From the book: Working Life - Factories, Township and Popular Culture 1886 - 1940 by Luli Callinicos


NEW FACTORIES, NEW WORKERS described how rapid growth in the manufacturing industry led to a change in the labour process in the factories — new machines speeded up production and jobs were split up into smaller These tasks could be repeated over and over again, and could be done by semi-skilled workers. As a result, craft workers were deskilled and many of their jobs fell away. New workers, black and white, took over more and more of the productive work. This section traces the rise of the semi-skilled worker and new worker organisations.

Cheaper labour

The new workers got jobs fairly easily because they were paid lower wage rates than craft workers. They had to accept low wages because they were weakly organised, with little bargaining power. (For example, in 1926 white women were starting on two-rand a week, which was the same wage as black men in the industry were earning.)’

Women workers were paid a third less than white men, in line with the official Wage Board policy. The reasoning was that women did not need higher wages because they were supported by their fathers and husbands.

But this argument was false. Most white women workers at that time were Afrikaners fresh from the land. (Black women had not yet left the land in large numbers. When they did find jobs in the towns, they tended to find work as domestic workers. Black women began to enter factories as workers only during and after World War II.)

These Afrikaner women had not only to support themselves in the town, but also to send money home to help their struggling families in the countryside.

Black factory workers, too, were paid equally low wages and similar reasons were given. Employers argued that as their families lived off the land, black workers needed to be paid only enough for one person. Factory owners were using the same excuses as the mine owners had to justify the miserable wages paid mine workers on the Rand.

But this was a false argument, too. In the first place, the removal of land through conquest and the1913 Land Act caused growing poverty in the count side. Land shortage was the very reason why blacks were entering the towns in search of wage labour.

In fact, most black factory workers were settling the towns with their families. Factory owners tended choose settled townspeople rather than migrant workers. They found that production went faster with an experienced, stable work force that would not leave after a short time. As time went by, more and more black factory workers had to support their families in the towns from their meagre wages. As one observer noted in 1928:

‘Much of the semi-skilled work which formed part of the skilled man’s work was handed over to the native, generally without any increase in wages.'

Young apprentices also earned low wages and employers therefore preferred them to craft workers.

In the furniture industry on the Rand in 1928, for instance, there were 734-apprenticed workers compared with only 596 skilled workers. Apprentices worked under a contract that lasted from five to six years. As act workers they were not allowed to strike or join a union. Their bargaining power was therefore low-and so were their wages.

The Furniture Workers’ Union saw that apprentices were being used as cheap labour, and raised the question:

'Is systematic apprenticeship a practical and satisfactory method today, remembering that the young worker is bound by contract from five to six years to an occupation wherein mass production and repetition work has replaced technique and skill?’

As they became qualified, many apprentices were discharged and had to look for new jobs. During the 1930s, semi-skilled furniture workers demanded a change in the Apprenticeship Act, while on the other the old craft unions strongly supported it as protection against deskilling in the factories. However, the growing numbers of white women and black workers available, the use of apprentices as a form of labour gradually fell away.

These three groups of new workers — white women, workers and young white apprentices — formed deskilled, lower-paid labour base of early mass production on the Rand.

Industrial School for white apprentices in the early 1930's

New unions

The semi-skilled workers formed new kinds of unions. These were more suited to the new organisation of work and division of labour in the factories. Semiskilled workers could not organise along craft lines because they did not have craft skills or traditions. Instead, they organised themselves into general or industrial unions.

In the l920s and l930s three kinds of unions:

  • Firstly, there was the nation-wide general union of black workers — the ICU. Its history, its successes and its failures have been described.
  • Then there were the whites-only unions of South Africa’s two largest employers, the mines and the railways, and later the iron and steel union, Yster en Staal. The reasons for their strict racial policies are indicated in. Afrikaner Nationalism in the Unions. See also ‘Civilised Labour’ and Deskilling on the Railways.

The members of these unions relied on the state to protect their jobs and wages, rather than on class struggle and trade union action. So, just as the labour process in the workplace was racially divided, so the organisations of the workers in these industries were formed along racial and not class lines.

  • Thirdly, most of the industrial trade unions, registered and unregistered, developed along racially parallel lines. The histories of the struggles of some of these unions are described in Black Trade Unions after the ICU and The Story of the Garment Workers’ Union.

The most important trade unions to emerge on the Rand in the l920s were the leather, clothing and furniture unions, followed a few yeas later by unions in the laundry, rope and canvas, chemical and sweet industries. These were the industries that employed most semi-skilled workers, whether black or white. They were also the industries, which grew most rapidly. The unions in these industries were the most active in the years between the two world wars (1918-1939), as is illustrated in the chart.

Heavy industries, like the metal industry, were slower to introduce machines — to mechanise -because of the very high cost of heavy machinery. So the labour process in that industry continued to be based on craft work for a much longer time. Their unions remained craft unions until after World War II. It was thus the change to mass production that led to industrially-based trade unions.

Industrial bargaining

The growth of the new trade unions was encouraged by the Industrial Conciliation Act — as described in Labour Laws in the 1920s — because it demanded industry-by-industry bargaining.

But some labour leaders pointed out the dangers of the Act. Bill Andrews, secretary of the Trade Union Council, argued that the Industrial Conciliation Act ‘made a successful legal strike almost an impossibility’.

A veteran trade unionist said years later that the Act encouraged bureaucracy instead of union action:

‘My personal opinion was that it [the Industrial Conciliation Act] was a means of control. The Industrial Council was in a sense a retarding factor, keeping back the class-consciousness of the worker — the whole system needed inspectors, district committees to monitor, and then the law courts. It cut the wings of the trade union movement. But we had strikes. Strictly speaking they were illegal. I got fined for organising illegal strikes, and I was also banned under the Riotous Assemblies Act.’

Thus during the 1930s the industrial trade unions could not rely on the Industrial Council, labour laws and the supposedly pro-labour Pact Government. T had to take militant action to further their interests.

The Changing Nature of Unions in the Trades and Labour Council

  1925 1937


Affiliated Plasterers’ Trade Union of South Africa
Amalgamated Building Trade Union of South Africa
Amalgamated Engineering Union
Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers
South African Boilermakers’ Society
Building Workers’ Industrial Union
South African Typographical Union
Witwatersrand Tailors’ Association


Baking Employees’ Association
Johannesburg Tramwaymen’s Union
Mineral Water Employees’ Union
National Vehicle Builders’ Union

Affiliated members
Amalgamated Engineering Union
Iron moulders’ Society of South Africa
South African Boilermakers’ Society
South African Typographical Union
Tailoring Workers’ Industrial Union (TVL)
Total 5 367
Affliated members
African Laundry Workers’ Union
Brewery Employees’ Union (Cape)
Building Workers’ Industrial Union
1 500
Bloemfontein Municipal Tramway and Bus Employees’ Union
Bloemfontein Motor Transport Workers’ Union
Stevedoring Dock Workers’ Union
Commercial Employees’ Union
in Municipal Tramway and Motor Employees’ Union
Furniture Workers’ Union (Tvl)
1 005
Garment Workers’ Union (Tvl)
2 000
Hotel, Bar and Catering Trades Employees’ Union
Johannesburg Municipal Transport Workers’ Union
Port Elizabeth and Catering Trades Employees’ Union
Port Elizabeth Tram and Bus Workers’ Union
Pretoria Municipal Tramway and Bus Workers’ Union
Native Trade) Assistants’ Union
African Cinematograph Operators’ Union
African Garment Workers’ Union
African Railway and Harbour Workers’ Union
Transvaal Explosives and Chemical Workers
Workers’ Industrial Union (South Africa)
Transvaal Leather and Allied Trades Industrial Union
Transvaal Retail Butchers’ Blockmen’s and Ordermens’ Association


Witwatersrand Baking Employees’ Association
Wiwatersrand Liquor and Catering Trade employees’ Union
Total 8 309

Industrial unions had grown very rapidly in 12 years, surpass-craft unions in numbers by 1937. At the same time, the small size of most of these trade unions shows how few organised workers there were, partly because these industries were just beginning to develop.

Racial division in the unions

The Industrial Conciliation Act had an added result. Led workers by excluding African men from bargaining rights and from membership of registered unions. (See Black Trade Unions After the ICU). The racial separation of the workers by law encouraged a racism that already existed amongst workers.

Racism occurred most readily in those unions where relied on protected jobs, as described in Afrikaner Nationalism in the Unions, and also THE DIVIDED WORKERS of Gold and Workers. The 1922 strike for example, started by the Mine Workers’ Union, racial demands, and was mainly about keeping jobs for whites. One industrial union organiser

‘On no occasion [during the strike] did anyone suggest that blacks should be brought in on the strike. They could have smashed this place to smithereens. But the cause of the strike was a black/white ratio.’

White miners were a privileged class of workers (a ‘labour aristocracy’), whereas black miners were the most exploited workers on the Rand. Afrikaner nationalists were able to play upon this division to find a base amongst white workers, as Afrikaner Nationalism in the Unions shows. Similarly, white workers on the railways and in the iron and steel industry turned to Afrikaner nationalism because it promised to protect their jobs as ‘civilised labour'.

Non-racial cooperation in the unions

The industrial unions, by contrast, had a more open tradition, which went back to the l920s. Under conditions of mass production, the interests of black and white workers did not necessarily clash — both white and black workers were productive, and both were semi-skilled workers. There were bonds of interest especially between white women and black workers, as we have seen, because both were used as cheap labour.

The division of labour in those early years of mass production did not go according to race — for example, in the clothing industry black and white worked together. Most cleaners were white women, while the more skilled job of pressing the garments usually went to African men.

An example of non-racial solidarity amongst workers was the 1928 strike at the Ideal Laundry, in Johannesburg, when all the black workers struck in support of a white woman worker who had been victimised.’ There were a number of such examples in the late l920s. However, there were also occasions when white workers failed to come out on strike in support of their black fellow-workers.

In spite of the conservatism of many white workers, their workplace’ situation made them realise that the way to improve their bargaining position was to unite with black workers. In the late 1920s, the garment, leather, furniture, and canvas unions dropped the colour bar against Indian and ‘coloured’ membership. They also held joint meetings with the African unions, which in many cases they helped to organise. Black and white laundry workers went a step further and had a joint executive committee. Their unions actually merged for a short while in 1935.

In 1930, the Trade Union Council and the Cape Federation of Labour unions held a joint, multi-racial meeting to form the South African Trades and Labour Council (the TLC). The new council called for nonracial unions and demanded that racial labour laws, such as the Native Administration Act and the racial clause in the Industrial Conciliation Act (excluding African men from registered unions) be abolished.

Although their actions were slower than their words, the TLC at least gave money to help establish African unions in the late 1930s. (See Black Trade Unions After the ICU.)

Cooperation and solidarity between the registered and unregistered unions continued after the depression. For instance, after a non-racial strike in Natal in 1935, the Transvaal Textile

Workers’ Union passed a resolution at their next meeting:

‘that we organise all South African textile workers irrespective of race, colour or creed into one union.”

The union remained non-racial for nearly twenty years.

In 1942 the Johannesburg sweet workers’ Union went on strike for a sixty percent increase in wages:

‘One of the finest features of the strike was the unity and solidarity between the Europeans and the African strikers, both determined not to return to work unless the wage demands of the other were agreed to by the bosses.’

The solidarity of the two unions succeeded and both black and white workers got their wage increase. This cooperation between the registered and unregistered unions in the sweet industry continued until 1948 —African workers refused to cross the picket lines of registered union members during strikes, and the registered workers continued to push for equal wages for Africans in the industry.

Democratic organisations

As we have seen, it was the democratically organist registered unions which cooperated on a number of occasions with the black unregistered unions. This was not a coincidence.

Workers in these unions had not become part of the system, which divided them racial into productive workers (black) and supervisors (white). In unions like the Garment Workers’ Union participation by workers was stressed. Shop stewards had to obtain mandates from the workers they represented. Although the union lead required special skills and a good understanding of labour law, they also depended on mandates from’ membership. Their decisions had to be confirmed general meetings.

By contrast the ‘whites only' unions on the mine and in government-owned industries like the railway left decisions to the union officials. These leaders were responsible to themselves rather than to the workers, and also developed close links with the employers. The underlying reason for this was that these unions relied on the policies of the state to protect their jobs, rather than on worker organisation.

Up to World War II registered unions like the GWU remained democratic and militant. They used the strike weapon as much as they used government laws to improve wages and working conditions. In the l930s, were strikes in the leather, garment, textile, food canning, and sweet industries, as examples in the topics will show. During and after World War II the militancy of unions declined. As the factories grew, the racial division of labour in mass production changed white men joined the army, more and more workers joined the factories and many white a workers took up clerical posts. And as the division of labour became more marked, the inions began to assume a more racial character, until in the early 1950s most registered and unregistered unions— pushed by the state — broke off relations completely.


This has shown how changes in the labour process affected worker organisation. It has shown how racial divisions of labour in the mining and iron and steel industries, as well as on the railways, led to racially exclusive unions. On the other hand, mass production in its early stages, led to the employment of semi-skilled labour, regardless of colour. This in turn led to class-based unions, which cooperated across the racial divide, as far as the law would allow.

But to argue that racial division by employers in the process was the only reason for racism in trade would be misleading, for we cannot separate workplace from South African society as a whole.

For a start the government itself encouraged racial divisions.

  • We have seen how, for example, the Pact Government stepped in to give aid to poor whites, and not to poor blacks. For political reasons, it encouraged capitalists to employ whites rather than blacks (where it’ was profitable!) As an employer itself, the government applied the ‘civilised labour’ policy in state industries.
  • The government’s labour laws, too, deliberately aimed to divide the workers racially. In the Industrial Council, even the registered industrial unions, which as we have seen were largely sympathetic to the black registered unions, tended to push their own wage demands in preference to those of black workers.<
  • Furthermore, in the Transvaal, the Orange Free State and Natal the state allowed only whites to vote for parliament — in the Cape, African men had the vote taken away from them in 1936. (Black women never had the vote.)

White workers — men and women — had the vote, and this gave them political and economic power. It allowed them the freedom to look for work in an open job market, while black workers had to carry passes. White workers were able to push for better housing and transport. They were able to mix with the growing white middle class socially and in public places, and most aspired to become like them.

As a result black workers were separated from white workers outside the workplace. They therefore experienced different living conditions and took part in different struggles. Racial discrimination weakened the bargaining power of black workers, kept their wages miserably low, and caused them to develop a different way of life in town.

The lives and living conditions of workers outside the workplace are discussed in the next two sections.