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Songs from the Shop Floor

Lloyd Ross recording worker choirs, June 1985After hearing a trade union choir perform at a rally, Lloyd Ross and his friend Brian Tilley, then of Video News Services, spent the winter of 1985 recording songs sung by workers affiliated to the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), the predecessor to COSATU.

At Braitex, the National Union of Textile Workers invited Shifty into the factory and 100 workers gathered in a packing shed during lunch hour to perform for them. Other songs were recorded in hostels and church halls, at contests and union meetings. Fosatu choirs performed all over and Shifty happily went along for the ride, setting up trips to shop floors on the East Rand, then on to Natal, recording rousing live performances in Mooi River, Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Lloyd remembers:

I had set the stereo mics up on stage, thinking the guys would at least be somewhere in that vicinity when they delivered their performance... they began singing at the back of the hall and then proceeded to not stand still once throughout their entire set. On listening to it a quarter century later, you hear the men walk / dancing from the back of the hall, onto the stage and then you hear the individual voices passing back and forth in front of the mics...

Shifty then put together 24 original workers songs, composed and sung by 10 union choirs, and released a new album Fosatu Worker Choirs, the royalties from which went back to the trade union federation. Later released abroad by Rounder as South African Trade Union Choirs, some songs praise Fosatu and urge workers to join trade unions, while others sing about problems within their factories, issued jeers to police informers or tell of the struggle to get workers at Sasol plants reinstated after they were fired for participating the two-day stayaway in November 1985 protest against army and police presence in the townships, "bantu" education and bus and rent increases.

Shifty went on to record two albums with one of the choirs they encountered during this process, the K-Team. A longstanding isicathamiya choir from the Kwathema hostels in Springs on the East Rand, originally formed by Mr Agrippa Xaba and made up of employees of Kelloggs, hence the name, they were popular performers at many of the political rallies in the then Transvaal and Natal. Their albums reflect the issues of the day, including a tribute to senior shop steward and activist, Andries Raditsela, who died of head injuries after being taken into police custody near his home in Tsakane in May 1985.



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