With help from the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund, the National Union of Textile Workers(NUTW) was established in September 1973. Since it was an unregistered union, it struggled to gain recognition because its subscriptions had to be collected by hand, and this effectively stigmatised its members, most of whom were women.
It was well known as a dynamic and fearless union. It suffered from state repression as its leaders, such as then acting general secretary Halton Cheadle, were detained and banned. NUTW was a founding member of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) and later theCongress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Its leadership always stressed that the union should not align itself to any political organization as they believed that their members should be free to belong to any political organizations and still feel comfortable in the union.
One of its main tools was to establish shop stewards’ rights in factories, which was a success, as by 1986 the union had 400 shop stewards at the factories in which it was operating and recognized. Due to its rivalry with the Textile Workers Industrial Union (TWIU) over the poaching of members, the two unions eventually joined forces, and in September 1987 ACTWUSA (Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union)was born. It was also a co-founder of Trade Union Advisory and Coordinating Council (TUACC).
Perhaps one of the major campaigns embarked on by NUTW from 1981 was the ‘Brown Lung Campaign’. Brown lung (bysinnosis) is a disease that predominantly affects workers who work for longperiods in cotton dust. The disease came to prominence in the 1970s in the United Sates of America (US) when unions and workers there successfully sued for compensation. NUTW produced leaflets, posters and pamphlets alerting workers to the dangers of being exposed to cotton dust.
In 1983 John Hlela a member of the NUTW became the first black workers to be given a lump sum of money as compensation for the disease after the Bureau of Occupational Diseases acknowledged that his disease had been caused by long tern exposure to cotton dust. In addition he was given a pension of R109. That same year NUTW appointed Dr Neil White as a fulltime Health and Safety officer. More workers came forward and in 1984 three more workers were given compensation. With better medical records being kept, John Copelyn, the NUTW claimed that the campaign had unearthed numerous workers who had been affected by the disease.
• MacShane, D, Plaut, M & Ward, D, (1984), Power!: Black Workers, Their Unions and the Struggle for Freedom in South Africa, p.79