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Fight, May 1937

by Leon Sapir

The Colonial Question: Strikes In South Africa


From FIGHT, May 1937, Vol.1 No. 6, pages10-11. Published by the Marxists Group, UK
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2009 for ETOL.


From a Comrade in Johannesburg

Revolutionary activity amongst the masses of in South Africa is centred in Johannesburg, the largest city. Here there have recently been two strikes, both held by purely native trade unions and in both the Workers’ Party of South Africa (Trotskyist) has played its part.

The first strike was called on December the 2nd last by the natives employed in the Laundry industry in Johannesburg. Of the 2,000 workers in this industry, approximately 1,100 had joined together and formed the African Laundry Workers’ Union, which after trying patiently for nearly two years through the Department of Labour and other official channels to have their grievances remedied, finally took a strike ballot. As a result when the strike was called about 800 of the workers came out in the morning and during the day other workers stopped work. The effect on the employers was instantaneous and by nightfall they had concluded a provisional agreement with the Union leaders that if the workers called off the strike certain of their demands would be granted. During the day, however, 22 strikers were arrested, and despite the success of the Union in obtaining a substantial portion of its demands, particularly a general increase in wages, the arrested strikers were prosecuted for various contraventions of the Riotous Assembly Act. Eighteen, however, were discharged and the remaining four were fined ten shillings each, the fines being paid by the Union, who had also arranged for the legal defence of the workers. The Workers’ Party came on to the scene after the strike broke out, and they gave their wholehearted support until its settlement. The effect of the strike was excellent, as when the other non-union workers saw that as a result of the strike a rise in wages had been obtained, and that even the arrested strikers got off almost scot free, a number rushed to join the Union, whose membership has now increased substantially.

During January, the Workers’ Party were responsible for the formation of the African Metal Workers’ Union amongst the native employees at the Scaw works in Johannesburg. Of the 150 native workers here 140 joined the Union during the months of January and February, and conditions were such that it was not long before matters came to a head. On Saturday, list February, two members of the Union were suspended by the bosses on some trivial excuse, but obviously because of their Union activities. A mass meeting of the Union was called for the same afternoon, and at a strike ballot taken the vote was unanimous for coming out on Monday. It should be noted here that the Workers’ Party representatives at this meeting pointed out to the workers that such a strike was most unlikely to succeed, but once the decision was taken to come out on strike, the W.P. gave its heartiest support. The workers had decided, that was sufficient for the W.P.

On the Monday at 7.15 a. m. the Union gave the bosses one hour’s notice and at 8.15 a.m. the first 40 workers came out and then the rest. The workers formed a procession and marched along Eloff Street, the main street of Johannesburg, carrying banners such as “African Metal Trades Union,” “For the Fourth International,” “The Workers Party of South Africa,” etc. From the first day the Union was formed political issues were clearly introduced and the effect was now to be seen. At the strike headquarters strike committees were formed and the S.A. Trades and Labour Council were approached for help. The Communist Party of South Africa were also approached but stated that they would have nothing to do with the matter as Trotskyists were concerned in it; the fact that it was workers out on strike made no difference to them.

Of the strikers, sixteen were arrested on the Wednesday, but on the Friday fifteen were released and the other charged under the Riotous Assembly Act. It should be pointed out here that in South Africa it is illegal for native workers to strike in any form at all, thus all the strikers were liable to arrest, but so far the attitude of the authorities has been to arrest only the leaders and, where they can find them, the shop stewards. In regard to funds the Workers Party working with the strike committees were able to raise sufficient to pay a quarter wages on the Saturday, but during the week the bosses were engaging new workers and the strike was petering out. The Union had a meteoric rise but it has had its effect, as thanks to the policy of the Workers Party the workers had an excellent lesson in comradeship, unity and revolutionary trade unionism. A number of the workers returned to work, but despite the result of the strike the Union has not been broken up and there is still a strong nucleus at the works. It has also given an upsurge to the movement amongst the natives with the result that there will be a struggle between the Workers Party, the Communist Party, and various other native organisations to lead this movement. Having, however, stood at the head of the strike, the Workers Party’s prestige is highest and many workers look to them for a lead.

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Last updated on 9 March 2009