Precarious Workers and Students Solidarity in Action Against Outsourcing: A Case of (Partial) Victories in Johannesburg's Higher Education Institutions.

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 16:15
Oral Presentation
Francesco PONTARELLI, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
In 2015 and 2016, ‘FeesMustFall’ and ‘OutsourcingMustFall’ movements mobilised students and precarious workers across South Africa’s higher education sector. Even though the movement started against fee increases and developed into the call for free decolonised quality education, it rapidly included the rejection of the exploitative working conditions of outsourced workers. Outsourcing labour relations were implemented in SA tertiary institutions in late 1990s - early 2000s and affected mainly the so-called ‘non-core’ services (such as cleaning, security, catering and gardening). During the last fifteen years, despite the constant challenge against highly precarious working conditions by different forms of workers’ organisation, unions, as well as grassroots solidarity forums, it is only in the wake of the national mass movement (without the support of traditional labour organisations) that workers secured significant victories. Side-lined by public sector trade unions, outsourced workers in SA universities found in the momentum created by the student’s movement and in the activism of radical youth an empowering partner in challenging the economic imperatives of the neoliberal education system. Student activists, despite their status as ‘class in transition’, were able to provide more effective support compared to the institutionalised and corporativist approach of traditional unions present in the education sector. From a series of in-depth interviews to capture experiences of students and workers, this paper explores the complex process of building solidarity in the University Johannesburg and University of Witwatersrand. The construction and consolidation of identities in alliance, which saw a complex interaction between race and class, was paramount for the mobilisation of a successful struggle. A struggle that was able to shift the practices of the ruling classes and to briefly establish the dominance of ‘the political’ over the ‘the economic’ in a context of ‘organic crisis’ of the African National Congress.