The South African labour movement’s strength has often been attributed to the vitality of local democratic structures and institutionalised mechanisms of worker control that govern unions affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Workers and shop-stewards continue to participate actively in local union activities and sustain democratic processes but, in an apparent contradiction, the arrival of political democracy has been associated with a decline in the intensity and vitality of local union democracy. As a result the model of union democracy is shifting from participatory to representative.
This article draws on the results of the fourth leg of a longitudinal survey of COSATU members and shop-stewards and compares these results with surveys conducted in 1994, 1998 and 2003. The article explores the functioning of union democracy at the workplace and compares the attitudes of ordinary members and their elected representatives. At issue is whether this decline in the intensity of shop-floor democracy has resulted in a growing representation gap between workers and their elected representatives. The article concludes by examining the implications for union democracy of the recruitment of a large proportion of shop stewards into the South African Communist Party.