Timeline of the Labour and Trade Union Movement in South Africa 1940 - 1959


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The period between 1940 and 1959 was punctuated by a number of significant developments in the Labour and Trade Union Movement. In 1941, the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) was formed as an umbrella body of trade unions. The CNETU brought together African workers and became the largest trade union federation at the time. Another event in the 1940s was a major strike by led by the African Mineworkers Union (AMWU) which broke out in the rand in August 1946. Nine people were killed and over a thousand others injured as the government attempted to end the strike. The ascension of the Apartheid government to power in 1948 and its implementation of legislated racial segregation forced the labour movement and the liberation movement to work together even more closely to fight Apartheid. Consequently, progressive members of the Trades and Labour Council (TLC) joined forces with CNETU unions to form the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) in 1954. SACTU then joined the ANC-led Congress Alliance, and its members took part in anti-Apartheid resistance campaigns of the 1950s.
Gana Makabeni and others organise workers in various sectors in the Transvaal and form the Co-ordinating Committee of African Trade Unions which excludes whites and communists.
The Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU) is established by Ray Alexander and focuses on factory floor issues such as wages and recognition. The FCWU survives throughout the apartheid era and some of its leaders become founder members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985.
Initiatives by the Transvaal branch of the African National Congress (ANC) lead to the formation of the African Mineworkers Union (AMWU), led by John Beaver Marks, a member of the ANC and the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA).
November, Talks between unions lead to the formation of the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) with Gana Makabeni as president and Dan Tloome as vice president. It is a loose coalition, its member unions ranged from the better organised to the barely organised. The CNETU maintains good relations with the government, and even invites Madeley, the Labour Minister to open conferences. By 1945 the CNETU had 158,000 members in 119 affiliates.
August, Prompted by two CPSA members – Gaur Radebe and Edwin Mofutsanyane – the ANC National Exectuive Committee (NEC) and the Transvaal branch of the ANC hold a conference to discuss the formation of a mineworkers' union. Eighty delegates from 41 organisations attend, and resolve to organise workers. A committee of 15 is formed, with J.B Marks as president, and as vice president James Majoro, a leader of the Native Mine Clerks Association.
The Western Province and District Council of Trade Unions is established.
February, A wave of strikes leads to a significant increase in wages, and the government of Jan Smuts introduces War Measure 145 to outlaw strike activity. Smuts also tries to get employers to introduce decent wage increases to avert strike activity. The general level of strike activity decreases, although some illegal strikes take place, and are forcefully put down.
In Johannesburg the Sweet Workers Union goes on strike demanding a 60% increase.
Report of the Witwatersrand Mine Native Wages Commission on the Remuneration and Conditions of Natives on Witwatersrand Gold Mines, known as the Lansdowne Commission, declares that the industry is not in a position to raise wages without shortening the life of mining companies.
August, An estimated 308 374 Africans are employed as miners in the gold mining industry.
August, The African Mineworkers Union (AMWU) holds its annual conference, with 700 delegates from all shades of African political parties in attendance, as well as 1300 union members. Delegates discuss the Lansdowne Commission. When delegates call for a strike, their demand is tempered by union executives anxious not to sabotage the war effort. They reach a compromise, and call for the implementation of the recommendations of the Lansdowne Commission, although these are described as ‘hopelessly inadequate and unsatisfactory’. The resolution also calls for Wage Board enquiry, and for the labour movement to protest against the ‘continuous attempts of mining management to victimise and intimidate active members of the AMWU’.
AMWU claims a membership of about 25,000.
March, AMWU holds a mass emergency meeting, demanding the repeal of War Measure 145 and the retrospective implementation of the recommendations of the Lansdowne Commission.
June, AMWU leaders meet with the Acting Prime Minister and cabinet ministers and call for a wage increase and implementation of the recommendations of the Lansdowne Commission, but are not successful.
March, Following severe food shortages in 1945, food rations to all Witwatersrand mines are cut. At Crown Mines, 5,000 workers refuse to eat the substandard food from the mine kitchens. At the Modderfontein East Mine, a food riot breaks out, and one miner is killed and 40 injured. At New Kleinfontein mine, 2000 attend a protest over poor food conditions.
April, AMWU holds its annual conference. Its 2000 delegates resolve to demand a minimum wage of 10/d, family housing, two weeks paid leave, a £100 gratuity after 15 years of service, payment of repatriation fees, and the repeal of War Measure 1425.
June, The Transvaal Council of Non-European Trade Unions resolves to give full support to a possible AMWU strike.
12 August, Attempts by AMWU to hold talks with the Chamber of Mines are rejected. The chamber refuses to talk, negotiate or even reply to AMWU’s correspondence. AMWU responds by calling for a strike on 12 August, demanding improved working conditions for its mineworkers. Some 76,000 workers respond to the call, staying away from work for one week before police step in to crush the strike. Police drive the strikers into underground shafts. Twelve workers are killed and 1,200 injured, and about 50 union and CPSA leaders are charged with sedition. The workers return to work by 17 August, with none of their demands having been met.
At the Sedition trial, one compound manager testifies that Africans were not allowed to organise workers, and that it was Chamber policy to ‘get rid of anybody trying to organise workers’.
The apartheid government introduces the Suppression of Communism Act, thereby banning the CPSA. The law affects communists as well as non-communists, and many are forced to resign from their positions in unions. Unions are also separated into racial sections and job reservation is intensified. The government announces that it will never recognise black unions.
The Trades and Labour Council (TLC), to which most established unions belong, supports the exclusion of African trade unions as members, and as a result goes into terminal decline. Most of its members leave and form the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA), which tries to control black unions when it is not excluding them. Other members of the TLC join with Afrikaner nationalist unions to form the South African Confederation of Labour (SACL).
1 May, A general strike against all discriminatory laws and demand for ‘full franchise rights for all’ is held. Police open fire in the Alexandra Township and other areas on the Reef, killing 18 and wounding 30 people.
A commission of inquiry into Industrial Legislation recommends the incorporation of African unions into a separate highly controlled negotiating system, but the apartheid state rejects the findings, declaring instead that it seeks to ‘bleed the African trade unions to death’.
The Bantu Labour Settlement of Disputes Act is passed. The Act prohibits the recognition of African trade unions, leaving African workers to negotiate with employers on an individual basis through works and liaison committees.
October, African unions are voted out of the Trades and Labour Council after which the TLC is reformed as the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA).
6 March, Progressive members of the TLC joined forces with CNETU unions to form the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) in Johannesburg. SACTU has nine affiliates and a membership of 20,000, but the number of affiliates grow to 35 representing a membership of 46,000 by 1959.
March, The first annual conference of SACTU is held.
SACTU joins the ANC-led Congress Alliance, and its members take part in the resistance campaigns of the 1950s.
The Industrial Conciliation Amendment Act prohibits Africans from joining registered unions, and forces Indian and Coloured workers into segregated unions.
26 June, SACTU launches the ‘pound-a-day campaign’, and calls for a stay-away. Between 70% and 80% of workers in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Vereeniging heed the call, and workers’ wages are significantly increased for the first time since the end of the war.
15 March, SACTU decides at its conference to call for a three-day strike under the slogans ‘Forward to Pound-a-Day Victory’ and ‘The Nats Must Go’. The ANC supports the call, and the strike date is set to fall on the same day as the whites-only general election. There is a mixed response to the call, and the ANC calls off the strike, causing tension between the ANC and SACTU. 

Last updated : 05-Dec-2012

This article was produced by South African History Online on 23-Nov-2012

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