A history of the Garment Workers Industrial Union (Natal), c. 1934 – 1945

Around one-thousand people were employed in the Natal clothing industry in the early 1930s. At least half of the workforce was getting paid less than the prescribed minimum. A group of Indian workers asked Jimmy Bolton to assist them in forming the union.

The Garment Workers Industrial Union(GWIU) was officially launched in August 1934.  Around 300 garment workers attended the union’s inaugural meeting in a rented hall in Durban’s West Street.

Jimmy Bolton’s furniture union initially provided them with office space and some financial support, and Jimmy is said to have paid rent out of his own pocket. Nearly half of the union’s first executive committee were white women, while Indian men comprised the rest of the committee, reflecting the demographics of garment workers in Durban at that stage. The union’s formative years were some of their most combative, with several lightning strikes recorded from 1933 to 1935. Union members and shop-stewards were victimised at work.  

One of the GWIU’s first battles was coordinating a fair wage campaign. The GWIU gradually promoted Indian, Coloured and female officials, and offered genuine benefits. The GWIU was to be a central force in the reconstruction of the Indian working class away from the desperate conditions that prevailed in the militant era of the 1930s and 1940s.

Last updated : 03-Feb-2014

This article was produced by South African History Online on 03-Feb-2014

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