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Organising on the periphery: new sources of power in the South African workplace

Karl von Holdt (Sociology of Work Programme, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa)
Edward Webster (Sociology of Work Programme, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa)

Employee Relations

ISSN: 0142-5455

Article publication date: 27 June 2008

Abstract

Purpose

Is labour's decline permanent, or is it merely a temporary weakening, as Beverley Silver suggests in her recent book, as the labour movement is unmade and remade in different locations and at different times? The article aims to examine this question in South Africa, one of the newly industrialised countries of the 1960s and 1970s, now largely bypassed by new manufacturing investment destined for countries such as India and China.

Design/methodology/approach

The paper concentrates, through six case studies, on the growing non‐core and peripheral zones of work and examines the impact of the restructuring on labour.

Findings

The evidence presented is ambiguous. While there have been significant innovative union organising experiments, it may be that the structural weakening of labour has been too great and that the new sources of power are too limited, to permit effective reorientation.

Practical implications

It is concluded that significant progress will only be made if there is a concerted effort to commit resources and above all to develop new associational strategies that recognise the potential for symbolic power as an alternative to the erosion of structural power of workers and the unions that represent them. Unless such a shift is made the crisis of labour movements internationally may be better understood as a permanent crisis than the temporary one Silver suggests.

Originality/value

The paper identities the potential for new strategies to develop and sustain associational and symbolic power that might compensate for weakened structural power and facilitate a remaking of the labour movement under new conditions.

Keywords

Citation

von Holdt, K. and Webster, E. (2008), "Organising on the periphery: new sources of power in the South African workplace", Employee Relations, Vol. 30 No. 4, pp. 333-354. https://doi.org/10.1108/01425450810879330

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited