In 1971, GWIU workers walked out of Natal clothing factories, demanding a living wage and effectively halted industry for the day. In doing so, they participated in the first regional industry-wide strike since the GWIU’s 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.
On 23 February, nearly the entire membership of the GWIU, of around 24 000 workers, met at Currie’s Fountain.
Two days after the strike, the union sent out a circular, informing members that a settlement had been negotiated and all their demands, including a 20 percent increase in wages, met.
During the negotiations, workers took a decision not to participate in any incentive bonus schemes and not to work any overtime. The African workers in the industry agreed to this as well, and fully supported to their colleagues.
The strike was hugely significant for the GWIU, as well as for Indian workers. It had been over twenty years since Indian workers had directly, and collectively, challenged Durban employers and the state.
Although the union work was not performed in alliance with a political movement, yet the police paid a great amount of interest to the GWIU’s negotiations.
In the late 1960s, Harriet set out to encourage greater worker participation in the GWIU. Over the next three years, Harriet and the executive attempted to introduce more democracy into union structures and improve contact with workers.
The GWIU’s agreement had set the ‘rate for the job’, but had different wage scales for women and men doing the same job. Harriet began taking this issue up seriously from the early 1970s. Accounting for well over half of the 26 000 strong GWIU workforce, Indian women supported the 1971 Currie’s Fountain strike, and later 37 women Indian workers at a garment factory were fired after a walk-out in support of their shop steward.
At this stage, women workers made up around one third of workers in textile factories nationally while Indian women workers formed 75 percent of the 25 000 garment workers. With a majority female workforce in the garment industry, the issue was only tabled during a meeting in 1973, where Harriet suggested eliminating the different wage rates for men and women doing the same work.