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ESSAY ONE: Page 7 of 9

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Year: 
1983
Description: 

At around 5 o’clock each morning, when the fruit bats cease their ringing, and all creatures that scuttle about in the night making a din, become quiet on this coastline, a new intensive *screeching starts. It cuts the dawn’s lull to shreds. It is the voice of the lourie, the Gwala-Gwala Bird. Its name, I am told, originates from these shrieks, of horror. From the Nkandla forests to Durban’s coastline, from Khosi Bay to Port Edward, the din starts.

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RECOGNITION: The ability to press for higher wages is not unrelated to the inroads trade unions have managed to secure through recognition agreements. Despite the fact that many employers resisted and continue to resist union recognition, and despite much inter-union rivalry dividing workers, whether at plant level or at industrial council level, the new trade unions have asserted their importance. So, unlike previous eras of trade unionism, they find themselves squarely located in the heart of gigantic industry, having achieved rights difficult to eradicate. Yet the most crucial feature is that factory organization has generated solid shop steward structures and through them a factory based leadership that ensures that the terms of any agreement are met in actual practice. Furthermore, by the mere fact that they assume the initiative in each factory, the resolution of grievances and disputes are immediately accountable to the rand and file. This has contributed significantly to the growing strength of unions and their ability to press hard for improvements in work relations and wages.

There are three crucial points to be made about the shop-stewards under discussion: firstly, they are far from being an urban labour force, ie. Riekert’s famous “insiders” – the majority are migrant workers with substantial families and dependents in the countryside. Secondly, they are not a permanent resident population with physical interests in the townships around Durban; they are rather tenants and lodgers renting rooms in the townships. Finally, although the majority are semiskilled, they are far from being a labour aristocracy – their incomes are on average rather low, and they are the thin edge of a wedge of dependency averaging nine people each.

(c) This new power-block within production is one of the crucial reasons why

retrenchment procedures, and a “worker conscious” approach has begun entering managerial thinking. In many cases (84) workers downed tools over the issue of retrenchment, forcing management to discuss an issue formerly considered their prerogative. But in some sectors the down swing has had severe implications, with the unions unable to halt the tide of reorganization: the dock and shipbuilding industry reduced their workforces dramatically; the sugar industry introduced new mills which displaced thousands of workers. Still, the impact of trade unions limited the traditional unilateral powers of management and at least achieved better forms of compensation for workers.

(d) Shop floor power also affected control structures in the factories. The ultimate power that management has in any factory is the ability to fire workers if obedience to supervisory and technical rules is not forthcoming. The existence of widespread unemployment in society at large enhances this ability to exercise power in production. This power over workers was extensively utilized by managements to limit the powers of the emergent unions by victimizing members and “ring-leaders”. This was also utilized to compel workers to work unreasonable hours, and to respond positively to any command whether fortuitous or not.

This political power over the destinies of machines and people has entered a serious crisis period with the consolidation of shopfloor power. Whether through direct action or the use of the industrial court, labour practices deemed by workers to be unfair were challenged, often successfully. (85) Attempts to weed out union presence, unfair dismissals or retrenchments, exercise supervisory pressure, unreasonable production demands and in many cases abuse, have been confronted and have usually been checked and changed. (86) This low order factory by factory was has substantially modified the hitherto dictatorial powers of employers, facilitating a level through which workers are attempting to better their conditions in industry.

(e) The balance of power in industry has further been altered through unions’ determination to confront employers with trials of strength such as strikes, boycotts and national campaigns. The most explosive strikes occurred over the pension issue in Natal, issues of recognition and wage increases. These actions involved workers in both “illegal” and “legal” avenues of strike action, and have enjoyed support from their national unions and federations. As a result of the large concentration and centralization in industry, firms have many subsidiaries spread all over the country precipitating national campaigns to aid disputes (eg. Dunlop, Barlows). Community support was also successfully enlisted, as in the case of the strike by DTMB bus drivers which was settled after receiving popular support in Clemont. The potential of such support and the support of International in 1982 trade unions became apparent in the resolution of the Henkel strike (87) and the national canteen boycott by Dunlop workers. (88) In addition to workers’ inroads in the factory, a sense of regional and national strength has achieved a remarkable degree of respect in industrial *

 

Gains in wages, the curbing of the impact of the recession, the consolidation of shop floor power and national trade union power have had a serious impact in Natal. Block workers and their trade unions have finally extended their campaigns to broader political and community issues. Two further examples of successful action illustrate this point: it was primarily independent self-activity by workers that confronted the bussing companies in the largest popular campaigns of boycott in recent times. The two bus boycotts, one in 1979 by the commuters of north-western Natal involving tens of thousands of people, and the other in 1982 by the commuters of Clermont, Lamontville and St Wendolins involving close on 100 000 people and initiated by Clermont hostel dwellers, have defended working class incomes. Furthermore, FOSATU’s factory by factory campaign against the constitutional proposals (89) has politicized factory relations and nearly led to confrontations in Natal. Since then, the political profile of unionism in Natal has increased, a phenomenon that affects other essays in this volume. It will suffice to say that block workers were beginning to develop a sense of being at the core of a growing poor people’s movement in Natal.