01 May 2010

May Day: understanding the history of workers' rights in South Africa

"We believe in a society where workers have full control over their lives. We are determined to work with other democratic forces to do away with all forms of oppression and exploitation."

- Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)

May Day, also known as International Workers' Day, has come to represent the struggle of the international labour movement to achieve workers' rights. It is celebrated on the 1st of May, the anniversary of the Chicago Haymarket Massacre, which took place in 1886. Over one million American workers demonstrated for an eight hour day; despite being fired on by Chicago police, they succeeded in their demands. Over one century later, May Day retains its relevance, specifically in South Africa, where workers continue to face the legacy of exploitative labour practices. Strike action was popular in the early twentieth century, but public demonstrations such as the 1922 mineworkers strike were severely repressed by the state. A turning point for South African trade unionism took place in 1973, when a series of spontaneous strikes in Durban led to a new wave of resistance - resulting in the emergence of the modern workers' movement. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was established in 1982. This was one of the biggest affiliates of the Congress of Trade Unions (Cosatu) when it formed in December 1985, becoming a major ally of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the common struggle to end apartheid.Today, South Africa's trade union movement forms a significant element of the ANC government's administration, and new legislation secures workers' right to fair labour practices. This legislation includes the Labour Relations Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the Mines Health and Safety Act, and the Employment Equity Act. The trade union movement continues to represent workers in redressing inequalities and effectively implementing this new legislation.

Workers at COSATU rally in the Western Cape. 1986. Original SAHA Collection, AL2547_11.11.5 (Photographer unknown/Source:IDAF)

Workers at a Western Cape rally for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, 1986. (SAHA Original Photograph Collection, AL2547_11.11.5, Photographer unknown/Source:IDAF)

SAHA and trade unions

SAHA houses numerous collections containing materials created or collected by trade unions, as well as images of various trade union activities, especially from the 1980s.

AL2420 :: The South African Tin Workers' Union (SATWU) Collection
AL2446 :: The SAHA Poster Collection
AL2457 :: The Original SAHA Collection
AL2547 :: The SAHA Original Photograph Collection
AL2693 :: The South African Labour Bulletin Collection
AL3080 :: The Noel Stott Collection
AL3156 :: The Urban Research Services Collection
AL3182 :: The NAMDA Collection

If you are interested in seeing more of SAHA's collections on trade unions and workers' rights, please contact the Archives at SAHA.

'Cosatu Demands', SAHA Poster Collection, AL2446_0061