oa Indicator South Africa - The 1973 strikes : how far have we come?

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PARTNERS IN TRADE

S O U T H A F R I C A ’ S T O P F I F T E E N T R A D E P A R T N E R S ,

2 0 0 0 A N D 2 0 0 1 ( R M I L L I O N )

Country

Position

Total

2001

2000 2001 2001

Imports

Exports

United States 1 1 55 424.80 25 839.60 29 585.20

Germany 2 2 51 419.20 32 416.40 A 9 002.80

United Kingdom 3 3 41 952.80 18 263.00 23 689.80

Japan 4 4 33 915.30 14 464.90 19 450.40

Saudi Arabia 5 5 16 028.80 14 974.50 1 054.30

Italy 7 6 14 617.40 7 993.50 6 623.90

Netherlands 9 7 13 894.40 4 094.40, 9.80

France 6 8 12 922.80 9 023.40 3 899.40

Belgium 10 11 9 553.90 3 137.80 6 416.10

Australia 12 10 9 858.10 6 017.00 3 841.10

Iran 11 12 9 180.80 8 677.90 502.90

Taiwan 14 13 8 282.60 4 406.50 3 876.10

Switzerland 13 14 8 034.80 4 031.90 4 002.90

South Korea 15 15 7 941.90 3 890.60 4 051.30

Source: S outh A frican Yearbook o f Interna tiona l A ffairs, 2002/03; SA institute o f International Affairs.

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T h e

1 9 7 3

STRIKES

HOW FAR HAVE WE COME?

The best way to commemorate the 1973 strikes, says

PAT HORN, would be a campaign to improve the lives

of all South African workers.

On Tu e s d a y 9 Ja n u a r y 1 9 7 3 t h e

workers at Coronation Brick in Durban went on strike. They were demanding R30 per week. Their employers offered a small increase, which workers rejected. The next morning the employ­ ers made an improved offer, which workers accepted, and went back to work.

The news spread. Workers, who were largely un-unionised after the repressive 1960s, started to realise that they had power to win their demands if they united and collectively with­ drew their labour. A wave of strikes spread to factories all over Durban. At most of the facto­ ries the workers won increases.1

Employers were divided in their response. Some called in the police. Others suddenly realised just how low the wages of black work­ ers were and preferred to stop the strikes by giv­ ing in to the workers’ demands. Still others tried to find worker leaders to help them speak to the workers - but at most factories workers refused to elect leaders for fear that they would be victimised. This resulted in some employers trying to appoint leaders and spokespeople for their workers.

Some employers tried to get prominent fig­ ures in to tell workers to go back to work - for exam ple, the Coronation Brick employers brought in King Goodw ill Zw elethini. Employers of Indian workers tried to bring in members of the Indian Council. Most employ­ ers asked officials from the Labour Department to come and tell workers to go back to work - largely to no avail. The only person the workers trusted, and who some of the employers lis­

tened to, was Barney Dladla, the Executive Councillor for Community Affairs in the KwaZulu government. He pointed out to employers how unacceptably low the wages of black workers were, and supported most of the workers’ demands - but at the same time he had some credibility with employers because of his position as a KwaZulu government official.4 He was therefore able to convince some of them to improve wages and working conditions, in the absence of trade unions.

On Monday 5 February, 3 000 Durban municipal workers went on strike. They were demanding a wage increase from about R13 per week to R23 per week. The following day they were offered an increase of R2 per week. They refused, and 13 000 more municipal workers joined the strike. M unicipal services suffered as striking workers marched through the streets. After a week, 14 000 workers from other facto­ ries had joined the municipal workers, which meant that there were 30 000 workers on strike. Workers in other parts of Natal, such as Pietermaritzburg and Port Shepstone, were also going on strike.5

By late February the wave of strikes had ended - but in July 1973 some of the Frame fac­ tories went on strike again. Workers wanted another increase, because the increase they had received in January was too small. Frame man­ agement took- a hard line with the strikers and locked them out of the factories for almost a week. After the workers returned to work, ‘ring­ leaders’ were identified and detained by the Security police. One of them was Richard

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Ngcobo, who had worked at Wentex m ill from 1955. In 1971 he had been elected as Vice- Chairperson of the liaison committee. He related his story: “We stood outside the gates for many days - nearly one week. After that time we went inside again. While I was working at my loom, one of the Indian clerks told me that there were some people who wanted to see me. There were two white men outside with civilian clothes. They told me the government wanted to see me, and they took me to the Special Branch office in Fisher Street. They kept me in

STRIKE WAVE

On Thursday 25 January 1073 hundreds of workers met In the factory yard at Frametex in New Germany north of Durban. Working conditions at Frametex were very bad. M r Philip Frame, the owner, had promised an increase alter Christmas, but three weeks later workers were still getting the same wages. The workers wanted to see Mr Frame to make their demands and refused to return to

work.

The Frame group had many textile facto ries in South Africa, known for their bad working conditions. At one factory, the workers had not had an increase for 14 years. The strike quickly spread to the other Frame fac­ tories. The Frametex employers held emergency meet­ ings and offered a small increase, which the workers refused. On Monday 29 January the employers offered a bigger increase, which the workers accepted, and they returned to work. But by now the strike wave had hit the massive Jacobs/Mobeni industrial area on the south

jail for many days and asked me many ques­ tions. They said other workers had said that I started the strike. And they asked me many questions about the African National Congress (ANC) and the old trade unions. After one week, when I came to court, I found that we were five altogether who had been arrested for the same thing. But I was the only one from the works committee. The union got bail for us and they got lawyers to fight our case. After that I went to the factory, only to find that I had been fired. Later we won our case.”6

A f t e r m a t h

Things were never quite the same again after the 1973 strikes. There was a resurgence of trade union organisation among black workers, despite the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1956 w hich stated that the trade unions of black

i

workers could not be registered or part of the established voice regulation system such as Industrial Councils. However, workers had experienced first-hand the truth of the motto “Unity is Strength”. The General Factory Workers Benefit Fund (which was not a union, but more like an advice office where workers came with their problems) in Durban actively formed factory committees, and worked to join workers in the different factories into unions.

Workers from different tex tile factories elected representatives to a meeting convened on 3 March 1973 to establish a union. That meeting set up a committee of two shops'tewards from each factory to draft a constitution for their new union. These developments saw the for­ mation of the Metal and Allied .Workers! Union (MAWU) in May, and the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW) in August 1 9 7 3 .'.These new unions were assisted by some officials from some of the registered unions (for w hite, coloured and Indian workers).7 By the beginning of 1975 there were five black unions with nearly 11 000 members, which formed a new federa­ tion known as TUACC (Trade Union Advisory and Co-ordinating Council). The basic princi­ ples of these unions were:

■ non-racial organisation;

■ strong shop-floor organisation; and ■ worker control.8

side of Durban, where there were many factories, including large textile factories belonging to the Frame group.

By Thursday 1 March, there had been strikes in thirty different factories.2 Student trade unionist, Hafton Cheadle, remarked at the tim e:"... at the top of that road I could see Consolidated Textile M ils and thousands - 1 am not exaggerating - of workers crowding around the Frame headquarters. On the left side there was the Ropes and Mattings factory, and there also thousands of workers standing in the road. 1 was on my way to Natal Cotton Mills, and 1 went past the Metal Box factory as 1 went across to the old main road. Hundreds of workers were standing outside the gates, waving their hands, and a single white man was hiding behind the gates, try­ ing to talk to the workers .. ... The place was completely dead. It had stopped. It was an experience that is very difficult to describe to someone who didn't see it. No-one was working. Everybody was outside on the pave­ ment and in the streets."1

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At the same time, unions were being formed in other parts of the country. In Johannesburg, the B lack A llied Workers Union (BAWU) was formed by students aligned to the B lack C onsciousness Movement in 1972 and the Industrial Aid Society was established by other students as an advice office for workers. In Port Elizabeth, the National Union of Motor, Autom obile and Rubber Workers of South Africa (NUMARWOSA) had been established in 1967. In Cape Town, the Western Province Workers’ Advice Bureau, w hich later became the General Workers’ Union, was also formed by students.9

These developments led the way to the later development of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) and Council of Unions of South A frica-(C U SA ) in 1979, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) in 1985.

There had also been irreversible changes for employers and the state. The employers had had a rude awakening. As one of them said: “It is too jolly difficult to get workers as it is. If the workers at only one factory strike, it is easy for us to sack those workers, send them back to the homelands, and find other workers. But in the Durban strikes workers at a lot of factories went

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on strike together. So it was not easy for us to find the workers we wanted. ”10

/The state had become involved because !

some employers called in the police when they could not control the strikes in their factories.I When municipal workers jwent on strike and large numbers of workers started marching (albeit peacefully) through the streets armed with sticks and chanting “Usuthu!”, the defence force was also called in to keep order.

To avoid a recurrence of such large-scale wild-cat strikes where no easily discernible leadership could be identified, there had to be a way of communicating with workers or their leaders, However, as the M inister of Labour, Marais Viljoen, said, recognition of African trade unions was “out o f the qu estion”.11 During the next few years, elaborate legislation allowing for the formation of factory-based ‘works committees’ and ‘liaison committees’

was passed to create plant-level channels of communication between employers and their employees. These operated under the ultimate control of the employers, who determined the terms under which the committees in their fac­ tories would operate.

This ushered in a period of protracted local struggles between the emerging trade union movement of black workers, employers and the state. The unions made use of the factory com­ m ittees and successfully lobbied for union shopstewards to be elected onto the liaison and works committees, thereby in actuality forcing recalcitrant employers to deal with elected union leaders on the shop floor on limited issues such as protective clothing,

tea breaks, canteen and toilet facili­ ties. But workers now wanted their unions to be recognised for the pur­ poses of collective bargaining of all wages and working conditions. The state becam e involved when employers identified troublesome unions officials or worker leaders

who found themselves being followed by the Security police, detained without trial in terms of the notorious Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, or banned in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act.

This war of attrition looked as if it could continue indefinitely - but the course of history took another turn when students in Soweto protested against the discriminatory apartheid education system on 16 June 1976, resulting in a protracted uprising of school and university students w hich almost brought the country to its knees. Coming so soon after the 1973 strikes, the state read the writing on the wall. It realised that if workers and students were to join forces and start forming political alliances, they could bring the apartheid government down.

In a considered act of self-preservation, the state decided to enter into a new phase of labour law reform, which was to include some limited form of recognition of the trade unions of black workers. The now-famous Wiehahn Commission recommended that black workers’ trade unions should be able to register like other unions and become part of the official industrial conciliation

Th e s t a t e r e a d t h e

WRITING ON THE WALL.

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machinery of the country. Based on these rec­ ommendations, labour legislation was reformed in 1979, allowing for racially segregated unions of black workers to register and be recognised. MAWU mounted a successful High Court chal­ lenge to the racial terms of registration. In 1983, the last obstacles to the recognition of the unions of black workers were removed and the new trade union movement entered as a major player in the official labour relations system of South Africa.

W h e r e a r e w e n o w ?

Thirty years after the 1973 strikes, there is a worker-friendly government in power (while there are those who would dispute this state­ ment, the ANC government is worker-friendly relative to the apartheid government). So is that the end of the story? Are workers in South Africa living happily ever after ?

The story of the 1973 strikes is a localised, limited story. Looking at the bigger picture, which includes the way in which capitalism has developed in a globalising world, a number of other factors become obvious.

Neo-liberal economic measures and policies have become the order of the day among

devel-A LONG Wdevel-AY TO GO

Major inequalities still exist in South Africa (even though the inequalities are no longer so starkly based on race). The major­ ity of the working class still lives in abject poverty.

Approximately three million of South Africa's labour force of just over 11 million work in the informal economy (four million if one considers domestic workers to be part of the informal economy). Most of these workers are not organised, and there­ fore have little or no say in their wages and working conditions, They are probably as poor (if not more so) as those underpaid black workers in the 1960s prior to the 1973 strikes. Even among unionised workers, the prevailing environment of work insecurity seriously limits their bargaining power and ability to secure decent wages and working conditions.

Another factor which was largely unknown in 1973 was the existence of AIDS and the HIVirus. Today, South Africa bears the distinction of being the country with the largest number of people infected with HIV/AIDS - many in the economically active age-groups. Apart fronj creating a new phenomenon of child-headed households, this has also added large numbers to the dependants most economically active adults have to sup- I port, whether they work in the formal or the informal economy, i

oping countries trying to carve their space in global markets. Deregulation, flexibilisation and liberalisation measures have resulted in the loss of thousands of formal jobs and an increase in informal, casual, seasonal, temporary, part-time and home-based work. Unionised workers who lose oi leave secure formal jobs and end up in precarious informal work find themselves with­ out a union or any form of organisation capable of su ccessfully taking up work issues or addressing their problems. There are few trade unions in South Africa organising workers in these sectors of work. There are many associa­ tions, such as taxi associations, street traders’ associations, traditional healers’ associations, etc, but these often lack the representivity or capacity to engage in collective bargaining which trade unions usually have.

Many of the porkers who went on strike in 1973 were womqn - particularly in the textile factories. While, the issue of racial discrimina­ tion in wage scales was at the heart of the strikes, gender discrim ination was not. As the trade union movement grew and the women’s movement emerged, gender discrimination at the workplace - not only with regard to wage rates, but in relation to all working conditions including retirement benefits, etc, - increas­ ingly found its way onto collective bargaining agendas.

Formal racial and gender discrim ination have continued to be systematically attacked by organised workers in the formal economy. However, in the South Africa of today it is diffi­ cult not to notice the large numbers of women in informal work in every town. These women eke out a subsistence in conditions w hich fallI beyond the scope of the now-powerful' trade union movement to address. Many became sole breadwinners for their families as a matter of necessity, as male breadwinners progressively lost their formal employment and then battled to find other work.

W h a t c a n t r a d e u n i o n s d o?

If we were to conduct an intensive survey of the tens of thousands of workers who were involved in the 1973 strikes, what would we find? Are they and their descendants better off than they

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were then?

Thirty years after 1973, the goalposts have shifted for South African workers. The social ills they face are no longer unique to South Africa, but are the same ones faced by workers in every other country'in the globalising world.

Are the w orkers’ organisations of today ready? What kind of role is there - specifically for the trade union movement as the representa­ tive of workers in society? Are the unions capa­ ble of taking on new challenges, or do they still need to change their mindset or transform them­

selves?

The union movement has not been very suc­ cessful at organising workers in the informal economy. Instead, employers are avoiding the reach of the unions by engaging more flexible, casual, temporary and sub-contracted labour.

The trade union movement is engaged in active civil society struggles for treatment for HIV/AIDS sufferers as well as prevention - but the movement has no special advantage or extra leverage when it comes to tackling the pan­

demic.

The 30th anniversary of the 1973 strikes is a good moment for South African workers to reflect on the situation that faced workers in 1973. Black factory workers were not unionised. Nevertheless they were able to learn from one another, strike on a large scale and win their demands for wage increases - and thus provide the impetus for forging greater levels of unity,- renewing and rebuilding the trade union move­

ment.

In a way, workers can bejsaid to have arrived again at a similar point in 2003. There is again a need for workers to unite across new boundaries - organised workers and unorganised workers, formal workers and workers in the informal economy, women and men - and. fight together for the common issues which affect them, such as work security, income security, food security, access to proper HIV/AIDS treatment and pre­ ventative measures, and social security. There is again a need to renew, rebuild and expand the

trade union movement so that it encompasses and represents the wider working class - not only employees in the formal economy who have fixed employment with fixed employers.

Many of the building blocks are already in place for such an expanded trade union move­ ment. The mainstream trade union movement in South Africa is highly conscious of its responsibility to lead a struggle of the wider working class - not only its members. The new social movements w hich have emerged in South Africa have developed new and different organising strategies for struggling for the basic needs of the poor. They are organising workers in the informal economy, the homeless and the landless. These new organising strategies need to be embraced by the larger, unified trade

union movement.

The most appropriate way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 1973 strikes would be for the trade union movement (including unions organising workers in the informal econ­ omy) and the new social movements to launch a joint campaign for work security, income security, food security and social security (which should include HIV/AIDS treatment and other forms of health security). The practical demands comprising each of the four forms of security may need to vary according to the work and social situation of different participants in the campaign, and would need to be developed at people’s forums in order to maximise popular participation throughout the campaign.

Such a campaign would be more than a ret­ rospective or commemorative celebration of an historic event. It holds the potential to re­ engage all workers who were part of the 1973 strikes who are still alive, and involve them and their children in a very practical way in a con­ tinuation of their struggle for a better life for the wider working class. It holds the possibility of re-igniting and harnessing the energy and momentum which was unleashed so unexpect­ edly, so dramatically and effectively in 1973, for

a new phase into the future.

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Pat Horn is the International Co-ordinator of StreetNet International

alliance of street vendors

,

and founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Union

(SEWU) a trade union for women in the informal economy established in Durban,

South Africa, in 1994. She joined the trade

union

movement in Durban in 1976 -

in the aftermath of the 1973 strikes - was banned by the government from 1976 to

1981, at the end of which she returned to work as an organiser in the Paper

Wood & Allied Workers Union (PWAWU) and the Chemical Workers Industrial

Union (CWIU) in KwaZulu-Natal from 1982 to 1991.

Email: phaps@netactive.co.za

1 Labour History Group. 198?. Dmbm Strikes, Sait 6 Ibid (page 27) River {pages 9 -1 # ) 7 Ibid (pages 30

2 Ibid {pages 15/18) 8 Ibid (page 35) 3 Ibid [page 17) 9 Ibid {page 2 9) 4 Ibid (pages 17 ~ 20) 10 Ibid (page 32) S Ibid (pages 20 - 22) 14 Ibid (page 32)

U

s e f u l

I

n t e r n e t

L

i n k s

www.nu.ac.za/indicator

■ http://w ww.cranefield.ac.za/htm l/w eihahn_cv.htm l fo r a

penpic of Professor N ic Wiehahn.

■ http://disa.nu.ac.za is the hom e of the Digital Im aging

Project of South Africa housed at the Cam pbell

Collections, University of Natal. The site includes a com ­

m em oration of th e Durban Strikes. And, in addition to

other m aterial, searching the journals turns up the

acronyms feature.

■ A historical account of th e South African trade unions

between 1970 and 1990 by Jerom e T. Barrett and A nne

Finbarr M ullin s can be found at

http://w w w .bls.gov/opub/m lr/1990/10/art3abs.htm on the

United States Bureau of Labor Statistics website

■ Another v ie w o f the em ergence of South African trade

unions and w h ere they now stand is provided by

Geoffrey W ood at

http://w w w .historycooperative.org/journals/llt/47/06w ood

.html on the History Cooperative site.

■ And a perspective on the futu re role of South African

trade unions by Kobus Slabbert is at

http://general.rau.ac.za/aam beeld/novem ber1999/A am N

99-11.htm

The W ar On Poverty is said to be South Africa's most

im portant priority and our greatest challenge. At

http://w w w .undp.org.za/docs/reports/w opdecl.htm l on

the United N ations developm ent P rogram m e site, a

report outlines the plan and lists the signatories includ­ ing then President Mandela

■ The South A frica.info site carries an ove rview o f ,South

African trad e unionism at i

http://www.safrica.info/doing_business/econom y/

key_sectors/tradeunions.htm ;

http://www.num sa,org.za is Numsa's hom e page and

http://w ww.cosatu.org.za/ is COSATU's hom e page

w h ile http://www.cosatu.org.za/shop/ss040B-14.html

provides inform ation and short histories of its affiliates

■ Nactu's hom e page is http://www.nactu.org.za

j

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Figure

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