Garment Workers Union (GWU)

A march of the Garment Workers Union in support of Solly Sachs, their leader.

Formed in 1928 by Emil Solomon (Solly) Sachs, this was a union of women factory workers that transcended barriers of colour and class.  In the late 1920s and 1930s, most of the tailors and dressmakers in South Africa had come from Eastern Europe.  They had brought with them a militant trade union tradition which was reflected in the formation of the Transvaal Garment Workers Union (GWU).

Jobs for women in factories were generally poorly paid and of low status.  Before 1928, women workers were not represented on any union committees. The garment industry employed Coloured, Black and White women. The White women workers in the garment industry were mainly young Afrikaans-speaking girls who had come to the Witwatersrand from the rural areas looking for work during the Depression.  Solly Sachs sympathized with their poor living and working conditions. He organized the women in the garment industry across colour and class, and under his guidance, the GWU became the most active and controversial trade union of its time. He worked closely with two women, Johanna Scheepers and Johanna Cornelius, who also held leading positions in the GWU.  He led several strikes, including two general strikes in 1931 and 1932. The latter was to protest a proposed wage decrease and caused much disruption.

The GWU proved difficult to sustain. Society was too segregated.  Solly Sachs was arrested several times and tried under the Suppression of Communism Act. He left South Africa in 1953 and settled in England.  He said his position in South Africa had become untenable.

Last updated : 28-Feb-2018

This article was produced by South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011

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