Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History: Volume 4, No. 4, South Africa: Baruch Hirson: The Trotskyists and the Trade Unions

Baruch Hirson

The Trotskyists and the Trade Unions

THE ONLY policy document or thesis that was accepted by both groups in Cape Town was the one entitled ‘The Trade Union Question’. It started with the claim that ‘the problems and tactics of the trade unions are determined by the conditions and intensity of the class struggle’. Then it continued: ‘As a starting point we take the irrefutable fact that capitalism is in process of decay. The economic crisis throughout the world for the past five years [1929-34], the enormous masses of unemployed, the decline in wages, the onslaught on the standards of living, the various developments of Fascism, the imminence of war, all this shows the impossibility of retaining the existing social and economic system, the deadly rule of oppression and exploitation. Against the background of this sharp economic crisis, the social struggle in all countries grows more severe. Strikes of unusual magnitude are breaking out, beginning in the United States, as the proletariat strives to maintain its standards of living under the heavy hand of capitalism.’

The document then condemned the trade unions in most capitalist countries for their betrayal of the workers. They were in the hands of reformists and bureaucrats (‘the direct servants of capitalism’), who were narrowly economist, and kept away from the political struggle. The task of the party was to oppose and ‘unmask the treachery and slackness’ of the reformist leadership, and set ‘a steady revolutionary course’.

In South Africa, said the authors, the unions reflected the backwardness of the workers. The unions were hampered by reformist leaders, stultified by the existing industrial legislation ‘which aims at settling disputes by mutual agreement instead of by direct action’. Furthermore, Africans were debarred or discouraged from entering the unions, and were left ‘completely unorganised and helpless against the continual attacks on their meagre standard of living’.

The thesis condemned the policies of the existing trade union movements and the segregationist South African Labour Party to which, they claimed incorrectly, the white workers mainly owed their allegiance. Consequently, the SALP was largely responsible for the failure of past strikes. In fact, the trade unions were largely unaffiliated, and any political influence came from the position taken by union officials. In like fashion, but for different reasons, the document accused the Communist Party of sectarianism, of splitting the unions, and removing the more militant workers. What was required was a united militant trade union movement.

The new revolutionary party had to work to oust the trade union bureaucracy, by ‘winning the confidence of the masses’. This could only be done by participating in the daily struggles, the main task lying ‘within the economic struggle’. This could be achieved by rejecting class collaboration and using direct action.

More specifically, the colour bar had to be abolished, and black and white workers were to be united in one trade union movement. Until this was achieved, workers who were debarred from the trade unions should be organised into separate trade unions. But they stressed:

‘Under no circumstances... do we regard such purely Native trade unions as opposition trade unions or as a goal in themselves. They are only a step towards the amalgamation of all the trade unions, black and white, into one central organisation of trade unions of all the workers of South Africa.’

The document concluded with a warning. The problems of the workers could not be solved under capitalism. Concessions could be gradually forced from the ruling class, but ‘only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat can solve the social question’.

This was a document which, except for the point made about the colour bar, could have been written anywhere, by syndicalists or radical groups. There were no new ideas on the role of trade unions in society, and the problems that would be raised by the separate organisation of ethnic trade unions was not spelt out. It was almost as a concession that the authors allowed for the possibility of building African trade unions, and the burning issue of the day, the use of the government-created Wage Board was not mentioned. That is to say, the statement gave no direction to the members of the group, fudged the main problems, and did not offer anything new in the way of theory. Perhaps it did not matter. None of the persons involved in formulating policy was engaged in trade union work, and few if any attempts were made in Cape Town to participate or to engage in trade union organisation.[1]

It was different in the Transvaal. This was the industrial hub of the country, and from the beginning members of the Left Opposition were engaged in trade union work. Frank Glass, one-time organiser for the CPSA, had been a trade union secretary. Thibedi, before he was expelled from the CPSA, had been active in organising the African Trade Union Federation, the section of the Red Trade Unions (or Profintern) in South Africa. In his letter to the International Secretariat, he claimed that he had with him the nucleus of several trade unions in which African workers had been organised. This included the Laundry Workers Union. But there is no information on what he did or what he achieved.

Then came Murray Gow Purdy and Ralph Lee. Whatever their intentions, their trade union activity, centred on the Laundry Workers Union, was not successful. Precipitate strike action (praised initially in the Communist press) was poorly organised and could not succeed. It led to hasty affiliation to the Trades and Labour Council (the TLC, the South African TUC) in order to get strike money.[2] Lee criticised the strike in an internal document, claiming that the union was not prepared for action, that there was no organised party fraction in the union, and that there was bureaucratic control of the body. Lee had taken over the organisation of the union, but it came close to collapse. Gordon, who took over in April 1935, wrote to Cape Town criticising Lee’s inactivity over a six months period and the lack of organisation. Lee demanded that the letter be kept from the branch membership to save him the need to answer point by point. Unfortunately, this was acceded to, and Gordon’s letter was dismissed by the Cape Town committee—leaving Gordon under a cloud.

The appointment of Gordon as Secretary of the Laundry Workers Union and its reorganisation was the turning point in the fortunes of the trade union movement in the Transvaal.[3] After the collapse, the reconstituted committee sought a way of getting higher wages, and the one solution seemed to them to request a wage determination from the government-instituted Wage Board. According to the minutes of the committee meeting of 9 April 1935, Purdy and Lee, in accordance with the trade union thesis, were completely opposed to the Wage Board. Purdy condemned it as harmful, and Lee, saying that the Workers Party opposed the Wage Board added, in patronising terms, that children sometimes only learnt that a fire would burn by being burnt. Therefore, he said: ‘If the laundry workers burnt their fingers, they must not forget that we warned them.’ The members of the committee were not impressed. If fingers had to be burnt, they said, so be it: they were prepared to learn for themselves. Appointed that evening to take Purdy’s place, Gordon was instructed to approach the Board on behalf of the workers.

Arrangements by Gordon took time, and the workers were critical of him on that account. The whole issue became intertwined with personal feuding inside the Johannesburg branch of the WPSA. Letters were written to Cape Town with accusations and counter-accusations of inefficiency. Lee’s letters were less than truthful. He said that he had favoured going to the Wage Board, but that Gordon had bungled the issue. Gordon said that he had received no help from Lee, and the matter had taken much longer than expected. In fact, all the work was left to Gordon, and any support he received subsequently came from individuals connected with liberal organisations. He even received a small grant for trade union work from the Institute of Race Relations, a body established with the help of the Carnegie Institute. This was the only money that Gordon ever received, and it was noted that he was always hungry when invited out to dinner. It was said that on those occasions he ate voraciously.

Gordon, as described in the main essay, left the WPSA and worked with the aid of a number of young African organisers. Thereafter, the WPSA in Johannesburg did little work in organising unions. What little activity there was stemmed from individual initiatives. One episode, which is referred to in a short typed document, was the discovery by a mine manager of an attempt to reach African mineworkers through the covert circulation of the paper Umlilo Mollo in September 1935, so it appears. This was the work of Heaton Lee (no relation), a mine surveyor. Heaton was reprimanded, and his African assistant was repatriated to Mozambique.[4]

It was two years before Lee was once again involved in union work. This time he was seemingly invited to lead steel ceiling workers in an African Metal Trades Union. Scaw Works, one of the largest firms, refused to recognise the union or meet any of their workers’ grievances. Once again there was precipitate strike action, the workers were defeated and the union collapsed. In this case, Lee said later that the Johannesburg branch had opposed strike action, but, once the decision had been taken, had given the workers their full support.[5]

Gordon found that the meetings of the WPSA were less and less relevant, and, after a further set of rows and expulsions, the Johannesburg branch was temporarily disbanded by Lee to remove some dissident members in mid-August 1935. Gordon wrote to Cape Town protesting against such manoeuvres, and then withdrew completely from the WPSA.[6] Henceforth, he relied on Lynn Saffery, a member of the staff of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) for legal assistance and secretarial support, on university students for assistance with office work, and on Fanny Klenerman (Glass) for political backing.

Gordon was further isolated when the Cape Town section demanded that he reapply for membership to the Johannesburg group. He did not, and he was cut off from the party.[7] There are no reports of his trade union work in The Spark or in the documents of the WPSA. The one Trotskyist whose work was of significance in the workers’ movement was isolated and ostracised.

In her taped memoirs, Klenerman was to say of Gordon that his ‘efforts were astonishing’. She explained:

‘Max Gordon was a born organiser. It was his character and his friendliness which gave him immediate admission to the sympathetic hearing of large numbers of Africans who had not even known what a trade union was. He spoke badly, but he spoke from the heart. What he told them was of interest to them, and he made sure that they understood what he said. Better speakers, more fluent speakers, might present their message with more picturesque or literary expression. But he spoke basically to people who think in basic terms...’

Thereafter, he organised an African Commercial Workers Union, and succeeded almost single handed in establishing an African working class movement. His success came from listening to the laundry workers who decided to use the government’s Wage Board to press for an increase in wages. He sought the help of liberals, Social Democrats and even former members of the CPSA who were still Stalinist in their orientation, whilst maintaining his political integrity. By these means he was able, in the space of less than two years, to build the nucleus of the first industrial trade union movement in the Transvaal.

Gordon was also confronted at an early stage of his trade union career by a wildcat strike in one of the laundries, and the union was only saved from extinction when a court case against the workers was defeated on a technical point. I tell the story of Gordon and his principal assistant Dan Koza in my book Yours For the Union. It was a story of patiently building up a trade union movement from scratch, of finding the means to attract workers who had been repelled by the CPSA, when, in their Red Unions, they constantly called the workers out on strike, and found that their most militant workers were victimised.

In a conversation quoted by Peter Abrahams, Gordon described his method of winning minuscule concessions in order to gain the workers’ confidence:

‘One day a vigorous and strong Native trade union movement will grow up. None of the government’s prohibitions and restrictions and arrests will count for anything then. And that movement is going to play a key part in the political emancipation of all non-whites. So, for the present, I ask for a threepenny rise [which laundry workers obtained], for a recognised and proper lunch hour, and for decent and safe conditions of work. It’s a small beginning, but it’s a beginning. That’s what was wrong with earlier efforts. They did not know how to start.’

Gordon also made it clear (in other reported discussions) that his aim was to organise the mineworkers. This was in close accord with the WPSA declaration at the end of 1935, that it was essential that the mineworkers be organised.[8] Gordon expanded: he needed a well organised trade union movement to act as a spring board before he could move into the mines. He did penetrate the workforce on the mines by gaining the confidence of the African clerical workers. They emptied the waste paper bins at night, and brought him all the discarded papers, allowing him to build up a knowledge of the mine manager’s plans. There was also a story that I heard from many sources and widely believed in Socialist circles, that he would blacken his face and gain entry to the mine compounds. Myth or otherwise, this was the kind of reputation he built around his activities.

Gordon used every legal means to gain improved wages and work conditions for his unions, and had built a movement, presided over by a Joint Committee, of over 15000 members before war was declared.[9] His methods were not problem free. The unions he built could have been absorbed into the state structures or into the liberal SAIRR. However, Gordon was alive to such dangers, and would have warded them off, but he was never called upon to save the unions. Gordon was anti-war in 1940, in line with the WPSA, and was interned in 1940-41 for approximately a year. No satisfactory reason was given, but it was suspected that during the first year of the war, when victory was far from certain, the government cracked down on whites who might act as organisers of black opposition.

Yet Gordon’s trade union activities were denigrated by the Johannesburg WPSA at the end of 1938. On 2 November 1938, in a letter to Cape Town, Max Sapire, without providing any evidence, belittled Gordon’s trade union work as bureaucratic. By way of contrast, said Sapire, the primary work in the WPSA was in the trade unions, and he claimed they had made significant progress, not only among black workers but also among whites. But no more was heard about this activity, and the white workers disappeared.

In reviewing Gordon’s achievements, it cannot be stressed often enough that he succeeded only because he was able to enrol African organisers of ability, and of these Daniel Koza was the most remarkable.[10] When Gordon was interned, it was only the work of Koza and some of his organisers that kept the unions alive, although in so doing they turned against the use of white organisers.[11] Then the unions went on the offensive, led strikes, and during the early period of the war won some significant victories.

During Gordon’s internment the only support he received was from Klenerman and Saffery of the SAIRR. But on release in 1941 he found that he had lost his effective position in the Johannesburg trade unions.[12] Gordon was invited by Socialists in Port Elizabeth (in the eastern Cape), in collaboration with the SAIRR, to assist in the formation of black trade unions. In a three month visit he set up half a dozen unions. Then, with no Trotskyist available to take the unions over, Gordon handed them over to members of the CPSA, who used the unions to advance their personal political ambitions. By this means his work was negated, but he had demonstrated the ease with which unions could be founded.

Gordon’s internment by the Smuts government in 1940 brought his activities to a premature end. However, the unions he had established continued through the war years. With considerable success they secured wage increases and better working conditions, and the trade union movement grew in size, claiming a membership of 150000 by 1945.

Gordon was not a theoretician, and he had no claims to originality. In a pamphlet on the need to organise workers, he commenced with a paraphrase of the WPSA thesis on the Native Question.[13] It is a document that makes little sense in the context of Gordon’s work. He had set out to build a trade union movement, spoke (at the TLC Conference) on the fight against capitalism and against the coming war, and yet, writing about the trade unions, he commenced mechanically with a lengthy quotation about land from the WPSA thesis on the Native Question.

When finally, in 1941, he returned to the Cape after police harassment made continued work impossible, he did not recontact his old comrades in the WPSA. For the rest of his life he remained in isolation, although he apparently said that if he could find a group with whom he could work, he would return to political activity. He never did, and he died in 1977, barely known to a new generation of workers and trade unionists.

It was only when Lee launched the WIL that the resurrected Trotskyist movement resumed trade union work. They were able to link together some of Gordon’s original organisers, and form, or rescue, ailing unions—although none of the union officials gave more than token allegiance to the WIL. What had eluded everyone except Gordon turned out to be amazingly simple. The work was done under the aegis of the Progressive Trade Union group that was formed in 1944 to support the Milling Workers Union in its strike action. This re-established contact with Koza, who was by then the most effective black trade union official, taking the Commercial and Distributive Workers Union to its peak, and securing the highest wages for its constituents.

Thereafter, WIL organisers spent a large part of their time on trade union work, providing speakers, printing facilities and transport for union officials. Working under conditions at the edge of legality, the members of WIL spoke at workers’ rallies, helped in the organisation of workers, and attended the conferences of the African trade union movement. They helped elaborate policies calling for the recognition of the unions outside the crippling Industrial Conciliation Act (which stopped strike action during a lengthy cooling off period), and urged a minimum wage policy of three pounds a week. In this they clashed with the Stalinists, who controlled some of the unions and urged their members not to strike, wanted recognition under the IC Act, and would not countenance a demand for three pounds a week, despite evidence that this was at the edge of subsistence. In all this Koza played an outstanding role. He was the spokesman of the PTU, put their case at the conference of trade unions, and maintained an anti-war position at meetings. The antagonism of FIOSA to this work,[14] the self-destruction of the WIL, and the shameful desertion of the trade unions is told in part in the essay above. The history of that endeavour is told in greater detail in Yours For the Union and in my forthcoming autobiography.

Despite the advances made through the immersion in such activity, there were no recruits from the unions. Yet this was not the immediate objective. The building of a working class movement, which could form the base of a larger Socialist movement, seemed to several members of the WIL to be central to their endeavours. If this meant that the group had to work through a leadership that was bureaucratic and even corrupt, that seemed to be only a hurdle that would have to be surmounted. And when, after a conference of the Council of Non-European Trade Unions, at which Koza and other associates of the PTU put the case for a mobilisation of the unions to organise the unorganised, the WIL participated in the meeting of thousands of workers, it seemed to be at the pinnacle of its work. It was at this stage that leading members of the WIL were persuaded by an associate of the WPSA that this was not the work that revolutionaries should be doing.

There was a bitter struggle inside the WIL to save the work that had been done. Hirson, the organising secretary of the WIL, Mfihi of the power workers’ union, and Motau, a trade union worker, and five others fought the majority over a three months period. All other work stopped whilst the issue was debated, but the eight were defeated. It was thus, just months before the African Mineworkers Union called the strike that seemed to shake South Africa, that the Trotskyists pulled out of trade union work—not because they were forced to, but because a few leading members decided that this was unnecessary work.

There were bitter recriminations from the trade unionists who had been so abandoned. This was a betrayal that could not be forgiven or forgotten. This was amongst the most shameful episodes in the history of the Trotskyist movement, but as far as can be seen, those who were in the WPSA or FIOSA in Cape Town ignored the event. The abandonment of the trade union movement by the WIL negated all the work that Gordon had done, and brought the group into contempt. It was perhaps only right that with the collapse of the WIL, the Trotskyists in the Transvaal were eclipsed and did not participate again, except peripherally, in the African trade union movement.[15]

Nonetheless, the work that Koza and others had done, despite the collapse of many of the unions after the defeat of the mineworkers’ strike, provided a base upon which future unions were built. The continuity was tenuous but should not be discounted. The great shame was that the work that had been put into their organisation should have been so wantonly thrown away.


1. See the letter of March 1937 from Cape Town to Lee, quoted in the main essay, saying that the WPSA in Cape Town had not yet undertaken any trade union work.

2. From the minutes of the annual conferences of the TLC. The delegates were furious at what they saw as affiliation to secure financial support.

3. Gordon’s background is obscure. It seems that he spent one year as a medical student before working in the leather department of a Cape Town store. Although he was active in organising the unemployed workers in Cape Town, he was not taken seriously by the members of the WPSA, and, seeking an opening, went to Johannesburg where he earned money by repairing radios, and working in a big department store. He had set his eyes on trade union work, and this became possible when he was invited by Lee to take over as Secretary of the Laundry Workers Union.

4. I first learnt of this event when I interviewed Heaton Lee in 1975 in Merthyr Tydfil. His account was very different from that in Ralph Lee’s letter. Ralph, who always insisted that party publications must ‘window dress’ in order to attract attention, speaks of ‘the authorities laying bare a great part of our organisation on the State Mines’. Heaton said that he and his assistant were the only two involved, and his account contradicted Ralph’s fanciful statement that the African was subjected to third degree methods, severely beaten up and forced to point out his white comrade. Heaton did not claim that his assistant was a ‘comrade’, and said that after a confrontation he had spoken up and thus prevented such a beating.

5. There is an ambiguity in accounts of the strike. Lee in his letters to the Cape Town branch on 21 and 26 February 1937 claimed that there had been months of secret preparations prior to the demands being made by himself. A letter from Max Sapire, writing one year later, said that the union was only formed on 15 January 1937. When the workers’ demands were rejected, the union members decided unanimously to strike the following morning. Sapire does say that Lee advised against strike action.

6. The Cape Town branch accepted Lee’s reports of events in Johannesburg, and refused to hear what the dissident members had to say.

7. See Tell Freedom , the autobiography of Peter Abrahams, the South African novelist, for an account of Gordon’s trade union methods. The WPSA statement appeared in the discussion of its aims in the All-African Convention (see main essay).

8. This comment, overheard by Nachum Sneh in the Vanguard bookshop, was told me in an interview in London in the mid-1970s.

9. Naboth Mokgatle, enroled by Gordon to organise unions in Pretoria, describes how impressed he was at the mass meeting when Gordon announced the pay increases obtained through his submission to the Wage Board.

10. Koza had started training as a teacher, but did not complete the course. It is not known why he withdrew, but one thing is certain, he was far too proud to accept the servile status and the miserable wage of African teachers at the time. He sympathised with the Trotskyist position and for a brief period belonged to the FIOSA, but did not stay. When the WIL was launched he was considered a friend of the movement, and he led the Progressive Trade Union group. He was also active in township protests, and in particular with the protests against the increase of bus fares in Alexandra Township.

11. This has never been satisfactorily explained. As I show in my book, Rheinallt Jones, director of the SAIRR, with the knowledge of government officials, tried to foist Saffery on the trade unions during Gordon’s internment. His highhanded manner angered Koza, and Jones was forced to leave empty handed. None of this was Gordon’s doing, and his exclusion when he returned remains a mystery.

12. Gordon had actually gathered together the nucleus of the African Mine Workers Union. Because of his internment, he had lost his contacts. When the union was relaunched, Koza and Gordon were elected to its Managing Committee, but it turned out to be a dummy body, controlled exclusively by the Stalinists. Meanwhile, Gordon had handed them all the documents of the embryo union.

13. ‘The Scope for Native Employment’, Saamwerk Papers (Work Together ), no 2, (c1937), mimeographed. There is no indication of who published these papers, and there is no date or address given.

14. For reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, Jaffe voted at the 1945 conference of the Council of Non-European Trade Unions with the Stalinists against the Progressive Trade Union group. This was reported in Socialist Action , paper of the WIL, and drew a hurt reply from Jaffe in a FIOSA internal bulletin, because the WIL had dared to attack him publicly.

15. In the late 1950s, Hirson, then a lecturer at the university and a member of the Congress movement, was invited to join the South African Congress of Trade Union’s study group that was engaged in preparing a lecture series for trade union officials. However, his views were unacceptable to the committee, and he was excluded from the meetings.

Updated by ETOL: 12 January 2009