The "Double-edged Sword" of Institutional Power: COSATU, Neo-liberalisation and the Right to Strike

  • Carin Runciman University of Johannesburg


On 1 January 2019 amendments to the Labour Relations Act came into force that significantly altered and curtailed the right to protected strike action in South Africa. Internationally, the right to strike has been eroded in recent years with many countries adopting legal provisions that violate the International Labour Organization’s principles. Comparatively, the rights of South African workers to go on protected strikes remain better than many other places in the world, a reflection of the militant history of the South African labour movement. But the erosion of these rights, with the active support of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, should be a cause for concern for activists and labour scholars in South Africa and beyond. This article develops the Power Resources Approach to consider how union institutional power has entrenched neo-liberalism in South Africa. Grounding the analysis of institutional power within the analytical framework of corporatism allows this article to develop an analysis of institutional power that is attentive to class forces. This provides an avenue for understanding the “double-edged sword” of institutional power in the South African context in order to comprehend when and under what circumstances trade unions advance and defend the interests of the working class and when they defend those of capital.

 KEY WORDS: labour; neo-liberalism; institutional power; corporatism; South Africa