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Trade Unions


"The struggle of the working class does not end at the factory floor. When workers who face management leave the factory they cone up against the problems of high transport costs, rents and inadequate community facilities, all of which eat into their wages. To strengthen the conmunity organisations is to improve the conditions of the working class; to fight high rents and bus fares is to fight the struggle of the working class. Unions must take up community struggles if they are to represent the interests of workers".
- Mr Terror Lekota, national publicity secretary of the UDF


Workers, and the trade unions representing them, were key participants in the UDF from the outset, with virtually all the unions sending delegates or observers to the launch of the UDF, and the following unions joining the UDF at the launch:

  • Council of Unions of South Africa
  • South African Allied Workers Union
  • General and Allied Workers Union
  • Orange Vaal General Workers Union
  • Municipal and General Workers Union of South Africa
  • Motor Assembly and Components Workers Union of South Africa, 
  • General Workers Union of South Africa
  • South African Tin Workers Union
  • Media Workers Association of South Africa (Western Cape)
  • Johannesburg Scooter Drivers Association
  • Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa
  • National Federation of Workers and the African Workers Association

However, the decision by some of the major independent unions, including the Federation of South African Trade Unions, Food and Canning / African Food and Canning Workers Union, General Workers Union and the Cape Town Municipal Workers Association - to become formal UDF affiliates limited to some extent the UDF's initial access to worker support in the early days.

SOURCE: Trade unions and the UDF. South African Labour Bulletin Briefings. September 1983. Wits Historical Papers Collection AK2117: The Delmas Treason Trial 1985 - 1989.

The following excerpt from Learn and Teach vividly describes the events surrounding the massive Transvaal stayaway by workers in 1985, organised by the UDF and its affiliates and its impact:

For two days in November, most factories and firms in the big cities of the Transvaal were empty and silent. The workers were showing their anger. And they were showing their muscle - the muscle of unity.

For the first time in many years, old arguments and fights were forgotten. All kinds of student organisations, community organisations, and worker organisations came together. They came together to make the stayaway work.

The stayaway did work. On the East rand, 80% of the workers stayed in the townships and in the compounds. In the Vaal townships, 90% of the workers stayed at home. And few people from the West Rand and Pretoria went to work.

The people ... made a list of all their demands:

• No more rent increases in the townships
• No more bus fare increases
• No more tax and GST increases
• No more police and army in the townships
• No more community councils in the townships
• Trade union leaders and other leaders must be freed from jail ...

The people did not rush into the stayaway. On October 28, the students called the stayaway. People chose a special committee to plan for the stayaway.

The committee decided to have the stayaway on November 5 and 6 ...

"workers need time to decide such things", says a shopsteward from a big factory in Johannesburg. "People who don't work in factories must not tell workers to stay away. Workers must talk about things like stayaways. They must have meetings and decide for themselves."

The stayaway worked well because of another reason - hard work. People from many organisations handed out pamphlets on the trains, in the buses, in the streets and in people's houses. All day and all night the people worked to make the stayaway a success.

The stayaway was a big success - but the price was heavy. In the townships 25 people were killed - mostly in battles with police. Many leaders of the stayaway were arrested and are now sitting in jail.

And in Secunda, the bosses of the big Sasol factory fired 6500 workers - because they supported the stayaway.

Many people suffered because of the stayaway. But they showed the government their strength. Now they are waiting to see if the government will listen.'

Source: Learn and Teach, No. 6, 1984, pp. 1-3

'An injury to one is an injury to all'

In the midst of the turmoil of the repression and the State of Emergency, and after four years of unity talks, many trade unions came together to form a new trade union federation: the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). On December 1 1985, Cosatu was launched under the slogan: "One Country, One Federation". It brought 33 unions representing 450 000 workers, and within three years membership had grown to 700 000 workers.

Cosatu consolidated and strengthened the emergent black trade unions. It linked unions from different regions and different backgrounds together into large and united unions across industrial sectors.

Cosatu unions demanded a living wage for all and better working conditions for their members. But these demands rested on a core principle: that apartheid, and the politics of apartheid, underpinned the bad wages, working conditions, and terrible living conditions which made up their members' lives.

Cosatu saw its natural ally in the UDF; both were committed to the broader struggle for democracy and against apartheid. Many of the unions that came together to form Cosatu were already UDF affiliates. Many of Cosatu's members saw the union as their organisation on the shop-floor, and the UDF as their organisation on the streets.

The state did not ban Cosatu under the Emergency when it was formed in 1985. But its struggles as a federation led to repeated, and direct, confrontation with the state. These confrontations included the bloody strike for recognition of the railway workers' union (SARHWU) in early 1987; the postal workers' strike; and the national mine strike, when 350 000 miners downed tools for 21 long days; the OK Bazaars strike, and the Mercedez Benz strike.

In February 1988, Cosatu was restricted from doing political work. This, together with the effective banning of the UDF, gave rise to the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM). The MDM then spearheaded the resistance campaigns against apartheid.

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