Timeline of the Labour and Trade Union Movement in South Africa 1920 - 1939


Article from 'The Sydney Morning Herald', 26 February 1920Article from 'The Sydney Morning Herald', 26 February 1920

The 1920s saw the dominance of South African labour and trade union politics by the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU). So serious was the threat of the ICU that the government issued a deportation order to its leader, Clements Kadalie. However, at the end of the 1920s, the ICU fragmented and collapsed. Perhaps one of the most significant developments during this period was the 1922 Mineworkers Strike which was heavily put down by the state. The government also passed legislation that had a direct bearing on the labour movement, for example the Apprenticeship Act, the Industrial Conciliation Act and the Wages Act. Towards the end of the decade, a number of trade unions were formed in various sectors of the South African economy. In the following decade of the 1930s, the formation of unions continued and sporadic strikes related to wages increases were organised.
February, When 70,000 African miners down tools demanding higher wages, police are called in to break the strike.
February-December, The price of gold drops from 130 shillings to 95 shillings an ounce. Mine owners decide that they will dismiss up to 10,000 white miners and replace them with black miners, who are paid vastly inferior wages.
Samuel Masabalala, an employee of Lennon’s wholesale chemists in Port Elizabeth, establishes the Native Labour Union in February 1920.
July, African unions hold a conference in Bloemfontein with a view to establishing a national union for African workers. Kadalie and Msimang agree on a constitution, and name the organisation the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICWU). Msimang is made president. When Kadalie fails to secure the position of general-secretary he leads a walkout of the Cape delegation, and establishes the ICU in Cape Town. Msimang tries to reunite the two factions but resigns when Kadalie refuses to co-operate.
After attending the ICWU’s conference in Bloemfontein in July, Masabalala renames the union the ICWU, and begins a campaign for higher wages. The PE City Council calls on Dr Walter Rubusana from East London to dissuade Masabalala, but Rubusana is assaulted by the union leader’s followers and Masabalala is arrested.
23 October, A group of angry workers gather outside the prison where Masabalala is being held, and begin throwing stones. Police and armed civilians respond by shooting at the crowd. Twenty protesters are killed and 126 wounded. Three white bystanders are also killed. An official commission of inquiry finds that the shootings were unjustified, and the state awards £2857 to families of the victims, most of the money going to the white families of the bystanders. Only £153 goes to the families of the black protesters. About 30,000 people attend the funeral of the protesters. Masabalala is charged for public violence but is acquitted.
Indian tobacco workers go on strike in Durban
November, Clements Kadalie, originally from Nyasaland (now Malawi), is served with a deportation order.
December, White mineworkers engage in sporadic strikes after the Chamber of Mines announces that it is abandoning the agreement not to replace white mineworkers with black mineworkers. The Chamber announces that 2000 semi-skilled white men will be replaced by black mineworkers.
The ICWU is absorbed into the ICU, headed by Kadalie.
July, Black municipal workers in Port Elizabeth secure a cost-of-living allowance.
January-March, White workers go on strike in what becomes the Rand Revolt. Strikes begin in collieries in the Transvaal coal mines and soon spread to the Reef, mostly in the East Rand. The miners are joined by engineering and foundry workers, among others.
10 January, Mines grind to a halt and a generalised disorder takes hold, and Whites begin to indiscriminately assault and kill blacks.
6 March, A call is made for a general strike. As many as 20 000 white miners observe the call. The workers soon make a bid for a full-scale revolution, trying to take over the city.
8 March, Afrikaner workers try to take over the post office and power station, but are stopped by the police. On 10 March violence reaches a critical level. The rebels take Brakpan, and fight for control of Benoni and Springs. The new airforce is deployed, and the Benoni Workers Hall is bombed. Brixton police are under siege for 48 hours.
11 March, Martial law is proclaimed. The rebels, holding out at Brixton Ridge, are attacked by a force of soldiers and citizens, and 2200 prisoners are taken.
15 March, Workers at their Fordsburg stronghold come under artillery attack, and fall to government troops, marking the effective end of the revolt. Two communist leaders, Fisher and Spendiff, commit suicide.
15-19 March, Government troops engage in mop-up operations. About 200 people died and more than 1000 were injured during the revolt. Prime Minister Jan Smuts is heavily criticised for brutally suppressing the strike, and loses the 1924 election to Hertzog’s National Party – in a pact with the Labour Party. Throughout the strike, the ICU supports the government.
The Apprenticeship Act is passed and limits most apprenticeship programs to Whites.
The ICU establishes several branches in rural districts.
The Industrial Conciliation Act, which established procedures for consultation between employers' organisations and trade unions, is passed. No union representing black Africans is allowed to register under the Act since its definition of ‘employee’ excluded ‘pass-bearing natives’.
March, The South African Association of Employees Organisation, later renamed the South African Trade Union Congress (SATUC), is established as confederation to promote industrial relations among white workers. It represents an estimated 30 000 workers. 
The ICU claims a membership of 50,000 and relocates its headquarters from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
The Wage Act is passed which allows for the establishment of minimum wage rates of all employees regardless of race.
The Artisan Staff Association (ASA) is formed as a sectional union to represent railway artisans and related semi-skilled workers.
The Sweetmakers Union is established and organised by the Women Workers Union (WWU).  
Clements Kadalie, originally from Nyasaland, becomes subject to South Africa’s pass laws, and is convicted for entering Natal without a permit.
May, In a May Day address, Kadalie urges workers to overthrow capitalism and establish a workers’ commonwealth. However, by December, under the influence of a liberal coterie including Margaret Ballinger, the ICU adopts a motion at the national council meeting prohibiting members of the ICU from belonging to the Communist Party. Despite revolts at branches in Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg, the decision is endorsed at the seventh annual congress in April 1927.
The Mines and Works Amendment Act of 1926 firmly establishes the principle of the colour bar in certain mining jobs.
April, The South African Trade Union Congress (TUC) is formed.
December, An ultimatum is issued to the communists within the ICU to choose between the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) and the ICU. Those who choose not to resign are expelled.
Kadalie goes to Switzerland and Britain in the hope of earning the ICU international recognition.
The Canvas and Rope Workers Union is established.   
The ICU claims a membership of 100,000, and applies for membership of the SA Trade Union Congress, but is refused.
June, Kadalie travels to Geneva to attend the conference of the International Labour Organisation as an unofficial delegate, and then delivers lectures in Europe, returning to South Africa ‘more moderate’, according to D du Toit. Kadalie is by now engaging in behaviour frowned upon by other unionists: he travels to and from Europe in a first class suite, staying in luxurious hotels.
September, Following threats made by Nationalist Minister of Justice Tielman Roos to introduce a ‘Sedition Bill’ in response to the mobilising of African workers by the Communist Party, the government introduces the ‘hostility clause’, which states:
‘Any person who utters any words or does any other act or thing whatever with intent to promote any feeling of hostility between Natives and Europeans, shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment not exceeding one year or to a fine of one hundred pounds or both.’
The ICU applies for affiliation to the South African Trade Union Congress (SATUC) a trade union confederation composed of mostly all-white trade unions. SATUC rejects the ICU’s application fearing domination by a largely black trade union movement.
March, The Federation of Non-European Trade Unions (FNETU) is established on the Witwatersrand. It has five unions and represents 10,000 workers.  Benny Weinbren is elected as President, Moses Kotane as Vice-President and James La Guma becomes the General Secretary. Other leading figures were TW Thibedi, Gana Makabeni, and Solly Sachs, all of whom were recently expelled from the Communist Party after internecine quarrels.
The Native Laundry Workers Union is established by Ben Weinbren, and enters into a cooperative agreement with a white union. 
The South African Clothing Workers Union is established.
May, African workers under the African Laundry Workers Union (ALWU) go on strike protesting against the victimisation of one employee, and the police are called in to quall the strike. 
May, The Clothing Workers Union go on strike in Johannesburg demanding full payment for Good Friday.
May, A. G. W. Champion, a former policeman and mine clerk from Natal leaves the ICU and establishes his own organisation, the ICU yase Natal (ICU of Natal). 
July, WG Ballinger,a Scottish trade unionist, arrives in South Africa as a financial adviser to the ICU.
September, A hundred and seventy African, Indian and Coloured workers belonging to the  Mattress and Furniture Workers Union go on strike at the Transvaal Mattress Company over wages.
October, The ICU leads a campaign for higher wages at the government laboratory at Onderstepoort. The government refuses to negotiate and their representatives are dismissed. When workers mount a protest strike, 71 workers are arrested and many are dismissed.
The ICU in Natal comes out in support of a boycott of municipal beer canteens. Mobs of white men in Weenen and Greytown attack the offices of the ICU.
January, Kadalie resigns from the ICU and forms a new trade union, the Independent ICU (IICU) with headquarters in East London.
May, The Independent ICU led by Kadalie applies for affiliation to the League Against Imperialism.
June, Two white men are killed when they try to storm an ICU hall in Durban. The people in the hall then come under siege, and when ICU dockworkers try to defend the besieged, police open fire, killing six. The people in the hall eventually surrender to the police.
The CPSA launches the African Federation of Trade Unions, which has limited success, but does much work in the Transvaal.
The CPSA organises workers, and from 1936 to 1945, 27 unions are established in Natal.
The CPSA activists organises workers in the clothing and milling industries, among others in the Western Cape.
The Transvaal Leather Workers Union is established through the efforts of AA Merkel after the collapse of the national branch of the National Leather Workers Union.
In the Transvaal, Max Gordon, a Trotskyite, opposes the CPSA and organises a number of unions, favouring the strategy of making representations to the wage board, which was supported by the Department of Labour. Wage and other gains bring more members, and by 1939 eleven unions representing 20 000 workers form the Joint Committee of African Workers (JCAW), with Gordon as its secretary. He is interned in 1940 for opposing the war and the committee goes into decline, as Gordon had failed to develop a corps of union leaders.
January, Kadalie’s ‘Independent ICU’ organises a strike of rail and harbour workers, but the workers manage only to keep the strike going for less than a week. Police arrest Kadalie and eight IICU leaders, and they are charged for incitement to public violence.
October, The All-in Trades Union Conference held at Cape Town where it is agreed to establish the African Trades and Labour Council which brings together unions with vastly different traditions.
The Native Services Contract Act is passed and is aimed at forcing Africans to honour conditions of any contracts that they signed or accepted.
Spoorbondis founded by Afrikaans speaking railway clerks who quickly established it among the semiskilled and unskilled white workers.
The Garment Workers’ Union is formed and afterwards split from the tailors who also formed the Tailoring Workers Industrial Union.
African laundry workers go on strike, and the TL provides financial support for the strike. 
Black railway workers launch the SA Railway and Harbours Workers Union (SARHWU) in Cape Town, partly as a response to Afrikaner attempts to expel black workers from railway unions. It establishes branches in all the provinces and by the early 1940s has a membership of 20,000.
The Iron and Steel Trade Association is formed by Iron and Steel Corporation (ISCOR)’s Afrikaans speaking semi-skilled and unskilled white workers.
The beginning of World War II leads to the growth of the domestic manufacturing sector, especially since import substitution industries flourish. Industries are forced to use black workers after thousands of white workers go to war. The demands of a war economy also stimulate manufacturing, and the black labour force grows exponentially, opening the way for unions to enlist new recruits.
Eleven unions with an estimated membership of 20 000 members establish the Joint Committee of African Trade Unions (JCATU) under the leadership of Max Gordon, a Troskyite who was fiercely opposed to CPSA.

Last updated : 03-Dec-2012

This article was produced by South African History Online on 12-Nov-2012

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