The Role of Organized Labor

Union organizing began in fits and starts after the Durban strikes ended in mid-1973, but the union movement began to demonstrate an ability to survive and to grow, so much so that the government in 1977 appointed Professor Nic Wiehahn to head a commission to investigate the country’s labor laws. Years later, he stated that the pressure to set up the commission and to change the labor laws had come from industrial leaders who recognized that labor unrest caused by the strikes was costing them lots of money, and they wanted to be able to recover damages. On May 1, 1979 (interestingly enough, International Labor Day), the first of the Weihahn reports was issued. As expected, it sought to control labor and to avoid polarization and “inculcate a sense of responsibility to the free market” on the part of African unions. However, despite the attempt to control the pace of unionization, the most important factor was that Weihahn proposed official recognition of black trade unions (Baskin, Striking Back: A History of COSATU, p. 26).

That same year, in April 1979, talks between 12 various unions led to the founding of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), bringing under one umbrella some 20,000 workers in an independent, non racial federation (Baskin, p.25). There was now no looking back. The Weihahn Commission recommendations, though basically conservative and geared towards preserving the rights of employers, nonetheless sought to embody the standards of International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions (except the right to strike) in the new labor legislation proposed for the country. What’s more, this law was to be applicable to all workers regardless of race, color or sex and should include the right to work, to training, freedom of association, collective bargaining and to protection (Ncube, Black Trade Unions in South Africa, pp. 115-118).

From 1979 until 1985, the pace of union organizing accelerated, and many new and quite diverse unions emerged. On February 5, 1982, Neil Aggett, a white organizer for one of the unions (the Food and Canning Workers Union, FCWU/AFCWU) was found dead in the Johannesburg police headquarters where he had been tortured while in detention. FOSATU asked its member unions to stop work for 30 minutes on February 11; more than 100,000 workers – over two-thirds of the FOSATU membership – answered the call (Baskin, pp. 35-36). Mass actions like this protesting government repression went far toward overcoming the differences between unions that were racially and ethnically based (including some affiliated with the Black Consciousness Movement) or were philosophically or politically at variance with FOSATU’s goals.

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