The Role of Organized Labor

The unions held national congresses and countless other gatherings every year to try to hammer out common strategies for the shop floor, for industrial relations generally, and for confrontations and negotiations with government and the repressive police powers of the state.

Finally, on November 30, 1985, at the sports hall of the University of Natal, appropriately located in Durban, 760 delegates from 33 unions representing over 460,000 workers broke into song, singing South Africa’s then-unofficial national anthem Sikelel’ iAfrika as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was born. COSATU and its allies in the United Democratic Front would make the long march over the next nine years leading to a new South Africa. This would be a new nation, with arguably the most progressive labor laws in the world, much of it due to the leading role played by the trade union movement and its leaders. That there had been much sacrifice, the loss through assassination and imprisonment of some of those leaders over those nine years goes with out saying. But most workers felt the sacrifices were worth it.

Perhaps Cyril Ramaphosa, general secretary of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who had been chosen as the convenor of COSATU’s inaugural congress, summed up the coming struggle to overcome apartheid best in his opening address:
The formation of this Congress represents an enormous victory for the working class in this country . . . Never before have workers been so powerful, so united and so poised to make a mark on society . . . We all agree that the struggle of workers on the shop floor cannot be separated from the wider political struggle for liberation in this country . . . If workers are to lead the struggle for liberation we have to win the confidence of other sectors of society. But if we are to get into alliances with other progressive organizations, it must be on terms that are favorable to us as workers . . . When we do plunge into political activity, we must make sure that the unions under COSATU have a strong shop floor base not only to take on the employers but the state as well . . . What we have to make clear is that a giant has risen and will confront all that stand in its way (Baskin, 54).

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