An increase in strike action can be correlated with an increase in favourable economic conditions within a country, region or industry, as has been the case, for the most part, over the past 50 years, says University of the Witwatersrand Society, Work and Politics Institute postdoctoral fellow Eddie Cottle.
Although there have been a few abnormal events in the 50 years he looked at, he alludes that, for the majority of cases, former Russia Premier and political theorist Vladimir Lenin’s conclusion that quantitative and qualitative labels could be attached to certain industries and the type of workers employed there, thereby enabling for a strike model to be drawn up.
This model was defined by the type of industry, its economic condition, its treatment of workers and shop-floor conditions.
Lenin was the first to provide a qualitative label to some of the industries, says Cottle, adding that he started off by looking at the days lost to production as a result of a strike.
This enabled him to argue that, on the basis of days lost to production and the length of time different workers would stay out of work, those workers who stay out of the workplace the longest were the most persistent to effect change in the workplace.
Lenin, Cottle says, used this measure to identify who the “vanguard” of a workers' movement is, and that, in particular, the workers most likely to strike and to strike for the longest period were the ones most prepared to make sacrifices and challenge capitalist systems.
However, Cottle adds that Lenin also argued that, when there is a significant quantitative change in terms of the number of workers coming out in strike, it would indicate that there had been a change in consciousness.
Prior to reaching such a heightened point in worker consciousness, for example in the prior five to ten years, meant that workers were not willing to come out on strikes as a protectionist measure to preserve their jobs which they may have deemed to be at risk as a result of poor economic or industry conditions at the time, he says.
However, abnormal strike patterns have emerged over the past few years, which Cottle says are being driven by new ideas or policies that workers are demanding, which are distinct from prior strike trends.
As such, he says strikes are now happening in industries where they did not happen before, or perhaps where they did happen but to a much lower degree than in the recent past.
Cottle adds that trends in strike patterns are also being obscured by changes in economic and political demands.
He explains that strikes take place within a specific socioeconomic context and, at the right moment, can be used to trigger major upsurges in the level of working class struggle.
In this regard, Cottle points out that the Western Cape farm workers strike of 2012 was one of the most important strikes of the early twenty-first century in South Africa, as this was the trigger of a social uprising.
Of significance, he says, is that this strike was the first time in post-Apartheid South Africa that struggle at the point of production, rather than at the point of reproduction, provided a powerful movement that engulfed 16 towns and finally forced the hand of government to announce a 52% increase in the official daily minimum wage.
This mass movement of workers and the community was triggered by a strike of 300 unorganised female seasonal workers, which Cottle says, spread spontaneously to other farms before igniting community resistance.