Soon after the 1971 garment workers’ strike at Currie’s Fountain, three students from the Durban campus of the University of Natal –David Hemson, Halton Cheadle and David Davis - arrived at Bolton Hall and volunteered their services. The students were acting on the advice of Durban activist academic Rick Turner, who challenged them to put theory learnt at university into practice.
These and other students did assist with organising Indian workers, but their focus was, from the start, was to establish contact with African workers. From 1971, this core group of Durban National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), together with others, began to play an increasingly important role in the affairs of the Bolton Hall unions.
NUSAS then formed Durban Students Wages Commission.
The Wages Commission (WC) immediate mandate was an investigation into the wages and working conditions of unskilled black university staff. Ultimately, it aimed to gather information and publicise “starvation wages” in other industries too. Soon afterwards, NUSAS set up WC branches at Pietermaritzburg, Rhodes, UCT and Wits.
With Harriet Bolton’s support, the WC Durban branch’s first campaign began in early June 1971.The WC printed and circulated pamphlets, at factory gates, detailing the Wage Board’s latest recommendations for wages for unskilled workers.
The pamphlets, pointed out that the R6, 80 for females and R8, 50 for males recommended by the Wage Board was less than half of the Poverty Datum Line (PDL) of R16.30 a week.
Workers were also encouraged to attend a meeting at the Bolton Hall to express their dissatisfaction with the recommendation. Ultimately, their representations were ignored and the recommendation was gazetted. The day after the meeting, workers at a foundry outside of Durban stopped work, and holding WC pamphlets in their hands, demanded pay increases. The strike was unsuccessful.
Over the next few months WC activists, encouraged workers to attend several Wage Board meetings. Pamphlets urged workers to list their wages and their expenses. The students compiled these inventories and presented it as evidence before the Wage Board.
The Durban and Cape Town dockworkers’ Wage Board hearings in July 1972 were explosive, and were closely followed by two strikes when the PDL was not granted.
In June 1972 at a meeting of African textile, furniture and garment workers at the Bolton Hall, they showed little interest for the idea of a union, pitched by David Hemson. Instead, Harriet suggested a funeral benefit fund, which could attract workers to a common organisation. Workers readily took up this idea.
The WC must be credited with creating a new opportunity for political mobilisation by persistently championing the utility of survey data and by persuading dockworkers to cite the PDL. Reference to the PDL could now be used to contain the contentious, racialised problem of labour exploitation in South Africa within the judicious language of statistics.