Support or control: The children of the Garment Workers' Union, 1939-1948

Witz, Leslie
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Various historians have pointed out that during the first three decades of the twentieth century both capital and the state incorporated white wage earners in South Africa into institutionalised structures (1). The white workers lost all their militancy, developed a racist hierarchical division of labour, became entrapped in the hegemony of bourgeois politics and their trade unions slipped into the morass of bureaucracy. White workers, however, were not simply trapped by the state and capital. Incorporation was a process which took over twenty years or more to accomplish and was determined by specific conditions facing white workers and trade unions, in particular on the Witwatersrand, during this period. White workers rather eased themselves into a trap, lowered the gate, bolted it and threw away the key (2). There is one group of white workers which, it is maintained, managed to resist this incorporation: the clothing workers on the Witwatersrand in the 1930s and 40s. These workers were Afrikaner women who were active members of the Garment Workers' Union (GWU), a trade union which, it is claimed, under the leadership of Solly Sachs (its general secretary from 1928 to 1952), displayed a high degree of militancy, established internal democratic structures, assumed an independent political role and firmly committed itself to non-racialism (3). Perhaps the most important claim made on behalf of the union is the last for it has been used to justify many a theoretical position in the South African political arena. Solly Sachs himself used it to criticise the Communist Party's almost exclusive concern with black workers (4). Basil Davidson, writing in the New Statesman in 1950, wrote that the nonracialism in the Garment Workers' Union represented the hope that Afrikaners would forego their racialism and that black and white could co-operate in a future free South Africa (5). More recently Fine, de Clercq and Innes used the GWU's commitment to non-racialism as an example of how workers need not simply become incorporated into racial structures if trade unions registered under government sponsored legislation (6). All these assertions are based on an unquestioning acceptance of the Garment Workers' Union's official version of its stance towards black workers in the industry. The GWU always maintained that it welcomed blacks into its organisation, supported their struggles and through this assistance black workers acquired substantial benefits such as higher wages and shorter working hours (7). This paper will attempt to examine this rendition critically, looking particularly at the period 1939 to 1948, a time when black workers started entering the clothing industry on the Witwatersrand in significant numbers. However, we must first briefly survey the period 1929 to 1938 for in those years the roots of the GWU's policies towards black workers in the clothing industry were implanted (8).
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented March 1985
Garment Workers Union (South Africa). History, Clothing workers. South Africa. Labor unions