THE ‘SUBS’ STEWARD - “a fine leader to workers in all areas”

The Food and Canning Workers' Union was established in 1941 and was open to all races. We had African members, we had Indian members, and we had European members. We had one committee representing ALL the workers. When I first started working in the factory the union had just started. I did not really show an interest in anything, including the union. I didn't get involved with the union from the beginning, because at first I didn't understand why I must join the union and what a union is. I just knew that I had to pay my subs, and even when there were meetings sometimes I did not want to go.

In those days the employers and the government were very tough on anyone who tried to organize workers. One day a woman came to the factory gate to see someone she knew - Daphne 2. She asked her about the conditions in the factory and told Daphne that she wanted to do something for the workers and asked her to get a group of people together so that she could speak to them. This woman was Ray Alexander. Ray went about it very tactfully by not calling large numbers of workers together. She met with some people at their homes and asked them to spread the message to the other workers. She explained how we could set up a union to fight for better conditions.

Those were difficult times because you could not get the workers to register, because the employer and the government were watching you. It was very difficult to get halls for meetings, because they really didn't like the union because the union is fighting for the workers' rights. One night Ray came out but she couldn't get a place for a meeting so she asked this comrade to drive her and she said that she will wait for us on the bank of the Berg River. She put on the lights in the car and she enrolled the workers. That is how we started our branch in Daljosophat in 1941.

From there the union started to organize factories in Paarl like H. Jones. The union grew from area to area. If we organized Ashton or Montague we'll take sub-stewards from Paarl, sub-stewards from Wellington. Paarl had a strong trade union in the community. The community of Paarl was very active, even the trade union. If you were a factory worker, you were a member of the trade union, and at home you were a member of the community. That really worked. The community also went to the trade union for help and for advice. You could always go and ask them to explain something.

Things improved a little once the union got recognition. Employers could not refuse to meet us to discuss worker issues once we were registered. From there the union came in and negotiated agreements with improvements every three years. I can't say there was complete improvement but there was some improvement. After the union started we fought for unemployment insurance, we fought for sick pay, for protective clothing, for a confinement allowance. We didn't get them all at the same time but the fight went on. We didn't get everything we wanted but at least we went forward.

Ray Alexander signed up union members on the bank of the Berg River using the lights of the mayor's car

When I started to work I was shy and never participated in union meetings, but later on I realised that something was wrong but I could not put my finger on it. Working in the factory and seeing injustices by employers against workers – long hours, little pay, no facilities, mothers having to sit and breastfeed babies in the field, and bad treatment, shouting at the workers. Why is it so difficult to find work? Why do we get up so early and work till late without being shown any appreciation? What is the problem, and how can we overcome the problem? All this made me realize that things are not right and workers are not getting a fair share. Something needed to be done to give workers a better chance.

I was always elected on deputations to the employers. One day when we had a wages discussion I was very cross because the employers didn't want to give an increase. I was fighting the bosses very hard and Ray spoke to me and said that I must become a ‘subs' steward and must take more part in the negotiations. Afterwards I was elected as ‘subs' steward and on a shop-floor committee that took worker problems to management. I was 21. The duty of the ‘subs' steward was to collect the subscriptions from the workers every Friday after they're paid. You had to sit in the cloakroom and wait until the last worker had paid their subs before you could go home. From that time, Ray and I worked together. We still had a working relationship after she was banned.

The white supervisors were very harsh. If you had a problem with a worker for the first time, they watched you. And once it happened a second time - you must know there will not be a third time - the third time they show you the door. Most of the supervisors could not speak English but most of the people from the union who came to meetings or discussed complaints with them were English speaking. Whenever Ray or Becky [Lan] went to talk to them and spoke to them in English, they would just say ‘yes' and ‘no' and then run to fetch someone who can speak a little bit of English.

Because of their attitudes you could not really talk to the supervisors. Whenever they saw a shop-steward they knew it was a complaint. They were not prepared to sit down and talk to you. You had to stand and talk to them. They would walk from one side to the other and you had to run after them like a dog to get them to listen to your case. That really bothered me.

One day an executive member and I took a complaint to management and the manager said, ‘Here you must work.' He had this attitude that you are a slave and you just have to work. I told him, ‘Do you think one must work yourself to death and after three weeks you must stay at home for six months?' So, there was never a good relationship between management and us. Things were very bad then.

I always said we must unite and act so that these problems could be solved. It is better if there is a union that there is an agreement, because then you act in accordance with the agreement. There is a clause in the agreement that states that if you, as workers, do not adhere to the agreement then the employers have the right to take you to court; and you (as workers) have the same right to take the employers to court if they don't adhere to the agreement.

There was a strike at the H. Jones factory in Paarl because one of the committee members was dismissed. During the strike Ray had to come out many times to negotiate. The owner threw her out a few times but she persisted and persisted. The employers hired white workers [as scabs] but the fruit made their hands black and the work was too much for them. After one day they told the employers they were not prepared to work again. Some then came to speak to the coloured workers and discussed how difficult it was for coloured workers in the factory. The owner then realized he was losing a lot so they negotiated a settlement.

One day in September 1953 the union came to the factory and told us that Ray is banned - and that is the time that I really took an interest in the struggle as a whole because I was thinking, why did the government ban Ray, WHY? Ray always only tried to get a better living for the workers, better wages and better living conditions. I started to think that there's something wrong and if we don't do something about it, many terrible things are going to happen. I got cross and then I really got involved in the union. From then on I always tried to march forward and not to go backwards again or we would not achieve anything for our workers or our country.

In the factory the committee was mainly women because men were not prepared to serve. It was difficult for women to get involved in the union in an official capacity because of having a family, having a house. It was also very difficult organizing women in the 50s and 60s because they were used to staying at the home but they realized they should be in an organization because they have so many problems.

If women think about their burden and how difficult it is to bring up their families on low wages and under bad conditions they must be determined to go forward, and join other women, and men, in the fight for better wages to feed and build a better future for their family. Once you join any organization you take on responsibilities if you are determined to achieve anything. There are three things to build on in organisations: determination, reliability and discipline. If we can do this we will build strong organisations and women must never step back because we are the people that suffer the most.

Working women must always look forward and march forward. Even if our men don't want to march with us now they will at a later stage. We were fighting difficult battles as women's committees, and therefore the workers had a lot of confidence in us.

Men were not very supportive initially in the factory because they asked ‘what can women do? What can they show us? We are men; women can't do what we can't.' Later on when men saw that women took issues to management, even men's problems, and even resolved men's problems, men realized that their role is to stand together with us to improve things. Then they accepted the women's efforts ‘half-half'.

While I was working in the factory the union helped other organizations in launching FEDSAW (Federation of South African Women). I was elected to represent our union and felt proud that so many women came together to build a strong organization to bring relief to women.

I think there was a great need to organise women because women were much oppressed, more than men. Not to discriminate against men, but women had a larger challenge to face than men as mother, worker and wife. Women have been oppressed by the government, oppressed by the employers and some by their own husbands.

It's very necessary for women to be organised and to be united, so that women can assist each other to help them with problems. We had to work because men's wages were so low. And women feel the hardship more because they are the person that keeps the family together. It was difficult because the government always came down with an iron hand to destroy anything that we tried to do to improve conditions for women. But the women went through a lot and persisted and persisted. At a later point we demonstrated that we could get things right through strong organization and standing together.

The regime was very harsh and once you came into conflict with them you knew that you were going to get it. When they banned our president, Frank Marquard, in 1954 I could not understand why, because everything that he had done was for the good of our people, and he tried to improve the lives of the workers. They called a meeting and the people, myself included, were very angry and decided to go on strike to protest against his banning, because we couldn't get an answer why he was banned. As ‘subs'-stewards we had to give the workers strike pay because you couldn't expect their families to go without anything.

Frank left and he could not come near to us. Frank played a very big role in my life, which helped me to realise what was happening and what we were dealing with. We then elected Christiaan Kilowan, as president. The union struggled financially and did not have money to pay people. I became an executive member in the branch and then they elected me as the national treasurer. I served on the committee and only had to step in when there were problems. I worked on a voluntary basis until they could afford to pay the people they have appointed to work for them.

After Ray and Frank, another [general] secretary by the name of Becky Lan was banned so we didn't have anybody in the office. They came to the factory and they asked for the workers to elect somebody. I had been active in the Paarl branch and always helped them out in the office when the branch secretary went on leave. Because there was nobody, in 1956 they elected me as the acting general secretary, because the general secretary could only be elected at a national conference 5.

After working in the factory for 14 years the people were very unhappy when I had to leave, because they saw that I was speaking for them, even though they were wrong. Those workers realised that you are their leader, because you are still prepared to plead their case.

Footnotes

In her autobiography All my Life and All my Strength (2004), Ray Alexander identified relatives of Rose Petersen of the Sweet Workers' Union as contacts who helped to provide her access to the canning factories in Paarl. A niece worked for H Jones & Co (p.115) and a nephew (p.118) for Associated Canners Ltd which owned the Premium plant where Liz worked.

Ray Alexander (2004, p.118) identifies the driver/comrade as Gregoire Boonzaier, one of the country's leading artists and a Communist Party member. The car was the mayor of Cape Town's and had been hired by an admirer of Ray's work.

A large number of FCWU representatives were present in April 1954 at FEDSAW's national launch, where the Women's Charter was adopted, a precursor to the Freedom Charter adopted at Kliptown in 1955.

Ray Alexander worked behind the scenes in insisting that a worker rather than a white activist be elected to replace Becky Lan. In her autobiography All my Life and All my Strength (2004:281) Ray, who was still General Secretary, complimented Liz for offering “fine leadership to workers in all areas”. She supported Liz with whom she had worked on several occasions in negotiating piece rates because she was “very good in pressing employers for improvements”.

Married to the Struggle