1973 Durban Strikes

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Harriet Bolton and the Garment Workers Industrial Union

By the 1950s, Harriet Bolton began to help with organising work in the unions. From the late 1960s Harriet Bolton was an executive committee member of TUCSA.

Following the death of her husband Jimmy Bolton, Secretary of the furniture and garment unions, in 1964, Harriet was asked by the executives of both unions if she would take Jimmy’s place.

In 1966, Harriet was voted on to the TUCSA executive. By the 1970s she was a national representative of TUCSA.

Under pressure from the Garment Workers Industrial Union (GWIU) executive committee because of her involvement with organising African workers, Harriet chose to resign from the GWIU in 1974.

By the time Harriet became the general secretary for the GWIU. Harriet concluded her first wage agreement as secretary of the registered GWIU in 1967. At a mass meeting at Currie’s Fountain on 23February 1971, more than 24 000 workers walked out of clothing factories in Natal, effectively halting the industry for the day. In doing so, they participated in the first regional industry-wide strike since the GWIU’s turbulent formative years in the 1930s. Employers, powerless to resort to disciplinary action in the face of the numbers involved, quickly acquiesced to the workers’ demands of a 20 percent increase in wages.

Two days after the strike, the union sent informed members that a settlement had been negotiated and all their demands, including a 20 percent increase in wages, met.

By the early 1970s, Harriet’s decision to take on National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) student volunteers facilitated initial contact with African workers in industries other than clothing and textiles. This led to the formation of the Wages Commission by NUSAS students.  However, the connections established between Harriet and the Wages Commission students, local political parties, activist academics in the form of Rick Turner and Fatima Meer, led to the first contact with sections of the largely unorganised Durban African labour force. Her contact with activist academic Rick Turner and White student activists during this time led to the establishment of a number of worker-related organisations, and ultimately several trade unions. Harriet was also an important conduit for funding from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which was a contentious issue at the time.

Last updated : 24-Oct-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 03-Feb-2014