Timeline of the Labour and Trade Union Movement in South Africa 1881 - 1919

A.W. Champion, Natal President of I.C.U and Clement Kadalie

The period preceding the formation of the South Africa Union witnessed the establishment and growth of trade unionism which continued even after formation. Organised labour began growing across the country as trade unions were formed in different sectors of the economy. Trade unions formed earlier particularly in the Cape struggled to cross the racial divide as particularly White led unions attempted to protect their jobs from competition Coloured workers and artisans. At times, there was cooperation and sympathy strikes carried by black workers in support of grievances raised their white colleagues. Perhaps the most significant development during this period was formation of the Industrial and Commercial Union(ICU) in 1917. The ICU dominated the socio political landscape in South Africa particularly in the 1920s when the other black led political forces such as the African National Congress were moribund.
1881
December, The Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners (ASCJ) is established in Cape Town, and becomes the first labour union in South Africa. This was largely a union of white workers affiliated to its mother body in the Britain. Membership was limited to British skilled workers. Blacks and non English speaking whites were excluded.  
1883
October, A regulation requiring that mineworkers be stripped and searched as they leave work leads to the first mineworkers strike in the diamonds mines in Kimberley. Black workers also go on strike in sympathy. The strike lasts a week and is violently put down by force killing six white mine workers.     
1888
July, Fire breaks out underground at a De Beers Mine resulting in the death of 178 African and 24 white mineworkers. A commission tasked with investigating the incident found that there were no fire extinguishers and the escape shaft had been closed.
1889
Mine owners group together to form the Chamber of Mines succeeding the Chamber of Mines in Johannesburg formed in 1887.
1897
White mine workers go on strike when attempts are made by the employer to lower their wages to level of earned by black workers. 
1898
A Jewish tailoring union is established in Cape Town in 1898, to fight against unhygienic working conditions, meagre pay and a lack of vacation-time, especially on the high Jewish religious occasions. The union ceases to exist because of the Anglo-Boer War, but is re-established in 1902.
1890
March, The Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners (ASCJ) is re-launched and later has two branches in Cape Town.
1901
After the Anglo-Boer War (now called the South African War), Chinese labourers are brought to South Africa.
Unions emerge among tobacco workers in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
1902
The Transvaal Miners Association (TMA) is founded in the Witwatersrand mines. The association constitutes of white people from various European backgrounds. 
1903
The Jewish Bakers Union is launched in 1903, announcing that it is open to all employees of bakers' shops in Cape Town.
June, A Jewish union of carpenters, cabinetmakers and joiners is established, with J Gillitz as chairman and M Alexander as secretary.
1905
October, Tailors, emulating the earlier Jewish tailor union, establish a new union. Chairman J Harlow announces that a united union would fight for “equal pay for equal work”. Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, a leading Malay politician, supports the idea of a union that would bring together Malay and white workers with the same problems. The union had 170 members after only five months in existence.
1906
Cigarette makers, influenced by the General Workers' Union and the Social Democratic Federation, go on strike in Cape Town, resulting in the workers establishing the first socialist-oriented co-operative society South Africa.
October, The MBA receives a large delegation from the Trade and Labour Council to discuss matters relating to the construction industry.
1907
Miners go on strike, and the government uses violent tactics to halt the strike.
1913
A decision by Kleinfontein Goldmine to force underground mechanics to work longer hours on Saturday leads to widespread strike with an estimated 20 000 workers downing tools.
The Cape Federation of Labour Unions (CFLU) is established in the Cape, and it becomes a vehicle for incorporating coloured artisans into the trade union movement. The CLFU later claimed to have organised workers on non racial basis.
Coloured masons, bricklayers and plasters establish the Coloured Operative Bricklayers and Plasters Trade Union of the Cape Province (CBPU).
The South African Operative Masons Society (SAOMS) is established as an all white trade union movement. This continued even though the union continued to decline in membership.
The Transvaal Miners’ Association is renamed as the South African Mineworkers Union (MWU) and gains recognition by the Chamber of Mines.
15 October, Leaders of the passive resistance address 78 Indian workers at the Farleigh Colliery to mobilise for the strike.
16 October, Workers go on strike and are taken to court where the magistrate instructs them to return to work to avoid prosecution.
17 October, More workers go on strike and within two weeks an estimated 5000 Indian workers had gone on strike in northern Natal. 
23 October, Ghandiissues a public statement announcing his intention to lead the striking workers out of the mine compounds in an attempt to seek arrest, which would culminate in an illegal border crossing into the Transvaal if necessary.
25 October, Gandhi meets with Coal Owners and other major employers of Indian labour at the Durban Chamber of Commerce, and explains that the announced strike is a result of the government’s refusal to repeal the 3 pound tax.
1914
Coal miners go on strike, and the strike spreads to the railways and the goldmines. The government calls in the Union Defence Force to put down the strike. As a consequence, nine leaders are rounded up and deported without a trial.
January, White bricklayers go on strike in attempt to secure higher wages.
June, The CBPU writes to the Cape Town Master Builders Association (MBA) requesting the recognition of the union.
1915
The International Socialist League (ISL) starts organising Indian workers in Durban.
1917
March, The Indian Workers' Industrial Union is inaugurated in Durban under the chairmanship of Gordon Lee.
June, The Cape Peninsula Building Trade Conciliation Board is established. Unions such as COBS, ASCJ and SAOMS seek to use the board to secure preferential treatment for their members, while the CPBU was not represented. 
February, A resolution is submitted to the ASCJ by the Durban branch to consider allowing coloured carpenters into the union. This is strongly supported by the Cape Town branch.
August, The MBA establishes a rule that competent and skilled coloured artisans be paid at a minimum rate of 75 per cent of the white artisans’ rate of wages. 
Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA) – the result of a grouping of people attending courses delivered by members of the International Socialist League (ISL) at the Johannesburg Trade Hall during 1917 – organise on the Witwatersrand.
The Cape Federation of Labour Unions and the CBPU merge, and incorporates Coloured workers.
1918
February, African miners, hard hit by the rising cost of living, boycott concession stores on the East Rand in February 1918. Police break up the boycott by arresting picketing workers.
May, After white mechanics stage a successful strike at a power station, African municipal sanitary workers demand an increase from 1s 8d to 2s 6d a day. About 50 workers go on strike after their demand is refused – eventually they are arrested. After a further 152 workers go on strike, African police are used to clear the sewage buckets, but they fail to keep up with the enormity of the task. All striking workers are arrested and charged with breach of contract, and sentenced to two months’ hard labour.
28 June, Alarmed by the looming confrontation, the government also called for the release of the strikers and their sentences are suspended by the Supreme Court.
1 July, Despite calls by the South African Native National Congress(later renamed the ANC) for the release of the prisoners, when calls are made for a general strike on 1 July 1918, the ANC refuses to support the call. After JB Moffat is appointed to investigate the workers’ grievances and the strike is called off.
1 July, When 15,000 miners stop work, police rush to the scene and try to force the miners down the shafts, resulting in violent clashes. The police arrest eight men who are accused of ‘incitement to violence’ for the strikes of the period. Two belong to the ANC, three to the ISL and three to the IWA.
August, June, The Cape Peninsula Building Trade Conciliation Board is collapses.
September, White mineworkers persuade the Chamber of Mines to agree that no position filled by a white worker should be given to an African or Coloured worker.
October, Musicians, who play at silent-movie cinemas, go on strike in Cape Town.
Stone masons go on strike demanding higher pay and receive an increase.
1919
January, The Industrial and Commercial Union(ICU) is launched in Cape Town by Clements Kadalie.
The ICU recruits members among dockworkers and organises a strike of 2000 workers, who saw their wages doubled. This success brings more workers from other industries into the union, and it becomes a general union. Among some its leading figures are AWG Championin Natal and Selby Msimang in the Orange Free State.
The ICU attracts other occupations, such as teachers, farm-workers, small traders and rural tenants, and resembled a social movement.
April, The SAOMS becomes the only union to resist a resolution against the colour bar in the trade unions fearing competition from coloured people. The union’s representative reportedly stated “It is a disgrace that coloured men should be employed while white men were walking the streets unemployed.”
Dr Abdullah Abdurahman attempts to establish an African People’s Organisation(APO) Federation of Labour.
March, Selby Msimang, a member of the ANC, is arrested in terms of the Riotous Assemblies Act after organising a strike among washerwomen and others in Bloemfontein.
Clements Kadaliebegins liaising with Selby Msimang about organising a dockworkers strike. The two begin planning to establish a national ICU.
November, Seventy white workers at Denver Engineering Workshop down tools after a fellow worker is victimised. The men – most of them fitters, iron-moulders, pattern-makers, boiler-makers, blacksmiths – come to a settlement on Christmas Eve.
December, The ICU organizes a strike among dockworkers.
4 December, The Cape Federation of Trades calls on workers to refuse to handle food for export, in protest against the rising price of food.
17 December, The ICU and the Cape branch of the IWA join the strike by calling on members who work at the Table Bay docks, demanding higher wages. They are supported by white workers, and by the National Union of Railways and Harbours Servants (NURAHS). The state sends in the police who arrest the black and coloured strikers, but when the state gives in to demands to halt the export of foodstuffs, the strikers lose the support of NURAHS.
The APO begins to organise Coloured workers in Cape Town, urging them not to join white unions in the city.
Indian workers begin to organise unions in Durban, but exclude African workers.
December, Kadalie organized a dock workers strike which prevented the export of all goods through Cape Town Harbour facilities.

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