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October 1990, Vol. 113, No. 10
South African trade unions: a historical account, 1970-90
Jerome T. Barrett and Anne Finbarr Mullins
The growth in size and sophistication of the trade union movement in South Africa over the relatively short period of time has been spectacular. It has resulted in changes in employment practices and has inspired the belief that unionism and wider political trends are indivisible. Unions have demonstrated forcefully that they will play a crucial role in the struggle for a new political structure.
The modern trade union movement in South Africa was formed in the 1970's. Prototype organizations, called advice centers, grew amid heightened black worker activism early in the decade. The centers evolved into trade unions, which led a series of strikes in 1973 in Durban. By 1976, there were 174 registered trade unions, mostly white, colored (mixed races), and Indian, with memberships totaling 670,000 and representing 12 percent of the work force; today, there are 2.5 million union members comprising about 35 percent of the work force.1 In 1976, the government established an independent commission, headed by Professor Nic Weilhahn, to study burgeoning labor problems. The commission report resulted in 1979 amendments to the Labor Relations Act that established an Industrial Court and the concept of unfair labor practices, and granted black unions a degree of freedom to organize legally for the first time in decades.2
This article describes the recent history of unions in South Africa, their current status, and some questions about the trade union movement in the near future. Information is based on numerous interviews conducted in South Africa during January 1990, and on current literature.3
This excerpt is from an article published in the October 1990 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The full text of the article is available in Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format (PDF). See How to view a PDF file for more information.
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1 Andrew Levy and Johan Piron, Annual Report on Labor Relations in South Africa 1988-89 (Johannesburg, South Africa, Graylink House, 1989).
2 Pat Stone, Wage Bargaining in South Africa (Johannesburg, South Africa, IR Data Publications, 1989).
3 More than 50 trade union leaders from the two major federations were interviewed, as well as some independent unionists, a few academic experts, and some neutral labor relations experts.
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