Central Themes in White Labour’s Response to the Conditions of a Heterogeneous Labour Market

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Chapter 2: Central Themes in White Labour’s Response to the Conditions of a Heterogeneous Labour Market

The racial exclusion which came to typify the practice of the dominant trade unions and which underlay the legislative cornerstone of the system of industrial relations after 1924 did not of course spring into being overnight. It was indeed part and parcel of the very origins of South African trade unionism. White organised labour on the Kimberley diamond fields early on objected to the “cheap labour competition of any Inferior Race”, and such attitudes were readily transferred to the newly opened gold mining industry on the Witwatersrand. 1 The mining industry was thus almost from its inception an occupational sphere where white workers reacted most vehemently to the competition provided by both indigenous and immigrant black or Asian labour. The record of the craft unions was more ambiguous, but their lack of overt colour bars, as Lewis has argued, was on account of the fact that such unions “succeeded in maintaining the position of their members by virtue of their monopoly of skills and therefore had no need of legal colour bars”. 2 With the future Union of South Africa still to be created, labour organisation in the four colonies developed under varying legislative frameworks and by virtue of a distinctively different colonial ethos in the Cape and the Transvaal. While the latter was the centre of white labour’s most vehement rejection of multi-racial union organisation, the Cape evolved a pattern of interracial cooperation which provided a rival model to the northern practice. With Union the new country thus incorporated two incompatible forms of trade unionism as developed under the aegis of the dominant white workers. The dominant industrial position of the Transvaal, and the tendency of Natal and the Orange Free State to follow suit, meant however that the Cape always represented a somewhat embattled minority position. It was the premises of white protectionism which found the readiest acceptance, and the opposing appeal to interracial labour solidarity could make but little headway amon~ the rank-and-file of white labour. The adoption of the Industrial Conciliation Act in 1924 both formalised the de facto exclusion of African workers from the ranks of organised labour, while offering the possibility of an alternative evolution by the incorporation of coloured and Indian South Africans. The racial exclusion of large numbers of (African) workers from the institutions of an nationwide industrial relations system was fundamental to its character so much so that its acceptability in the circles of the dominant grouping was hardly questioned. Yet the partial opportunity of interracial solidarity and cooperation in the industrial sphere offered by the “mixed” trade unions of white,coloured and Indian workers kept alive the Cape tradition outside of that province. For much of the twentieth century, thus, South African organised labour practised racial exclusion while debating the alternative of racial cooperation. For most of the period covered by this study, however, it was the spirit of the former rather than the possibility of the latter which seemed to possess the soul of white labour. This chapter attempts to analyse why this was so. Public debate over labour issues in the circles of the dominant white grouping tended to revolve around two competing interpretations of South African labour history. The one, largely the argument of the white middle-class, insisted that what had taken place since the turn of the century had been a continual process of upward occupational mobility, in which whites had increasingly moved from less-preferred, lessremunerative work into more pleasant, better-paid occupations.And as they had done so, black workers had been drawn in to fill the positions so vacated. The other perspective, expressed by spokesmen of the white working class, claimed that South African labour history had been the stage of a continual struggle between white and black in the labour market, in which the white worker had fought a rear-guard action against competition from blacks. The apparent paradox was not new.

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Chapter 1:Introduction 
Chapter 2: Central Themes in White Labour’s Response to the Conditions of a Heterogeneous Labour Market 
Chapter 3: Creating the Institutional Order: The Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924
Chapter 4:The National Party, Trade Unionism and the Industrial Order 
Chapter 5:The Failure of a Unified Labour Movement: The South African Trades and Labour Council, 1930-1954 
Chapter 6:The Registered Trade Unions under Apartheid 
Chapter 7:Poli tics of Domination 
Chapter 8:Conclusion 

 

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