The dramatic growth of South Africa’s independent trade unions in the past three years challenges the apartheid system at its roots. In purely industrial terms the independent unions, consisting mainly of black workers, have forced major national and multinational companies to grant them full recognition. They have won substantial wage rises, defeated government legislation and launched strike actions in factory after factory across the country.
In political terms the struggle of the independent unions is of even greater, longer term significance. As their demands move from industrial to community and political issues, their role in the wider struggle against apartheid assumes critical importance.
The South African government s response to the growing power of the independent trade union movement has been entirely predictable. The past few years have seen a sharp increase in arrests of union leaders followed by detention without trial, the use of repressive security legislation and police involvement in labour disputes. In February this year Dr Neil Aggett, an official of the Food and Canning Workers Union, was found hanged to death in his prison cell at police headquarters in Johannesburg. He had been detained 70 days earlier by the security police and was the 51 st detainee (and the first white) to have died in police custody in South Africa since 1963.
The prime target for government harassment is the South African Allied Workers’ Union (SAAWU), the most overtly political of the independent unions. Based in the East London area, SAAWU has 50,000 members and has been termed ‘as much a mass movement as a union’. A spokesman explains: ‘SAAWU is a trade union dealing with workers who are part and parcel of the community. Transport and rents to be paid are also workers’ issues. The problems of the workplace go outside the workplace’.
SAAWU has taken militant stands on community and political issues outside the purely industrial field Most controversially, it has challenged the government ‘homelands’ policy and in particular opposed the establishment of the Ciskei Bantustan in which many of its members live. (The Ciskei gained ‘independence’ from South Africa in 1981.) ‘There can be no normal unionism in an abnormal society,’ says SAAWU.
SAAWU’s leaders are often imprisoned and finish up needing hospital treatment for injuries sustained during police custody. Currently the union’s President Thozamile Gqweta, General Secretary Sam Kikine, and National Organiser Sisa Njikelana are facing charges of contravening the Terrorism Act.
Whether SAAWU can survive as both an industrial and a political organisation is open to question. On present trends there is a danger it might suffer the same fate as the black unions of 20 years ago, which collapsed through a combination of government repression and weak internal organisation. Leading black unionist Joe Foster stressed these fears recently, warning that unions building popular fronts with the community were making ‘a great strategic error’ which would ‘weaken, if not destroy, worker organisation’ - Foster believes unions must first build a strong base and’use the strength of the factory organisation to allow workers to play an effective role in the community’.
Foster is General Secretary of FOSATU (see box). Currently the largest confederation of independent unions, FOSATU was established in 1979 and its membership has since shot up to 95,000 workers organised in 390 factories. The membership is mainly black and its affiliated unions are strong in the industrial sector, organising workers in the car, metal, food, transport and textile industries. A clear indication of FOSATU’s growing strength is the number of companies which recognise its affiliates’ shop stewards and negotiating rights — 130 to date.
FOSATU’s rapid growth is due largely to its ability to win factory disputes. A notable example was the dispute in 1981 between the FOSTATU-affiliated Chemical Workers Industrial Union (CWIU) and the management of the Colgate Palmolive plant in Boksburg The struggle. which lasted 14 months, began when the company refused to recognise the CWIU because it was not officially registered with the government. Eventually the company gave in on this score but on condition that the union negotiated at an Industrial Council — the government forum that preempts shopfloor bargaining and is bitterly opposed by the independent unions.
The CWIU immediately rejected this condition and launched a two-pronged attack on the company — a consumer boycott of Colgate products and preparations for a legal strike. The boycott rapidly gained momentum. Within a fortnight thousands of workers sported boycott stickers on their overalls and carried posters to work supporting the CWIU. Traders removed Colgate products from their shelves and whole communities were mobilised behind the boycott call.
Other employers began to fear the outbreak of a wave of sympathy strikes. Under great pressure, with just two days left before the strike was due, Colgate Palmolive relented and agreed to negotiate with the CWIU outside the Industrial Council. The company said it had to ‘recognise the reality of the situation’. FOSATU commented: ‘The Colgate Palmolive dispute was a turning point in South Africa’s industrial relations. It punched a great hole in the collective solidarity of employers. - - Such victories are earning FOSATU growing support from black workers’.
In the industrial sphere, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) urges its members to support the struggle of black workers to gain recognition agreements for their unions and to back them during disputes ‘by appropriate solidarity action e.g. intervention with headquarters management boycotts etc.’ This form of action, carried out in a systematic and sustained way, can also be successful.
In 1981, for example, leading British trade unionists protested to British Leyland’ s head office in London over the dismissal of 1,900 non white workers during a wage dispute in two plants of its South African subsidiary in Cape Town. The intervention was successful BL Ltd instructed its subsidiary to reopen talks with the local union to settle the dispute and reemploy the dismissed workers. Agreement has since been reached on their phased reemployment In September last year Australian transport workers and dockers achieved a remarkable victory when they completely stopped all trade between South Africa and Australia for a week, leading to the release of 200 trade unionists arrested in East London.
During the past 18 months the British labour movement has supported SAAWU’s claims for recognition by Rowntree Wilson, the South African subsidiary of the British confectionery giant Rowntree Mackintosh. Pressure is still mounting on both the parent company and its South African subsidiary to recognise SAAWU and reemploy over 500 black workers whose dismissal started the dispute.
The issue of visits by trade unionists to and from South Africa has caused much controversy. FOSATU, however, welcomes such interchanges, provided they are based on concrete needs and carry forward the struggle for workers in South Africa to win the same rights as have been won by workers in other countries’.
Despite harassment and repression by the authorities, South Africa’s independent trade union movement continues to grow in size and influence. The movement has strengthened the collective bargaining power of black workers and is becoming a strong rallying point for opponents of the apartheid system in the workplace and society. It has also widened divisions within the Afrikaner political establishment. Dr Andries Treurnicht, leader of the breakaway Conservative Party, accuses the Nationalist Party government of allowing black unions to win the power which will lead to the downfall of white rule in South Africa The accuracy of his prediction remains to be seen.
David Ward works for the World
Trade Union lnternationalism. By John Logue, Kent Popular Press, Kent, 1980. Traces the historical sources of trade union internationalism back to patterns of mobility of skilled labour in nineteenth century Europe.
The International Directory of the Trade Union Movement. By A. P Coldrick and Philip Jones, MacMillan, 1979.
Unity is Strength. By James Dunkerley and Chris Whitehouse, Latin America Bureau. London, 1980. Lively, informative, well-illustrated account of trade unions in Latin America.
Women Workers in Asia: Struggling to Survive. Christian Conference of Asia-Urban Rural Mission, Hong Kong, 1981. How women factory workers in five Asian countries are treated by their multinational employers and how they are organising in response.
The Coca Cola-Guatemala Campaign 1979—1981. By the International Union of Food and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), Geneva, 1981. A superb account, with newspaper articles and photos, of the international action organised by the JUF to secure full recognition for the workers’ union at the Coca Cola plant in Guatemala City.
Architect or Bee? By Mike Coolet; Langley Technical Services, Slough, UK. 1980. Includes an account of why Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards drew up their Alternative Corporate Plan.
Newsletter of International Labour Studies. Quarterly publication edited by Peter Waterman, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Holland. Very useful newsletter disseminating information about workers in Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Europe.