike. There was no waiting on organisers, no obeying of office bearers, no negotiations and no following of official rules and procedures. The structure of the farm worker committees facilitated the direct expression of the rebellion of seasonal and later also permanent workers against neo-liberalism.

However, the workers and the farm worker committees did not necessarily see the ANC as responsible for their exploitation. Their anger was focused against the farmers, labour brokers and some individual politicians. They therefore saw Cosatu and Bawusa as very similar to the farm worker committees – ANC aligned worker organisations that are often in conflict with the ANC government. The farm worker committee leaders saw little danger in working with, being represented by and eventually becoming part of Cosatu and Bawusa.

We can say there was/is a contradiction between the organisational structure and the political consciousness of the farm worker committees. This contradiction lies in the relationship of the committees to neo-liberalism. Its organisational structure is such that it allows for the direct expression of the demands of a social group that are being super-exploited and to some degree brought into being for just that purpose by neo-liberal capitalism. In this sense the farm worker committees are born of the struggle of the workers against neo-liberalism. The same cannot be said of the political orientation of the farm worker committees. Their view of the ANC as their party, although one that they were unhappy with in some respects, meant that they were aligning themselves with the most important neo-liberal political force in the country, which opened them up to be demobilised by ANC aligned unions in the way that they were.

At present this process has advanced so far that the farm worker committees are in danger of disappearing, which will seriously undermine the capacity of the workers to sustain their resistance.

Trade unions

The following trade unions were involved in the strike: Fawu, Cosatu, Sikhula Sonke, CSAAWU and Bawusa. Fawu came out strongly in support of the strike in the beginning and publicly opposed the suspension. But they were then ‘brought into line’ by Cosatu and from then did not play an independent role from their federation. They were never fully part of the Farm Worker Coalition, although some of their leaders did attend some of the meetings.

Cosatu was almost completely represented by the actions and utterances of their Western Cape provincial secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, who publicly suspended the strike on three occasions. He worked very hard to promote the idea that negotiations between recognised trade unions and employers are the only way forward for the strike. Tony Ehrenreich also consistently emphasised farmers, AgriSA and the DA as the enemy of farm workers, while not exposing the role of the ANC and its policies. Cosatu marginalised the farm worker committees.

Sikhula Sonke actually opposed the strike and at one stage withdrew from the Farm Worker Coalition on the grounds that the strike was illegal. They directed their members to rather take part in lunchtime pickets on the 4th of December. One the eve of the resumption of the strike on 9 January they sent sms’ to their members saying that the strike was illegal and their members should not take part in the strike as the union was not able to protect them from any negative consequences. When the strike was over Sikhula Sonke repudiated this position and declared their allegiance to the Farm Worker Coalition.

CSAAWU supported the strike wholeheartedly and was the only union that consistently took part in the Farm Worker Coalition. They were very critical of the wavering of the other unions and called on workers to leave reformist unions to join socialist ones. They are part of the DLF that organised separate events from the Farm Worker Coalition and in this capacity were less critical and confrontational towards the ANC and Cosatu. They recruited many members during the strike and promoted unionism, but to my knowledge did not oppose or undermine existing farm worker committees. They also insisted that farm worker committees and CBOs be part of the negotiations.

Bawusa supported the strike. They went on a massive recruitment drive. Towards the latter part of the strike Bawusa displaced the farm worker committees in De Doorns as the public face of the strike. Politically their approach and role was similar to that of Cosatu, with which they have in common the fact of being strong ANC supporters. They took part in the Farm Worker Coalition except for a very brief period when they threatened to withdraw because they were unhappy with some participants’ public criticism of Cosatu and the ANC. Some of the key leaders of the farm worker committees became senior office bearers of Bawusa.

It would fair to summarise the role of the trade unions as follows: they were caught unawares by the strike as it was started by workers who were not union members. They used the refusal of the state and the employers to negotiate with farm worker committees to capture the leadership of the strike. When did capture the leadership they worked to increase their members, demobilise the strike and eventually to co-opt and replace the farm worker committees (CSAAWU excepted on this point).

In their variously disgruntled allegiance to the ANC the political orientation of the unions of course largely overlaps with that of the farm worker committees. Yet their roles were completely different in the strike. Where the farm worker committees were the direct expression of the militancy of the active sections of the farm workers, the unions acted in ways that dampened this militancy. This is explained by the radical differences in the respective structures of these organisations and the way they relate to the statutory labour relations regime. Above I have explained the distinct role and nature of the farm worker committees as organs of direct democracy and direct action of workers particularly marginalised and exploited by neo-liberalism. In contrast the key features of the unions are as follows:
• The decision making structures of trade unions incorporate large geographic areas such as regions and provinces. Members are dependent on offices and officials to reach meeting venues and to communicate with one another.
• Some unions get outside funding and all of them depend on subscriptions deducted from their members by employers. Funds go straight into bank accounts controlled by office bearers and officials, with members exercising no day to day control.
• Unions have a closed organisational structure with a clear distinction between members and non-members. The wider community has no standing in union meetings and do not participate in them.
• Union members are majority male, overwhelmingly permanent workers, very few migrants and none of the unemployed. Union leaders are middle class in income and social role.
• There is a strict hierarchy with power concentrated at the top. Leaders are elected but the same is true for many capitalist states, which nevertheless puts some in power at the expense of others. General Secretaries, presidents and executive committees are extremely powerful in unions and even corrupt ones are hard to displace.
• There is a paid staff and a management running the organisation. Unions are led by people who are not workers.
• They are formally registered in terms of the Labour Relations Act and are part of statutory negotiations. The leaders are committed to and co-opted by the negotiations and consultation processes controlled by government and employers. They also have a strong interest in following the laws of the capitalist state as they can be held liable if these laws are broken.
• Unions have lots of money, which tend to have a corrupting effect on leaders.
• Unions tend to organise workers in permanent jobs who are exploited and has an interest in rebellion, but who also often act conservatively because they feel threatened by more exploited workers such as casuals, women, youth and migrants.

The structures of the unions can be said to be well adapted to their political-social role: to deploy professionals to bargain for permanent workers within a neo-liberal system. This is why when permanent workers rebel in ways that challenge the neo-liberal system as such, they always come up against the structures and leaders of their own unions, as in the case of the Marikana mine workers. Casual, seasonal and undocumented immigrant workers find themselves as a rule excluded from the unions from the beginning. It is therefore not a coincidence that the farm workers that started this strike were not union members; it is a reflection and a consequence of the very structure of the trade unions.

Community based organisations (CBOs), NGOs and political groups

The CBOs that took part in the strike was the Food Sovereignty Campaign, Mawubuye Land Rights Forum and the United Democratic Front (UDF). NGOs that took part consistently were Surplus People Project (SPP), Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE) and Women on Farms Project (WFP). As far as political groups are concerned the UDF could probably listed here again on the argument that their core group functions as a political group that supports and builds links with various CBOs. The other political group was the Democratic Left Front (DLF) that mostly acted through its affiliates.

The CBOs were very enthusiastic and important supporters of the strike. They were also not at all hesitant to expose the demobilising and divisive role played by unions such as Cosatu. They played a crucial role in linking farm workers to rural township dwellers, which in many instance gave the strike a general character and lessened some of the ethnic and xenophobic tensions. In terms of their structure they were closer to the farm worker committees than the unions, although their structure were more formalised than the farm worker committees and combined representative democracy with direct democracy. The bureaucratising effects of representative democracy were softened by the lack of social and geographical distance between leaders and members. Crucially the social role of the CBOs was not such that they perceived the farm worker committees as threats; they did not compete with the farm worker committees for members and status.

The NGOs played a similar role to the CBOs. In addition they were crucial in the formation of the Farm Worker Coalition, which became the site where farm workers from different areas came into touch with each other. The NGOs were critical of the trade unions and insisted that the strike be led by farm worker committees. In their structure the NGOs are professionalised, hierarchical service organisations dependent on donor funding. They therefore cannot be the organisational vehicle for direct democracy for farm workers, which is something that they were aware of and emphasised at all times, making it clear that they do not speak for farm workers. This allowed them to strongly support farm worker committees despite having antithetical structures to these committees. However, the ‘non-representativeness’ of the NGOs made them extremely vulnerable in the face of the unions who claimed to be authentic membership based and controlled organisations of farm workers with much more legitimacy than NGOs. In this situation the NGOs could only promote farm worker committees as more authentic organisations of the striking workers than bureaucratic and politically compromised unions. In the latter stages of the strike and in its immediate aftermath when farm worker committees went into decline, this vulnerability of the NGOs became more pronounced, and their willingness and capacity to oppose the undemocratic and class collaborationist nature of the unions came under serious pressure.

Soon after the strike broke out a group of UDF leaders left their homes in Cape Town and set up camp in tents outside of Worcester, where they stayed for the duration of this strike. From this base they were able to play a crucial role in supporting and linking striking workers in the Wolseley, Villiersdorp and to some extent De Doorns areas. The UDF sees their role as empowering and uniting civil society for a struggle for the Freedom Charter, which they feel the ANC had betrayed. They saw the farm workers rebellion as an important step in this process and they were therefore open and radical in the criticisms of the ANC and Cosatu and the other unions. They expressed their support for the farm worker committees and for direct democracy and action by farm workers and they wanted the Farm Worker Coalition to be more confrontational when it came to the unions. They also linked farm workers with CBOs in the areas where they were active. It is not clear what the internal structure of the UDF is, but based on observations I would say it is probably less formalised and hierarchical than that of the unions and NGOs and closer to that of the CBOs. The Freedom Charter has of course long been criticised for privileging capitalists and the middle class over workers and the poor, and the UDF seems oblivious to the fact that they are seeking to revive a politics that led to the co-option of black nationalists and reformist socialists into neo-liberal capitalist system of today. Two additional criticisms that could be made of the UDF is that they were often seen to be acting unilaterally outside of agreements reached in the Farm Worker Coalition, which caused tensions. And they left the Farm Worker Coalition as soon as the strike was over instead of staying to do the important work of movement building in the aftermath of the strike.

The DLF acted mainly through its affiliates – TCOE, Csaawu and Mawubuye. They did organise some separate rallies, but it is not clear what the reason was for organising separately from the Farm Worker Coalition, except self-promotion. The DLF is orientated politically to build a united front with Cosatu, or at least with leftists within it. In the statements that they released during the strike they did not emphasise the role Cosatu was playing in demobilising farm workers.

The shift from farm worker committees to trade unions

As we have seen, the structure of the farm worker committees were brilliantly adapted to empower sections of workers super exploited by neo-liberal agriculture and excluded from its labour relations regime and from the registered unions. Through these committees farm workers showed that they can be as organisationally inventive as sections of the working class seen as more skilled and who had years of political education and experience. However, the political consciousness of the workers, particularly their estimation of the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance as friends of farm workers, allowed ANC aligned unions to take control of the strike and ultimately marginalise and to a very large extent demobilise the farm worker committees. The structure of these unions is the direct opposite of that of the farm worker committees, as it is designed to fit into the neo-liberal labour relations regime and empower union leaders at the expense of workers. Therefore the shift from farm worker committee leadership of the strike to trade union leadership of the strike was in effect a shift in the internal power relations among strike participants. Middle class trade union leaders took power over seasonal and other farm workers. As a result the strike immediately lost much of its militancy and effectiveness.


The farm worker strike has changed the countryside in the Western Cape and perhaps beyond. The psychology of a decisive section of the workers has shifted; the fear has been broken. Self-conscious movement building is now possible in a way that the most romantic activist did not dream about as late as October last year. The question now is whether such movement building efforts will be based on recognising and following the organisational wisdom of the workers that initiated the farm worker committees, or whether it will fall back into the hierarchical forms of capitalist organisations of which the current unions are examples.

The farm worker committees were deliberately created by the workers, and can be deliberately defended, affirmed and reinvigorated. In order to do so an open revolutionary critique of neo-liberalism, the ANC and the role of Cosatu and union hierarchies in general is needed. If the strike proved anything it is that the system of neo-liberal capitalism is not even prepared to consider anything approaching a decent life for farm workers, whom it views as slaves. Nothing less than a revolution that overthrows this system and all its political agents will give the farm workers a chance at a decent human life. Only this perspective will provide the motivation to take on all the risks and difficulties of organising in the way of the farm worker committees.

© 2012 Surplus people project