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.1914 put the matter as follows:-The Economic Commission of It is a plausible view that some of the so-called encroachments of the non-Whites should properly be regarded as a filling of the gaps left by the attraction of Whites to superior situations, which superior situations could not have existed in the absence of competent people to fill the lower positions . . . . But here and there White labour may have been displaced, and a constant fear of displacement is prevalent … 3 The purpose of this chapter is not to argue which of the two views – upward mobility versus white displacement – was more accurate. The aim is rather to examine just one pole in the controversy: the views and behaviour of trade unionists representing the interests of the white labour force. An attempt will be made first to consider some of the grounds on which organised labour in South Africa resisted the introduction of black workers; second, the strategies of the various sections of the white labour movement in response to the problem of interracial labour competition will be discussed. Finally, an evaluation of these strategies will be attempted in the context of the alignments amongst registered trade unions in the 1960s and 1970s. White sectional interest and interracial labour competition For some scholars and left-wing activists the major turning point in South African labour history was the failure of white South African workers to perceive their community of interests as workers with men of different ethnic origin, and to turn instead to the pursuit of sectional interest defined in racial terms.
Some commentators indeed accepted as the prime explanatory factor in South African labour history the sheer primitive racial antagonism of the majority of white workers towards blacks. 4
Certainly this factor, however defined, cannot be ignored. What is partly at issue here was the influence on labour dynamics of prevailing group attitudes not in themselves derived from experience in the labour market. White workers tried to carry over into the work-place the social distinctions and patterns of association which prevailed in South African society as a whole, although with some differences of emphasis between the coastal cities (Cape Town in particular) and the rigidly segregationist practices in the industrial heartland of the southern Transvaal.
In the latter area there was a widespread acceptance of segregatory measures in the work-place, and after agitation around the issue of mixed working in factories in the late 1930s such work-place segregation was given legislative support by regulations issued in terms of the Factories Act of 1941 and otherwise established by administrative and conventional pressures. On another level there was frequent resistance to the idea of the association of white and black in spheres arising out of trade union activity, so that, in the 1970s just as fifty years ago, one major difference between the two major wings of the organised labour movement was the question of the association of white and black trade unionists at meetings and conferences.
Playing on the racial susceptibilities of white workers was a tactic whereby certain labour leaders and trade unionists further complicated the intricate problems arising from the real conflict of interests between white and black in the labour market.
But of more concern at this point is a consideration of white trade unionists’ attitudes towards black workers as a function of their experiences in the labour market. The point, perhaps an obvious one, needs to be stressed that the interrelationship of white and black in the labour market frequently involved a clash of material interests rather than questions of racial prejudice. 5 One can recall that it was trade unionists such as Blake and Huyser, men in themselves not unsympathetic to black aspirations, who led the resistance of the building unions to the proposals by government to provide training facilities to black bui !ding workers in the early post-war years. In the main, three real or imaginary fears tended to influence the behaviour of white unionists towards black workers.


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: he South African Trades and Labour Council, 1930-1954
Chapter 6:The Registered Trade Unions under Apartheid
Chapter 7:The Trade Unionism of Legal Exclusion: African Trade Unions and the Poli tics of Domination 
Chapter 8:Conclusion 


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