... A strike teaches workers to understand what the strength of the employers and what the strength of the workers consist in: it teaches them not to think of their own employers alone and not of their own immediate workmates alone, but of all the employers, the whole class of capitalists and the whole class of workers....
A strike, moreover, opens the eyes of the workers to the nature, not only of the capitalists, but of government and the laws as well.... Strikes, therefore, teach the workers to unite; they show them that they can struggle against the capitalist only when they are united; strikes teach the workers to think of the whole working-class against the whole class of factory owners and against the arbitrary police and government. This is the reason that socialists call strikes' a school of war', a school in which the workers learn to make war on their enemies for the liberation of the whole people, of all who labour, from the yoke of government, officials and from the yoke of capital.
V. 1. Lenin, Collected Works , vol. IV (1960), pp. 315-17.
Despite continuous attempts by the South African ruling class to suppress and contain the forward movement of the African working class, history has demonstrated the futility of their tactics. Since African workers were first incorporated into the economy as a cheap labour force they have waged industrial strikes and taken various forms of political action against their objective exploitation.
The 1946 African Mine Workers' strikehad so threatened the structure of the total society and the profits of capital, that the state was forced to introduce further repressive measures to curb the militancy of African workers. The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950, designed in part to weaken the trade union movement, had robbed the working class of 56 dedicated trade unionists, seventeen of them Africans. However, as already shown, it was the Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act of 1953, a vicious piece of anti-worker legislation, which was specifically designed to crush the rising tide of militancy among African workers and prevent the growth of African trade unions. Despite the fact that this Act rendered all strikes by African workers illegal, the workers continued to defy the legislation, never giving up their most vital weapon in the struggle against the ruling class - the right to withdraw their collective labour-power.
African workers have never been passive victims of exploitation. There is no better example of their refusal to acquiesce to the new legislation than the strikes which took place in Durban, only months after the Act became law. On 8 July 1954, 340 African workers at United Tobacco Company (UTC) took decisive strike action to achieve their demands.
Workers downed tools after management had refused to recognize the Union and the workers' demands that their wages and conditions be raised to the level of Cape Town tobacco workers. Refusing to make use of the new machinery created by the Native Labour Act, strikers were immediately harassed and intimidated. Twenty leaders were arrested and charged under the Act. As well, the Native Administration instructed all pass registration offices in Durban not to renew the permits of any African worker who had participated in the strike and lists of UTC workers were circulated to other companies. UTC dismissed the entire African workforce, some 1,360 workers, intimating that they could re-apply for their jobs. Management then expected that they would return to work and submit to the company's conditions. The strikers refused and were immediately replaced by scab labour, heavily protected by the police. The Secretary of the Union was fined £ 100 or 6 months hard labour (suspended for three years) and one other strike leader was fined £25 or 3 months hard labour, plus 6 months hard labour suspended for three years. All the remaining accused were fined £5 or one month hard labour.
In response to a Tobacco Workers' Union appeal, the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Indian Congress (SAIC)and the COD called for a total boycott of UTC products. This demonstration of solidarity with the victimized workers was highly successful and UTC suffered heavy losses. However, the strikers themselves were hit hard, unable to find jobs because of the blacklist. The combined forces of the state and the employers were used against these fearless workers and the provisions of the Native Labour Act were being tested on them, as a deterrent not only for them but for those African workers contemplating strike action in the future.
In another strike by African workers at Natal Cotton Spinners during this period, a similar resistance to the Native Labour Act was displayed. New Agereported at the time that these were 'not the usual, isolated, spontaneous outbursts of exasperated workers, but a manifestation of the African workers' realization of the need for unity, solidarity and trade union organization'. This had frightened the government, the article went on, because the initiatives had come ,Straight from the factory'.
In spite of the Native Labour Act, there were some 435 strikes by African workers during the period from 1954 to 1960, and only ten Works Committees set up under the Act were functioning by 1960. Thousands of workers were prosecuted and fined or imprisoned. This in itself indicates that the workers were not deterred by the punitive legislation enacted by the state and were determined to use the strike weapon as one of the means by which to challenge the basis of their exploitation.
From 1955 onwards, South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU)and its affiliated unions continued to encourage African workers to boycott the machinery of the Native Labour Act. The organisation supported the use of the strike weapon by all workers, Black or White, in their attempts to gain legitimate working class demands. The industrial strike, though representing only a partial challenge to the capitalist system, was none the less recognized as an important attack on the basis of that system - the control and exploitation of labour power.
An analysis of strike activity during the SACTU year shows that between 1955 and 1957 there was a considerable upsurge in the number of strikes by African workers (see table on page 276). After 1957, there was a downturn in activity, perhaps due to the fact that many new wage determinations for unskilled workers were introduced in the 'years following. Increasing African unemployment, coupled with a sluggish economy, may also have had a deterrent effect on strike activity.
Because of the nature of state repression in South Africa, issues involved in any single strike can easily be connected with the struggle against the whole social order, the entire ruling class, and are not restricted to the individual employer. African workers are faced with a united front of government and employers, backed by the power of the police. State repression via racist anti-worker legislation, police and Special Branch harassment, employers' victimization and intimidation, the Pass Laws and other controls imposed on the freedom of mobility -all of these combined made it impossible for the African worker not to appreciate the whole basis of his/her exploitation and to comprehend in its entirety the social system he/she was part of.
Leon Levy, past President of SACTU, likened strikes by Black workers in South Africa to 'small scale civil wars' with 'lorry-loads of police, armed with batons, sten-guns and tear-gas bombs', where 'great pick-up vans arrive and all the strikers are arrested ' All strikes supported by SACTU whether for higher wages and improved working conditions, union recognition or reinstatement of unjustly dismissed workers, were met with the full force of the state. Their strikes were most definitely 'schools of war'.
An analysis of some of the strikes to which SACTU gave organisational support between 1955 and 1964 follows. The purpose is not to assess the effectiveness of the organization on the basis of its quantitative strike record, but rather to examine the nature and dynamics of class struggle at the point of production, that is, to analyse the extent of class consciousness and potential for revolutionary action on the part of workers, and to study the responses of capital and the extent of state intervention in each case.
|1960||42||9||234||33||5,266||figures not given|
|1961||81||5||-||75||4,662||figures not given|
|Source: Department of Labour, official year-end reports.|
Strikes by Migrant Workers
The migrant labour system in South Africa, besides restricting the freedom of mobility of the worker and his family, creates additional difficulties within the field of trade union organizing. Migrant workers, circulating between wage-labour and the reserves, do not represent a stable and permanent labour force. However, the history of their involvement in both industrial actions and political protests over the years, has revealed that these workers, despite the disabilities forced upon them, do possess an advanced proletarian consciousness, perhaps even fostered by the system of controlled barracks and compounds. An analysis of the struggles of dockworkers in South Africa illustrates this well.
In Durban, there had been a long history of resistance by the dockers, who refer to themselves as ' oNyathi (meaning 'buffalo' in Zulu). In 1930, they led struggles against the poll tax, against the passes (culminating in the death of Johannes Nkosi) and against the institution of a municipal monopoly in beer-brewing. These workers continued to carry out strikes and other actions throughout the 1940s, a period of intense conflict in Durban.
In 1954, in defiance of the Native Labour Act, 1,167 stevedores struck for seven days in support of a demand for an increase in their daily wage from 10s. 3d. to 15s. They were forced to return to work after being threatened with ejection from the employer-owned compounds. The Native Labour Board granted workers a Is. 3d. a day increase but at the same time charged workers with striking illegally. Ninety-five were found guilty and fined 10s. each. The major issue in the struggles of Durban dockworkers in the mid1950s was the togt labour system. Migrant workers were paid on a daily basis in the Durban docks; when ships were in the harbour there was work for them and they were paid by their employers. However, the system offered no security and workers could not rely on any kind of regular income. Early in 1956, dockers went out on strike, and included the elimination of the togt system as one of their demands. They wanted monthly contracts to ensure a regular income. In November 1956, workers struck once more. Employers had placed a small group of workers on permanent staff, with two weeks' annual leave. However, in the process they cut down the rates of pay of these permanent employees, leading to a sympathy strike by the, remainder of the workers. All workers were demanding to be paid on a monthly basis but at least at the same rate of pay as they were receiving as togt labourers.
The elimination of the togt labour system of casual labour and its replacement with a contract labour system would actually enable the employers and the state to exert a more direct control over the workers. Under the old system, if labourers decided for any reason not to work on a particular day, there was little that could be done in terms of the law except deportation from the urban area. The introduction of the contract labour system meant that workers would be liable to prosecution for any breach of contract. Therefore, the workers were in a very difficult position; they had a choice between two different forms of super-exploitation.
In November 1957, the Minister of Native Affairs, Dr H. F. Verwoerdannounced his intention to remove most of the stevedoring compounds in the Point Dock area, and allow only 2,000 African stevedores in the area. While the government and employers were discussing the merits of this policy, the workers themselves were preparing to take action in support of the SACTU/Congress Alliance call for a 3-day Stay-At-Home beginning 14 April 1958. For various reasons, the Stay-At-Home was not successful throughout the country. However, in Durban the dockers boldly displayed their militancy and embarked on an important struggle against stevedoring companies.
Seventy-five per cent of dockworkers went home during the Stay-At Home and those who remained were forced out of the privately-owned compounds by the police. Nevertheless, they struck at work, demanding £ 1 -a-Day. These workers refused to do any overtime work until their comrades returned and when they did, all workers unanimously decided to do no more overtime work until they were paid £1-a-Day. The harbour was congested and by Sunday, 27 May, over twenty-five ships lay idle in port. On that day, no workers reported for work, increasing pressure on the employers. Finally a settlement was reached which brought their wages up to 14s. per day, with other increases granted as well.
After the 1958 actions, a meeting of employers and government representatives decided to eliminate the togt labour system and establish a centrally-administered compound system, designed for greater control over the labour force. As part of this system, an attempt was made to incorporate indunas (African foremen) more effectively into the structure of authority of the stevedoring companies. These indunas had previously performed certain responsibilities like recruiting and marshalling workers in particular gangs, which would now be performed by the labour supply company in a centrally-run compound system. Their new tasks were those of 'sergeant-majors' of the company and they were to receive substantial wage increases of 4s. a day. This sparked off industrial action again in February 1959 .
The workers had expected more from the Wage Board, which sat during 1958. The SACTU Durban Local Committee had given evidence before the Board and had requested a substantial increase in wages, that the workers be put on a weekly-paid basis and urged the Board to improve their working conditions. The strike broke out on 24 February when it was clear that there would be no increase for labourers and a 4s. increase for the indunas. By 25 February, 1,500 labourers were out, once again crippling the harbour. Rather than negotiate with the workers, the employers, the Department of Labour and the police went ahead with the plan to force the labour supply company on the workers. All strikers were dismissed and ordered to leave the premises of the company compounds. A strong detachment of police arrived and immediately began attacking those in the vicinity with their batons. Several workers were seriously injured and 87 were arrested following this incident.
The companies took advantage of the strike to introduce the labour supply company. All workers were re-engaged on a weekly-paid basis. SACTU initially considered this an advance in their conditions of employment.
Togt labour has long been a source of friction between the workers and the employers, and the introduction of a weekly-paid permanent labour force is a definite gain by the workers.... With the establishment of a permanent labour force it will now be possible to organize the workers into a union and we hope that the employers will negotiate with this union and avoid any further trouble in the docks.
However, the low wage offered (£3 per week) was rejected by the workers. Arguing that they could earn more under the previous system if work were made available throughout the week (potentially 84s.), the men demanded increased wages and refused to work overtime. The workers put their case in this way:
The employers want to kill us with overtime. In the past we used to take off a day or two whenever we felt tired, but now that we are employed on a weekly basis we could not do this. We feel that more workers should be employed by the stevedoring companies and at the same time we should be paid a decent wage for the hard work we do .
The brutal response of the employers was to dismiss the entire labour force and recruit new workers from Zululand to take their place. The workers had correctly recognized and resisted the employers' attempts to increase their control over the workers' labour time. But the combined forces of the state and the employers were used to crush this resistance and the workers were defenceless.
Port Elizabeth was the scene of another fierce struggle carried out by railway and dockworkers. For a long time these workers had demanded increased wages, but their demands had been brushed aside. At the beginning of 1957 , the workers embarked on a go-slow strike to draw attention to their plight. On 26 February, they decided to start work one hour later and stop one hour earlier and not to work overtime or on weekends, in support of their demands for a wage increase from 1 Is. 6d. .per day to 25s. per day. Railway workers joined the dockworkers, demanding an increase from the present £4 10s. 0D . a month to £7.
The railway officials and shipping companies called on the state for assistance and the full range of its resources were mobilized to defeat the workers' actions. In addition to the normal representation by the Labour Bureau, the Department of Native Affairs officials, police and Special Branch, the army was called in and placed on standby orders. Stevedores were shipped in from Cape Town and East London by the companies. According to reports, these workers were told there was another bus and train boycott in progress making it impossible for Port Elizabeth stevedores to go to work. Armed police guarded the ships ensuring that there was no contact with the strikers. Govan Mbekireported from Port Elizabeth at the time:
From March 2nd to 7th the harbour looked like a city, which had recently been occupied by a foreign invading army. The armed might of a Government that regards African labour as the possession of a dominant white capitalist class strutted about in a great show of strength.
The stevedores returned to work on Monday, 4 March, but the shipping companies were only prepared to allow them to resume work if they surrendered unconditionally and dropped their demands. Workers refused and were swiftly marched out of the harbour.
As they left, hundreds of barefooted convicts flooded into the harbour, driven at the point of a rifle to load manganese and to handle cargo in conditions that were not any better than those in which the slave drivers' whip cracked on the backs of slaves two centuries ago.
On 5 March, railway workers were locked out and replaced by prison labour. A recruitment drive brought in workers endorsed out of major cities (with promises that their documents would be placed in order if they agreed to work in Port Elizabeth) and also large numbers from the Transkei and the Ciskei where food production had fallen. By the joint actions of the railway authorities, shipping companies, the police force, the army and the influx control measures, the essential flow of goods was not interrupted by a shortage of cheap labour.
Militant leaders like Vuyisile Mini, Caleb Mayekiso and Alven Bennie led the campaign to support the harbour workers within the SACTU Local Committee. SACTU appealed to the international working class to denounce the use of convict labour and the ICFTU took the lead in issuing a warning to the South African regime. Within hours, Minister of Labour Schoeman conceded, ordering a ban on convict labour at the docks. The workers decided that since convicts were being withdrawn they should return to work to forestall the engagement of labour recruited in the Transkei and Ciskei. The companies were clearly in a stronger bargaining position with the state ensuring them a large army of surplus labour.
Stevedores were accepted back because they were relatively skilled and would ensure greater efficiency at the docks. The unskilled railway workers however were dismissed, their work-seeker permits withdrawn, and their reference books left unsigned as a means of punishment. The re-employed stevedores were subsequently paid at the rate of railway casuals, 9 s . 6d. for married men and 7s. for single men, thereby cutting the workers' wages by between 2 s . and 4 s . 6 d . per day.
From both accounts of the struggles of dockworkers in South Africa certain conclusions can be drawn. The collective action amongst African migrant workers on the docks is an indication of their disregard for the system, which attempts to control their movements and stifle their militancy. In both cases, these workers acted in complete unity against insurmountable odds. However, in such a strategic sector of the economy, it was inevitable that the full power of the state was brought in to crush their resistance. The state's role, though a secondary one to that of individual capitalist companies, nevertheless renders their action against the working class that much more effective.
In both cases the workers gained invaluable experience as to the nature of capitalism and the role of the state, experience, which they were able to use in assisting workers, involved in future struggles in other industries. These workers were a powerful influence within SACTU and injected local committees with the same class-consciousness and militant spirit with which they had carried out their own struggles.
Non-Racial Trade Unionism
In the South African context, it was a courageous act on the part of African workers to carry out a strike in defiance of the Native Labour Act. It was an even more courageous act in many cases to come out on strike with workers of other races, whether Coloured, Indian or White. Yet there are numerous examples of strikes, which embodied this kind of non-racial unity.
I WANTED TO SUPPORT MY COLOURED BROTHERS'- SPEKENHAM AFRICAN STRIKERS SENTENCED (CAPE TOWN). That was the headline of a New Age article, which appeared in the 10 October 1957 edition, reporting on a strike by some 200 workers at Spekenham Food Products factory, Strikland, Cape Town; the workers' demands were for increased wages and better working conditions. The solidarity between the African and Coloured workers was a key factor throughout the four-week strike. All members of the FCWU and the A-FCWU were demanding at least £1-a-Day in line with the demand put forward by SACTU throughout the country. On the first day of the strike, twenty-seven African workers were arrested for contravening the Native Labour Act and several days later four Coloured workers were arrested for allegedly interfering with scabs trying to get to work.
Since 19 5 3, these workers had not received an increase in the cost-of- living-allowance (COLA) and were out to convince employers that they could not live on their existing wages. Their bosses responded by sacking the striking workers, claiming that they would be able to recruit sufficient scab labour to carry on production. In fact, they found it very difficult.
The non-racial unity demonstrated by strikers was followed up by the four Congresses jointly sending a deputation to see management to reopen negotiations with the workers.
We feel that the unfavourable conditions under which these employees were forced to work, the totally inadequate wages paid, left them no alternative but this action, when their employer refused to make any concessions to their demands for improvements. We wholeheartedly support the demands of these workers.
Signed by: Z. Malindi (ANC)
N. Daniels (SACPO)
D. Goldberg (COD)
L. Kellerman (SACTU)
The FCWU provided strike pay and food donations to the strikers throughout.
At the trial of the twenty-seven African workers charged under the Native Labour Act, these workers told how when they first arrived at work and found Coloured workers outside the gates, they decided to stand by them. One worker said,
I didn't hope to gain anything for myself. The reason 1 didn't go to work was that 1 wanted to support my Coloured brother workers who were on strike.
The Magistrate rejected these statements by African workers. They were found guilty and sentenced to a fine of £7 10s. 0D. each, or thirty days' imprisonment. Though the workers did not win immediate gains through their strike action, a Wage Determination was soon granted and their COLA increased.
This kind of unity was not uncommon between members of the FCWU and the A-FCWU who worked closely together on every issue affecting their general memberships. The same comradeship existed between the TWIU and the A-TWIU.
In March 1956, 1,200 workers staged one of the most successful strikes in the history of textile workers' struggles. The strike began on 12 March, when 900 Coloured workers walked out of Hex River Textile Mills, Western Cape. At this stage African workers remained at their jobs for fear of prosecution under the Native Labour Act and they were supported by Coloured workers in this stand. However, when a notice appeared on the factory gate advertising 900 vacancies, African workers walked out in solidarity. As predicted, these 242 African workers were rounded up by the police and taken to jail. The next day all workers were released on £3 bail, except three leaders - Joe Ndamoyi, Julius Busa and Kopie Baartman. Local Worcester residents showed their support for the workers by raising a large amount of money for the strike fund.
After four days of strike action, workers gained substantial increases in their wages as well as additional benefits. These included free overalls, the establishment of a sick benefit fund, the agreement to establish an Industrial Council for the worsted section of the industry, and the reinstatement of all workers was guaranteed. In short, by uniting as a strong force against the employers, these Coloured and African textile workers scored a victory for all workers at Hex River Textile Mills.
In another similar display of unity, 200 African male workers employed at a woolwashery in Durban went out on strike in support of twelve Indian women workers in 1959. Their employer, 0. T. H. Beiers (who had been interned in South Africa during the war for pro-Nazi sympathies) owned a farm where he reared chickens, in addition to owning two factories. He slaughtered these chickens to sell to ships passing through the Durban harbour.
If Beiers failed to get rid of all of his chickens, he usually forced them upon his elderly women workers, deducting whatever price he demanded from their wages. These twelve women, all widows, were already heavily exploited by Beiers and were barely able to feed themselves and their families from the miserable wages they were paid.
Both groups of workers, the African men and the Indian women, had joined the A-TWIU in Durban only months before the strike. These twelve women, now knowing the union would support them, decided to inform their employer that they did not wish to buy his fowls. As a result Beiers dismissed the women and immediately the 200 African workers rose to support them. Assembling outside the factory gates on Monday morning in their national Zulu dress of beautiful bead and leatherwork, these men demanded that Beiers come and address them on the matter of the women's dismissal.
Melville Fletcher, the union organizer, was called in by the workers. Beiers still refused to reinstate the women and instructed Fletcher to remove all workers from the premises, in fact creating a lockout. The workers then marched to the trade union offices and Beiers informed the Labour Department that his workers were on strike. Neither the employer nor the workers were prosecuted for an illegal lockout or strike.
Strikers mingled with passers-by persuading work-seekers not to enter the factory. On weekends they explained the reasons for the strike to unemployed Africans in the Zulu 'homelands' requesting them not to accept work there. As a result of their perseverance, there were no scabs recruited. Textile workers in England sent a cable of support to the A-TWIU and Southampton dockers cabled Beiers threatening not to unload any ship carrying his wool.
After two weeks, the Municipality threatened to throw the African strikers out of the Municipal barracks and endorse them back to the homelands. The workers and the Union considered that the lesser of the two evils was to accept the employer's offer to reinstate them at a higher pay-rate. The employer refused to reinstate the women but the Union found other higher-paying work for them as well. All of the men returned to work singing their Zulu folk songs, united and strong as members of the Union.
These are just a few examples of the kind of unity displayed by workers in South Africa who refused to accept the racial division of the workforce. For African workers in particular it was always a considerable risk to take. Such examples illustrate the level of working class consciousness attained by workers in SACTU-affiliated unions. True to the principles upon which SACTU was founded, they pursued a policy of unity amongst all sections of the working class and solidarity of all workers in their struggle against the South African ruling class.
A Tradition of Militancy
The strike by 3,800 African textile workers at Amato Textile Mills, Benoni (Transvaal) during February 1958, illustrates the conditions under which the state takes the lead in repression against the working class. The primary condition for such intervention is a long tradition of militancy on the part of the workers in a particular factory. A point is then reached when it becomes essential that all the power of the state be used to crush the unity and solidarity formed in the course of progressive struggles. This is exactly what happened at Amato Textile Mills, a large jute manufacturing company, in 1958.
Almost 4,400 African workers were employed at the factory and these workers provided the backbone of the A-TWIU in the Transvaal.
Wages were extremely low (£3 a week), barely enough to allow a worker and his family to survive. The workers' transport costs had also risen since they had been forcibly removed beyond the city limits to Daveyton and Watville and their rent trebled in the process. Wages had not been increased since 195 1.
At Amato there was an interesting mixture of very young, militant African workers and older, more experienced trade unionists. Together they had carried out many strikes and through these had gained a Medical Benefit Fund as well as other benefits. Union dues were collected by the employer as a concession to the A-TWIU . The introduction of the Native Labour Act did not deter these workers and in December 1956, 365 workers stopped work when a foreman dismissed two fellow workers. They were all charged with striking illegally and of the 365, 202 were found guilty.
In February 1958, workers went out again to demand higher wages. Management refused to consider any increases for the workers and the Native Labour Board officials refused to allow direct talks between the A-TWIU and the employer. The militant workers were ready to take action and many of them talked of burning the factory to the ground. Union leaders Edmund Cindi (Chairman of the Benoni A-TWIU branch) and Rufus Makuru (National President of the Union) persuaded workers to go home. When they returned to work they were prevented from entering the factory by armed police. The following day when workers came to collect their pay, an unprovoked baton charge took place injuring over forty workers. Eye-witnesses described the scene as a brutal and totally unexpected attack.
All workers were dismissed and told if they required jobs to report to Influx Control and the Native Affairs Department. By a combined effort on the part of employers and the state, some 340 militants were black-listed, with their employment possibilities blocked through influx control regulations. Strike leaders were among the dismissed and many of them were endorsed out of the urban areas or banished to the reserves where in most cases they had never set foot before. Unemployed activists who avoided being endorsed out lost their township accommodation as soon as they failed to pay the rent. This was a heavy blow to the organizational strength of the A-TWIU. Although the workers' militant spirit had not been crushed by these repressive measures, the mass strike action characteristic of Amato workers ceased to exist for some time.
In this case, the intervention of the state was direct and included physical force against the workers. As a consequence, workers were defenceless after having lost the right even to sell their only possession -their labour-power. SACTU passed a resolution at its 1958 Conference demanding that the victimized workers be reinstated and all Union facilities restored; a nation-wide boycott of Amato products was threatened if these demands were not met. However, this threat failed to materialize and the solidarity of Amato workers was fragmented and destroyed.
Resistance to Super-Exploitation
Without effective trade union organization, workers are without weapons in the struggle. SACTU and its affiliated unions realized this above all else. Only by organizing workers into strong trade unions could workers prevent their bosses from reaping even greater profits from the exploitation of their labour-power.
In 1956, as reported in an earlier chapter, the head of the Central Native Labour Board publicly stated that Africans were 'too childish' to understand trade unions. Militant food workers who resisted wage cuts in their industry proved the lie to such racist and paternalistic rhetoric.
In November 1959, management at LKB in Port Elizabeth informed workers that from then on they would be paid according to the scale of wages laid down in Wage Determination No. 179, issued by the Wage Board in August of the previous year. These wage rates were lower than those already in effect under the agreement between the trade union and the employer.
LKB was the biggest canning concern in South Africa and the company's plans were to extend these wage cuts to all other branches, thus drastically affecting the lives of thousands of Black workers. Canning workers were already bitter about other recent attacks on their union by the employers and the state. During the previous session of parliament, legislation had been passed depriving workers in the food and canning industry of the right to strike. Recently too, Frances Baard, local Secretary of the Union branch, had been refused permission to collect subscriptions on factory premises and company officials had refused to cooperate with one of the Union's committees. Lastly, A-FCWU President, Elizabeth Mafekeng, was driven into exile only weeks before.
Workers refused to accept the Wage Board agreement which would mean nearly 16 per cent reduction in wages. Management told them to leave the factory and return the following day at 2.00 p.m. to collect their wages. The time cards of over 1,000 African and Coloured workers were taken and a lockout was in effect.
Liz Abrahams, Acting General Secretary of FCWU, issued a statement to the employers warning of solidarity actions: 'Food and canning workers all over the country are carefully watching the fruit as it comes into their factories and will refuse to work fruit from P.E.'10 LKB was originally one of the firms on the Congress Alliance boycott list of the early 1950s, but after granting some concessions its name was removed. There was strong pressure from workers to request Congress to re-include LKB on the list in 1959.
African and Coloured workers remained strong and their bosses were noticeably worried about the dismal failure of their 'stay out of the factory' order. They had also failed to fill the factory with alternative labour. LKB workers were united in their opposition to starvation wages and refused all attempts to induce them to return to work.
Finally, the unity of the workers paid off. One month after the original declaration by management, the Chairman of the Board of Directors, Mr R. S. Ferreira, announced that LKB would not be introducing the new Wage Determination but would instead pay workers 'a bonus' to enable them to maintain the existing pay rates. He said this decision had been taken because LKB wanted a 'contented labour force' [sic]. The bosses' attempt to increase the rate of exploitation had been stopped.
The jubilant workers returned to the factory victorious after having won an important struggle. Their success against these savage attacks on their living standards clearly resulted from the strength of the Union and the unity of all workers.
The Verwoerd plan for the establishment of 'border industries' to make better use of readily-available cheap, Black labour from the reserves, led to the setting up of the Hammarsdale Clothing Factory in Hammarsdale, twenty-seven miles from Durban.
Employers at Hammarsdale did not expect the resistance that they encountered from the African workforce who refused to accept the conditions of exploitation imposed on them. In February 1959, 388 African workers walked out of the factory in support of a demand for increased wages. The workers were angered when they were told that the present owners had shut down their factories in Fordsburg and Durban to come to Hammarsdale where labour-power had been promised at a lower rate. After an agreement was concluded between employers and workers' representatives, the labour force returned to the factory. Agreement was also reached on other outstanding issues: (a) full recognition of the African Clothing Workers Union (Hammarsdale); (b) negotiations to be held before April 1960 for improvements in wages and working conditions; and (c) officials to be allowed to use the factory cloakroom for all trade union meetings.
However, due to the disruptive tactics of J. C. Bolton, Secretary of the Garment Workers Union (Natal), in his effort to smash the ACWU (a SACTU affiliate) workers were forced to resort to strike action again in February 1960. Chairman of the ACWU, Johannes Hlongwana, had approached management with a proposal to meet the Union's executive to discuss the question of wage increases as set down in the previous agreement. Management refused to deal with Hlongwana, instead labelling him an 'agitator', and then said that the only people they would negotiate with were 'Jimmy Bolton's union' from Durban and the Industrial Council for the Garment Workers.
When this was reported to the workers, the whole factory of over 500 workers walked out. They demanded that both Billy Nair(their Secretary) and Moses Mabhida (Chairman, SACTU-Natal) be present at all negotiations on their behalf. The employer eventually agreed to this but only on the condition that Bolton also be present; he further charged that the present committee of the Union did not represent the workers and that a new ballot to be conducted by Bolton had to be arranged. Apparently Bolton and the Industrial Council had agreed to certain wage increases which would bring wages of beginning workers up to £1 7s. 9d. per week. SACTU stated that Bolton had no right to interfere with the African workers at Hammarsdale, workers who were demanding £3 5s. 0 D. per week.
The strike continued and 137 African workers were arrested under the Native Labour Act, including members of the Union committee. SACTU appealed to all workers to assist the Hammarsdale strikers, and people living in the surrounding area rallied a great deal of support. As a result of the strike the clothing factory was closed down and the proprietor decided to move back to Durban. The workers stood firm against the threats and intimidation of the bosses and the White trade union leaders who collaborated with them in an attempt to break the Union. Eventually this solidarity led to a resounding victory as the employer subsequently reopened the factory on terms acceptable to the ACWU and its members. Workers won their demands for the recognition of their trade union and the guarantee of increased wages from the 1st of April. The only unsatisfactory outcome was that the employers refused to reinstate the Chairman of the Union, Hlongwana. After several meetings with the workers, Union officials agreed to accept this condition of the settlement; immediately afterwards at a general meeting of workers Hlongwana was appointed full-time organizer of the Union.
The agreement concluded was also a defeat for Bolton and the Natal GWU, a Union notorious for betraying the interests of the workers and making 'sweetheart deals' with the employers. It was, however, a solid victory for the African workers at Hammarsdale in their struggle against below-subsistence wages. Even in the border industry areas, the ruling class could be defeated.
Strikes Initiated by New SACTU Unions
Most of the above examples involved established unions like the TWIU and the FCWU, strong and militant unions which had a history of strike actions by their members. In the course of SACTU's organizing campaigns, several new African unions were organised, in many cases by workers who had immediate grievances which they wanted settled. Some of the examples of strikes carried out by these newly-formed unions demonstrate a fresh spontaneity and surprising willingness to carry out sustained opposition to conditions imposed on them by the bosses.
The strike by Bay Transport Company workers of Port Elizabeth was one of the major disputes of 1961, and is of significance in that the Native Labour Act officials were by-passed by both the employers and the workers. It is also significant because four years after the strike, in December 1965, ten African workers were sentenced to four and a half years' imprisonment for having 'furthered the aims of the banned African National Congress' by taking part in the 1961 strike.
Alven Bennie and other members of the Port Elizabeth Local Committee had been actively organizing these workers into a union during 1960. The union was still very small when the workers themselves decided to take action. African bus drivers were dissatisfied with the one-man operation (which they had agreed to try for a trial period) and they claimed the Company had not honoured certain promises with regard to wages and other matters. The registered trade union had negotiated an agreement with the Port Elizabeth transport company to cover White and Coloured bus drivers, but it could not represent the African workers at the bargaining table. The African drivers demanded that the agreement be extended to them and that they be guaranteed a minimum wage of £1 per day. (The banned ANC had supported the SACTU demand for minimum wage legislation.)
On 10 January 196 1, the 194 workers informed management that if their demands were not met, the single-decker buses would remain at the depot and the double-deckers would 'go slow'. When demands were not subsequently met, the union members carried out their threat and the workers of New Brighton walked to work. The African drivers were arrested but were allowed out on bail. Although the Company operated a skeleton service during the strike, the Black population of Port Elizabeth boycotted the Bay Transport buses for 40 days, often walking twelve to twenty-eight miles to and from work - an outstanding demonstration of solidarity.
The Port Elizabeth SACTU Local Committee, actively involved in the strike throughout, protested against the recruitment of scab labour by the Company. At one mass meeting chaired by SACTU activist Vuyisile Mini, the workers adopted three significant resolutions, pledging:
(a) to use all available recognized means employed by workers throughout the democratic world to protect workers' rights;
(b) to wage an uncompromising struggle against the Native Labour Act; and
(c) to register the appreciation of the untiring efforts of the bus workers to resolve the bus dispute amicably in spite of the hostile attitude adopted by the representatives of capital.
Finally, because of the economic disruption caused by the boycott, the Mayor of Port Elizabeth, together with representatives of the local Chambers of Commerce and Industry, called both parties to a meeting. At no time during this historic meeting was there any indication that those present regarded the matter as anything other than an industrial dispute; the Mayor and his followers did not consider themselves to be involved in a discussion of 'subversive' activity. They were merely anxious to break the deadlock that had almost brought the city to a standstill.
An independent tribunal was set up after negotiations between the Company and the African drivers failed. The SACTU LC as well as Head Office assisted the workers in the nomination of their legal representative (progressive lawyer, Joe Slovo) and spokesperson (banned trade unionist, Ray Alexander). Ex-Chief Justice Centilivres chaired the tribunal and the case was given a fair hearing.
As a result of the tribunal's findings, the Company raised wages. The starting rate for African drivers was to be £7 13 s . 2 d . per week, rising to £9 18 s . 6 d . and those drivers who did the work of conductors on one-man buses were to be paid an additional 10s. per week. Like their White and Coloured fellow workers, they were to receive an annual bonus representing 3 per cent of their annual pay, they were to be issued with free protective clothing, and they were to be given the right to become members of the Sick Benefit Society. A new SACTU Union, the Bay Transport Company Workers Union was formed on a much stronger basis than its predecessor.
The workers had scored a significant victory, but one which they had to pay for three years later. By 1963, the state had launched a vicious attack on the progressive elements in the Eastern Cape, a traditional stronghold of the banned ANC. Over 1,000 people were arrested in the Port Elizabeth area, the majority forced to serve long prison sentences for having furthered the aims of the ANC after its banning.
Ten of the PE busmen, whose 1961 strike became 'subversive' in 1964, were also among the victims of Apartheid justice. During their trial, the defence brought three leading members of the ANC from Robben Island prison , where they were serving life sentences, to give evidence on behalf of the accused to the effect that their strike was in no way connected with the ANC. But the Magistrate ignored this evidence, concluding that the workers had 'danced to the tune of the ANC' and that by taking part in the strike they had furthered the aims of the banned organization.
The trial received little publicity and the ten workers were herded into prison quietly. Though their sentences were later reduced from the original four and a half years, this case represents a glaring example of the response of the South African ruling class to African workers who dare to challenge the system by demanding improved wages and working conditions through strike action. Upon release from prison, these men were further victimised by being sent out to the Bantustans to rot.
In March 1961, 360 workers, members of a new SACTU affiliate, the Match Workers Union (Durban) staged a successful demonstration at the Lion Match Company, demanding higher wages. The police and the Labour Department tried to intervene but workers refused to speak to them. They won increased wages, a non-contributory pension scheme and a medical benefit fund.
In August of the same year, one of the trade union leaders was dismissed and the factory workers tried to send a deputation to the Manager in regard to his reinstatement. When this failed they held a lunch-hour demonstration with placards stating: 'NO DISMISSALS'; RECOGNIZE OUR UNION';'DEMAND £1 A DAY';'LOW WAGES BREED CRIME'; 'KWASHIORKOR IS KILLING US'. Police were called in and a convoy armed with sten guns arrived. Workers were told to stop demonstrating and their claims would be considered later, but they were not satisfied with this assurance. They were then given five minutes to disperse and 140 were arrested and later released on £5 bail. Of those 140, 136 were charged with an 'illegal strike' and fined £5 or ten days' hard labour. The Durban SACTU Local Committee spared no effort in attempting to negotiate with the management of the firm, but this was refused. Once again the full force of the state was used against the strikers. Though only recently organised into a union, they demonstrated their willingness to stand up to the bosses and government in pressing for trade union rights and a living wage.
In each of these examples of strike action taken by SACTU unions, one thing is common. Despite the restrictions imposed upon African workers even before contemplating strike action, each case has demonstrated the courage and commitment of those workers in their struggle against exploitation. Restrictions like the Native Labour Act and other punitive legislation, the operation of the Labour Bureaux established under this Act, and the threat of the industrial reserve army of unemployed labour being used by the state - all of these obstacles and more did not deter these workers from carrying out their collective strike actions.
Through these various actions these SACTU affiliated unions managed to gain some important concessions from the ruling class; consequently, they prevented an even greater rate of exploitation of themselves and their brothers and sisters in other industries and areas. They also gained for themselves and for other workers a stronger sense of class solidarity and heightened class consciousness. By conceiving of strike action as one method of attack on the whole exploitative system under South African capitalism, workers demonstrated that there is no power greater than the combined force of a united working class.
If, as Lenin said, each strike was a 'school of war' where workers learned more effective ways of carrying forward the struggle against their common enemy, then SACTU was one of the 'classrooms' in which they were taught. As a trade union coordinating body, its role in strike actions was a supportive and educative one. However, because of SACTUs belief in the importance, indeed the necessity, of linking economic with political struggle, the 'lessons' delivered to workers always centred on ways in which one individual strike could be connected to a whole network of broader issues central to the nature of the total society. Again, to quote Lenin:
The struggle of factory Workers against the employers inevitably turns into the struggle against the entire capitalist class, against the whole social order based on the exploitation of labour by capital.
Learning, however, is a dialectical process. What the workers learned from SACTU was at every step along the path of struggle equally matched by the militant inspiration provided by the Black rank-and-file workers themselves