TWO THOUSAND BLACK WORKERS at Coronation Brick and Tile in Durban went on strike in January 1973. They could not know that their action to demand a modest wage increase would ultimately transform workers’ struggle in South Africa. They launched a process of concerted unionisation of black workers. Together with the mobilisation of black students, it created the most militant and best-organised constituencies of the mass movement that defeated white minority rule.
At the time, the strike and the ensuing wave of industrial action seemed completely unexpected. Following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, black trade unions experienced sharp decline. Only a relatively small number of strikes occurred throughout the decade. White minority rule was apparently firmly entrenched, premised on violence and segregation.
However, below the surface of this apparent stability of apartheid capitalism, a new mood of black working-class defiance was beginning to simmer. The first major point of eruption was in Durban.
Strikes in 1969 and 1972 by Durban dockworkers for higher wages were signs of the role the city’s black working class would play in the struggle against capital. The historic strike at Coronation Brick and Tile triggered a wave of strikes there and in the surrounding regions: between January and March, over 60,000 workers were involved in about 160 strikes, primarily in the textiles and engineering sectors.
Confronted by this unexpected expression of workers’ power, many employers awarded wage increases. These unprecedented successes reverberated across the country, inspiring other workers to follow suit. In 1973 there were a reported 370 strikes, which increased to 384 the following year. This dwarfed the annual average number of strikes of the previous decade.
This wave of strikes also marked the beginning of a decisive shift in the consciousness of black workers who now openly challenged baaskap in workplaces. Still, the road ahead remained incredibly difficult. A less well-known and relatively small strike by miners in September 1973 at AA Western Deep Levels was violently put down by the police. 12 miners died. Clearly, the apartheid state was determined to remind black workers of its power.
The eruption of workers’ militancy coincided with initiatives in various parts of the country to organise black workers. In 1972, Black Consciousness activists formed the Black Allied Workers Union. Even sections of the conservative TUCSA began to take steps to support the unionisation of African workers. A handful of former SACTU members also connected with these new developments. Crucial were university students who were radicalised by the New Left movement in Europe, anti-colonial struggles and the birth of Black Consciousness. They turned their attention to build new black trade unions. It was the combination of militancy and organisation that was the catalyst for the transformation of workers’ struggles.
Employers responded to the upsurge in strikes by establishing more than 2,000 liaison committees. These were supposed to create channels of communication between workers and management. Until then, the majority of employers refused to bargain with black workers. Now they desperately sought to restrain the emerging militant movement by co-opting workers into powerless structures. Most workers rejected this belated ploy by employers to undermine their efforts to create independent and worker-controlled organisations.
Instead, they busied themselves with the important, and often arduous task, of building their own trade unions. In the two years following the historic strikes, a new generation of independent black trade unions was created: the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU), National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW), Chemical Workers’ Industrial Union (CWIU) and Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU).
In addition, the Trade Union Advisory Co-Ordinating Council (TUACC) and the Western Province Workers Advice Bureau (WPWAB) were established to facilitate unionisation and to offer administrative and education support to such endeavours. These organisations constituted the core of the nascent union movement. Within these structures, intense debates occurred about the most appropriate strategies to build unions. These included debates over the registration of unions and the advantages of industrial or general unions.
Building new unions was hard work, especially in conditions of repression when association with unions could lead to summary dismissals or arrest. Despite many challenges, workers and their allies remained committed to the daily work of unions: of recruiting, dealing with grievances, building democratic structures at workplaces, education and organising campaigns such as for recognition, maternity rights and against retrenchment.
The initial development of the unions was usually quite slow. Sometimes, however, important breakthroughs occurred that drastically improved conditions for organising. For example, in 1974 the NUTW won formal recognition at the company Smith & Nephew, the first of its kind. As Paula Ensor recently commented, black women, who faced extreme exploitation in the Frame textile factories, were key actors in challenging abhorrent working conditions and in building the NUTW and other unions. By 1975 the new unions had made important organisational gains. These were reflected in the numbers of paid-up members: NUTW (7,000), MAWU (5,000), CWIU (2,300) and TGWU (20,000). These were modest numbers, but they signalled a sea change in the organisation of black workers.
From repression to revival
Repression and reform were always two sides of the apartheid state’s strategy to keep the black majority in check. From the mid-1970s, the authorities moved to weaken the new unions by unleashing a new wave of repression. Unionists were harassed, detained and banned.
Emboldened by the state’s kragdadigheid (brute force), employers also became more intransigent. As a result, for a few years the growth of unions stalled and paid-up membership declined. Together with the violence against black students, particularly in 1976 and 1977, it seemed the state may have again crushed the liberation movement. In fact, this period proved to be only a brief lull in the revival of the working class organisations. Both the strikes of 1973 and the student struggles of 1976 gave birth to new defiance that could not easily be crushed. Even as hundreds of activists were being detained and leaders, like Steve Biko, killed, effort to organise persisted.
On the union front, an important development occurred from the mid to late 1970s as the new unions began to establish footholds in the PWV (Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging – what is now Gauteng), the industrial heartland of the country. MAWU in particular registered important successes: in 1976 it struggled to maintain 1,000 paid-up members but by 1979 its membership had grown to 4,000, including 1,000 in the PWV. In the Western Cape, the FCWU and AFCWU experienced revival. This was shown in the Fattis & Monis strike that witnessed the forging of a strategic alliance between workers and students. By 1980 the combined membership of these two unions stood at 20,000. The WPGWU, established in 1977, also experienced a surge in membership, reaching 16,000 in 1981.
An important milestone was reached in 1979 with the launch of FOSATU, a national federation of the most important militant unions. Its membership was a relatively modest 45,000, but it already had a strong tradition of independence and shopfloor democracy. Two other smaller national union formations also emerged around the same time – the Council of Unions of SA and SAAWU, which was mainly based in East London.
Their formation pre-empted a strike wave that eclipsed the rash of strikes of 1973-74. In 1980, SAAWU engaged in a number of strikes in East London. These included the strike at Wilson Rowntree that also involved a national boycott campaign. Motor industry workers also flexed their muscles, especially at the Uitenhage plant, where 8,000 workers went on strike to demand higher wages. In the PWV, Putco drivers, municipal employees and engineering and chemical workers also joined the strike wave for higher wages, against retrenchments and for union recognition.
One outcome of this new upsurge was that by 1981 FOSATU unions had signed 130 recognition agreements, something that seemed impossible only a few years before. Nearly a decade after the historic Durban strikes, black workers had built formidable unions in the face of state repression and managerial authoritarianism. Moreover, many of them were led and controlled by workers. Active and accountable shop steward committees were the lifeblood of the new unions and the main source of authority in the ongoing struggles against employers. Union meetings were festivals of democracy, of debates about politics and the strategies of unions. Leaders were generally held accountable and officials served the needs of workers. Although uneven, these democratic traditions were the mainstay of the unions.
Today, unfortunately, these tenets of worker-controlled unions have been undermined and broken, and replaced by bureaucratically-controlled structures. Only a return to the basics of democracy and militancy can put the unions on a new and necessary path of revival.
Noor Nieftagodien is the Head of the History Workshop at Wits University and a member of the Amandla! Collective.