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                                      Brief History of SACTWU


SACTWU was formed in September 1989. The new union was the result of mergers of many unions in our industry, over many years. But unity in our industry took a major step forward in 1989, when the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' Union (ACTWUSA) and the Garment and Allied Workers Union (GAWU- SA) came together to form the South African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union (SACTWU). The founding Congress was held in Cape Town, at the University of the Western Cape, on 16-17 September 1989.

What does SACTWU believe in? What do we intend to fight for? These were the first questions that we had to answer. The answers to these questions were the first issues set out in the union constitution, under the "preamble" section: independence, non-racialism, democracy, equality, unity, security and good working and living conditions etc.


The history of the garment union goes back more than 90 years to 1918 with the formation of the Witwatersrand Tailors Association (WTA). This was a craft union, because it organised members from the same industry with the same skill.

But matters were not that simple, as Solly Sachs reminded us when he said: "On the 31st March 1927 I was appointed part-time secretary to the Witwatersrand Middlemen Tailors' Association, an organisation of about one hundred craftsmen who were in law neither employers nor employees but independent contractors. They had their own workshops, but considered themselves workers; indeed, many of them boasted of a militant trade union tradition. But despite these claims, some of them mercilessly exploited those who worked for them, especially the younger women."

As Secretary of this association, Sachs came into close contact with the members of the trade union at the time. The union was then known as the Witwatersrand Tailors Association (WTA), working in the tailoring industry. When the secretary of the WTA,  Dan Colraine resigned in 1928, the workers approached Sachs to stand as a candidate to fill the vacant post. He won 90% of the votes in a secret ballot, and started as duly elected secretary of the WTA on 14th November 1928. The membership of the union, at the time, was about one thousand seven hundred and fifty, nearly all of them Afrikaner. Less then a hundred were men.


The WTA later transformed itself into the Garment Workers' Union of South Africa (GWUSA). In 1928, under the leadership of Solly Sachs, GWUSA became a registered trade union. Solly Sachs remained the general secretary of GWUSA for 44 years, from 1928 until his banning in 1952.

Most workers employed in the industry at the time were poor white Afrikaner women. The Second World War forced a labour shortage, and the industry began to employ black workers. GWUSA stepped up its struggle to get black workers covered by the Industrial Conciliation Act. By 1955 the racial composition of the industry had changed almost completely: only 32% of the workforce was white.

Afrikaner garment women workers suffered extreme exploitation: they earned starvation wages and worked long hours. The poor working conditions meant that many of these women were open to the idea of a union. Hester Cornelius, Anna Scheepers and Katie Viljoen were shopfloor workers who, with Solly Sachs, worked very hard to organise clothing workers. They fought militant battles against employers, as well as against the state. From 1928 to 1932, for example, these women organised more than 100 work-stoppages and strikes, which shook the industry.  These women saw themselves as workers first, and were not so much concerned about race. But the ideology of Afrikaner Nationalism was very strong in the 1930's and 1940's. The Broederbond set about to unite all Afrikaners, irrespective of class. This obviously interfered with the work of GWUSA, which had mainly an Afrikaner membership. On the one hand, Afrikaner Nationalism called on them to unite separately from 'foreign' influences and to remain loyal to Boer culture. On the other hand, their union was calling on them to overcome their personal prejudices and to unite as workers first, irrespective of the race of their fellow workers.

GWUSA was also keen to avoid racial conflict. So, when African women joined the union, they were organised into a separate section of the union, called the 'Number 2 Branch'. Only black women could join this branch. The 1924 industrial Conciliation Act prevented black men from joining registered unions. They were therefore organised separately in the unregistered South African Clothing Workers' Union (SACWU). The 'Number 2 Branch' did not last long. In 1952 the Native Labour Act (Settlement of Disputes) outlawed multiracial unions, and African women in GWUSA formed the Garment Workers Union of African Women - with Lucy Mvubelo as general secretary.

One of the most remarkable achievements of GWUSA happened in 1954. The wage agreement in the industry did not cover African workers. Employers could therefore still employ Africans at a lower rate of pay. The union leadership persuaded its white, coloured and Indian members to give up their 1954 wage increase. In return, the employers agreed to cover African workers in the agreement. In the history of garment workers, this feat still remains a remarkable act of worker solidarity, at the height of apartheid.

In the 1950's SACWU became a member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). SACWU secretary Viola Hashe, one of the two women officials in the all-male union, became SACTU vice-president. She was banned in 1963 under the Suppression of Communism Act.

In 1961 SACWU and the Garment Workers' Union of African Women merged to form the National Union of Clothing Workers (NUCW). Still forced by apartheid to organise separately, GWUSA and NUCW nonetheless maintained a close relationship, and operated as parallel unions (almost like two branches of the same union).

At this stage GWUSA, with its large number of coloured members, tended to dominate the NUCW. The NUCW could not negotiate wages in the industrial council - the law did not allow black workers to negotiate on the industrial council system. NUCW members were thus forced to accept wages and working conditions negotiated by GWUSA.

Although workers were not free from racial prejudice, most recognised the need for class unity and solidarity. This provided the basis for a co-operative relationship. They shared resources and fought many employers as a single union.

One of GWUSA's most significant gains was in 1948: through arbitration it won a forty-hour working week, and substantial wage increase at industrial council level. This was of course, a major advancement in the core May Day demand for an eight-hour working day. To this day, Gauteng garment workers are the only clothing workers who enjoy the forty-hour week.

The union also fought the 1956 Industrial Conciliation Act. This Act made provision for job along racial lines. The union called for a strike: garment factories on the Reef were effectively closed for three days. Other protests followed and after a long battle GWUSA became the first union to succeed in getting the legislation lifted.

The union also fought a long and bitter battle against the Physical Planning Act. This law prohibited an employer from employing more than one black for every two and a half whites. After a nine-year battle, the Act was cancelled.

In 1952, GWUSA leaders Solly Sachs received a banning order and an order for him to resign from the union. A massive crowd of about twenty thousand garment, leather and textile workers gathered at the Johannesburg City Hall steps to protest against the banning. The meeting was violently dispersed by police, leaving hundreds injured.


"Garment Workers march to protest the banning of Solly Sachs by the apartheid government, Johannesburg 1952"

GWUSA leadership, firmly committed to trade union and worker unity, was instrumental in organising and setting up trade unions in other sectors, as well as giving financial assistance. Workers in the tobacco, hat, wine and spirit, radio and television, brushes and broom, food and canning and textile sectors were organised by GWUSA officials and members. SACCAWU, today one of COSATU's most militant affiliates, was started with the assistance of GWUSA.

In the 1960's GWUSA lost much of its fighting spirit. After Sachs left, the union became more and more dominated by conservative white leaders who were involved in forming the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA). TUCSA policy was to exclude unions with African membership.

After almost 20 years of working together as parallel unions, in August 1985 GWUSA and NUCW merged. The Wiehahn recommendations had made racially mixed unions possible at last. GWUSA, with about six thousand white and coloured members, amalgamated with the twenty six thousand African members of the NUCW to form the National Union of Garment Workers (NUGW).

Shortly afterwards, in 1986, NUGW disaffiliated from TUCSA. At the time TUCSA was in crises: trying to please members across the political spectrum, and failing miserably, it was effectively neutralising union militancy.
NUGW was not the only union to accuse TUCSA of lack of direction. In particular NUGW condemned TUCSA's lack of support for June 16 and May Day commemorations.



The Garment Workers Union of the Cape Province started organising garment workers in the early 1920's. It was formally founded by Harry Evans in 1933. The union registered in 1935 as the Garment Workers' Union of the Cape Peninsula. It then had limited jurisdiction, only extending to Cape Town, Wynberg and Simonstown. It later extended its scope to cover George. This prompted the name change to Garment Workers Union (Western Province).



Like its predecessor, the Garment Workers Union (Western Province) was largely conservative and came up against more militant unions like GWUSA. The union thrived on benefits and was criticized as being more of a benefit society than a trade union. For example, it provided creches, educational bursaries and housing loans, and later, in 1940, established an unemployment benefit fund for garment workers (which was funded by contributions from employers and workers). When government introduced the UIF, the union's unemployment fund assets were transferred to the provident fund scheme. In 1942, it established the Clothing Industry Sick Fund. However, despite all these benefits, the union did not campaign strongly for improved workers wages, and they remained very low – lower even than those in the Transvaal.

Bob Stewart was the union's secretary until his death in 1946. He was succeeded by Rose Crawford, who retired in 1954. She was succeeded by Louis Petersen. Mr Petersen was a cutter in the 1930's and then helped the union's first organiser, Mrs Noble, to organise garment workers.


"GWU-WP General Secretary Louis Peterson addressing a group of workers"

Originally, the union had mainly white members. But it was never really able to adequately organise and serve workers' needs. And the absence of a strong garment union coupled with the economic situation in the Cape meant huge wage differentials between the Cape and the then Transvaal.

GWUSA tried to fill the gap left by GWU (CP) and began organising Cape Town milliners. But problems emerged during wage negotiations in the late 1920's. GWUSA's Solly Sachs and Anna Scheepers demanded higher wages in an attempt to equalise wages between Transvaal and Cape workers. Employers refused to budge knowing that Mr Roberts, the then-general secretary of GWU (CP), would accept a much lower wage offer. He did.

After the settlement, Cape Town employers urged their workers to join the GWU (CP). Sachs and Scheepers tried to unite the unions, but failed. Talks with the union leadership proved unsuccessful and communication with the membership was made impossible. Employers blocked their access to factories, and police harassment further made it impossible for them to find their way into Cape factories.

The GWU grew with employer support. Obviously its direction differed from that of GWUSA. Cape wages and working conditions remained far worse than that in the Transvaal. Differences between GWUSA and the GWU (WP) continued for many years. However, both unions were affiliates of the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA) and some unity was forged over certain issues through TUCSA’s Garment Workers Consultative Committee. While GWUSA left TUCSA, the GWU (WP) remained loyal until the Council's demise in 1986.


The Natal-based garment Workers Industrial Union (GWIU) was formed on 2 August 1934 under the leadership of James Bolton. It drew its membership mainly from indentured Indian labour that made up the bulk of the workforce in the industry at the time.

James Bolton was a furniture worker at the time. He came from Britain in 1928. He began organising workers in the garment and textile sectors in the late 1920's. The Industrial Registrar refused to register both garment and textile workers in the same union. GWIU's registration in 1934 therefore excluded textile workers.


"GWIU members attend a meeting"

The Natal Industrial Council was formed in 1936. In 1937, the council agreement was extended to cover African workers on the same wages and working conditions as other workers. In 1938, the joint contributory sick fund was established. The 1940's saw the introduction of an unemployment fund, similar to the one run by the union in the Cape. Bolton Hall was opened in 1971. James Bolton died in England in 1964, at the age of 64. He was succeeded by his wife, Harriet Bolton, who was general secretary until 1974. She was succeeded by Mr M. S. Stanley, who had been an organiser for the union for eighteen years.

In the 1950's, a large number of African workers entered the industry. The union employed Amos Dube to organise African workers into the GWIU. But in 1956, when the law prohibited mixed unions, GWIU excluded African workers from its ranks, and Dube had to resign.

A working relationship was maintained and African shop stewards continued attending union meetings. After the Wiehahn Commission’s findings in the late 1970s, which allowed recommended multi-racial unions, the union once again opened its doors to African workers.

GWIU avoided involvement in major strikes. Apart from a few minor stoppages at individual factories, the most significant gains made by the union were: the 1944 wage agreement which secured May Day as a paid public holiday; increases in the cost of living allowance by 22.5% and increased basic wages; and in 1948 the reduction of working hours from 48 hours to 42.5 hours for skilled workers. This was extended to unskilled workers in the 1970's.

GWIU was a member of TUCSA but left it in 1986 – the feeling was that the Council was strongly dominated by whites, and GWIU was not benefiting in any way from continued membership.


Another significant union in the industry was the Textile Workers' Industrial Union (TWIU). It registered in 1936 and organised workers irrespective of race. However, also to avoid conflict with the legal authorities, coloured, white and Indian workers were in one section and African workers in another.

In 1950, legislation forced TWIU to form a separate union for its African members. TWIU then organised only coloured and Indian workers, and its African members formed the African Textile Workers Industrial Union of South Africa. The two unions
maintained close ties and operated as a single unit.

The Suppression of Communism Act also meant constant harassment for TWIU officials. Many were banned and some fled the country. By 1953 the African Textile Industrial Workers' Union had almost ceased to exist, and the TWIU had also lost many members.

Nevertheless, the union was involved in many strike actions in the 1950's. Of particular note was the week-long wage strike by three thousand Amato workers, when police intervened and injured 50 workers. Leaders involved in the strike were jailed under the pass laws.

In the 1970's, when amended legislation allowed Africans to be members of registered unions, the union again opened its ranks to black workers. This strengthened TWIU and a major battle for union recognition started in Natal's textile factories.

The union remained politically independent and did not join the new federation formed in 1979 - the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU).



In 1973, a wave of strikes in Durban gave rise to a new generation of textile workers. And from it a new union emerged in September of that year - the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW). NUTW was characterised by militant workers and leaders with fresh ideas and a different approach to organising. The union adopted a non-racial policy from the start, and thus was not eligible for registration.

It was hard work organising as an unregistered union. Union subscriptions had to be collected by hand, employers refused al dealings with the union, and gaining recognition was a major battle.

The union was also a constant target for state repression - union leaders were detained, including acting general secretary Halton Cheadle, who was subsequently banned. Cheadle later became the country's leading labour lawyer. After the elections of 1994, he was also appointed to head the Department of Labour task team appointed to draw up a draft new Labour Relations Act.

NUTW was a founding member of FOSATU (the largest trade union federation before the formation of COSATU) and was one of its largest affiliates with 7000 members at the time.

FOSATU gave NUTW the impetus to expand beyond Natal. In 1980 the union opened a branch in the Eastern Cape. In 1981 a branch was started in the then Transvaal, and in 1982 a branch opened in Cape Town. From the start, the union operated as a centralised national union under a national executive committee.

One of NUTW's toughest battles was the fight for recognition at the Frame group -employer of over twenty thousand textile workers. After fifty-three legal cases over a two-year period, which cost management millions and drained union resources, Frame eventually granted recognition. NUTW could then organise the whole of the Frame group.

In 1985 NUTW became a founding member of COSATU. At the founding congress the union proposed a resolution calling for one union for each industry. The slogan "One union, one industry" became a central part of COSATU's policy of building industrial unions as the preferred form of union organisation.

NUTW leadership always stressed that the union should take an independent path, unaligned to any political organisation. They felt that members should be able to belong to different political organisations, but still feel comfortable in the union. A minority in the union disagreed and eventually left to form a splinter union – the Textile and Allied Workers' Union (TAWU).

One of the NUTW's organising tools was establishing shop stewards rights in factories. Shop steward councils were formed at each branch as a process of developing a national worker leadership. By 1986 the union had 400 shop stewards at factories in which it was recognised.



"An NUTW member is tested for byssinosis, a lung disease caused by exposure to cotton dust, as part of the union’s Brown Lung Campaign."


The NUTW posed a serious threat to TWIU. Both organised in the same industry and both were based largely in Natal. There was intense rivalry and bitter fights over poaching of members and union recognition for majority unions. The two unions fought court battles at great financial cost, but NUTW expanded rapidly and began to win over TWIU members.

Finally, the two unions agreed to join forces, and ACTWUSA was born in September 1987 out of a merger between NUTW, TWIU, and NUGW. The new union's combined membership stood at seventy thousand. The union resolved to step up its recruitment of leather workers. Richard Kawie, a branch organiser in ACTWUSA's Peninsula branch, gave the new union its first breakthrough in the leather industry in the Cape, when he recruited Cellini, a Parow-based leather factory.

The merger raised tensions in the South African Federation of Textile, Garment and Leather Workers - because the garment Workers' Union (Western Province) had been excluded. NUTW, critical of GWU (WP)'s form of trade unionism, asked the GWU leadership to clarify whether that organisation was a benefit society or a trade union. John Copelyn, NUTW spokesperson at the time said: "The leadership operates without mandates and encourages a view that there is no divide between labour and management".

In solidarity with GWU (WP) the Garment Workers Industrial Union (GWIU) refused to participate in the merger, but did send a message of support to the ACTWUSA launch. Then, GWU (WP) joined ranks with GWIU in Natal in 1987. On 5¬6 December of that year the two unions merged, and form the Garment and Allied Workers Union of South Africa. (GAWU -SA) was launched with 102 000 members, three months after the birth of ACTWUSA.


"Amon Ntuli, ACTWUSA President addresses a union meeting"




Prior to the formation of GAWU (SA), its two founding unions established the "Joint Unity First' Commission, to pursue the principle of 'one union, one industry'. Desmond Sampson, the Chairperson of the Commission, tabled the Commission's report at GAWU's 1987 inaugural congress. Commenting on the merger talks with the unions which eventually formed ACTWUSA, the report said:

"Tremendous pressure was brought upon us. Unrealistic timetables were placed before us. We were unable to fix and meet these unrealistic deadlines and refused to bow to illogical pressures. This is an indication of our dedication to bring about real unity amongst all the workers in the industry. That others did not have the same courage, patience and commitment to accept the challenge of "Unity First" is indeed unfortunate. The Joint Committee therefore regrets that we could not today join hands with another 68 000 of our brothers and sisters in the fight against injustices. That mortal sin -division among workers - has unfortunately triumphed..."

It was clear from the delivered and the resolutions adopted at the GAWU inaugural congress, that the union had decided on a more aggressive route for the future. It invited Liz Abrahams, the militant ex-Sactu and Ex-Fawu organiser, to give a keynote address. She delivered a fiery and militant speech:

"The outdated saying goes that a woman's place is in the kitchen. We say No!. A working woman's place is in the union and in the home alongside our men. Our men must understand that when we come home from work and then have to rush to a union meeting. They must understand that while we should share responsibilities in the home, we should also share the responsibilities of the struggle and when men do the   same   thing, we must understand. To take it further, a woman's place is in the COSATU living wage campaign. And while we call for a forty-hour week, a living wage, May Day, June 16 and Sharpeville Day as paid public holidays, living unemployment benefits and the other living wage demands. At the same time we demand things that affect women directly, such as maternity benefits. As women, we also call for equal pay for equal work...Forward to one non-racial union and non-sexist union in the industry. Forward to worker control, democracy and international solidarity!"

There was no doubt that she brought the message over clearly, and militantly.

Ismail   Muckdoom, then president of the Garment Workers Industrial Union (GWIU) echoed this newfound militancy when he said in his speech to the inaugural congress:   

"Trade unions in South Africa have moved into a new era. It is an era of militancy and strength. Today, organised workers and their trade unions are prepared to fight for their rights and to demand what is rightfully theirs. We have learnt from bitter experience that going cap in hand to the bosses does not work. It is out of our experience and misery that our commitment to the struggle for our rights and a living age was born. We commit ourselves today to new forms of organising and mobilising of workers in our industry. Gone are the days when we go cap in hand to the bosses. Now we shall demand and struggle for our rightful share of the wealth we produce."

Shortly after its launch, the union started employing new and radical trade unionists. Coupled with a more progressive leadership, it embarked on militant shopfioor struggles. This was a direction unheard of in the history of GAWU's predecessors.

The union won major wage increases, maternity benefits, and got signed undertakings from employers on certain clauses of the Labour Relations Act. At the time, the apartheid government had introduced amendments to the LRA, which would have much weakened trade unions. GAWU was instrumental in forcing better conditions for workers.

Since its formation, GAWU started a process of developing democratic shop floor, local and regional structures. This grassroots build-up allowed the union to wage some of the biggest strikes in 1988 involving thousands of workers.

During 1988 GAWU established a base in the Transvaal, after the 5000 strong South African Textile and Allied Workers' Union (SATAWU) joined the union.

Until late 1987, the GWU (WP) newspaper, Clothesline, was filled with beauty contests and cultural and sports events which were noticeably unprogressive. During 1988 coverage of these events took on a new perspective and many stories in Clothesline began to focus on militant trade union activity.

According to Desmond Sampson, GAWU's general secretary, the sudden militant leap could be attributed to the change in union leadership, education programs and démocratisation of union structures which provided a means for union members to express feelings previously suppressed. But there were also deep struggles before the formation of GAWU (SA), which planted the seed of the new militancy. For example, the militant twenty one-day strike by Rex Trueform workers was unheard of in the industry. There were also militant strikes at companies like Cape Underwear. The early attempts by CLOWU to break into the industry also contributed to rising levels of militancy.

The new GAWU (SA) developed working relationships with community organisations in the Western Cape.


At GAWU's inaugural congress in 1987, the union resolved to seek observer status with COSATU. A pre-condition to formal affiliation was merger with the COSATU affiliate in that sector - ACTWUSA. However tensions between the two unions still ran high as a result of their respective pasts and a merger seemed out of the question at the time.

GAWU was granted observer status in some COSATU structures and the union worked closely with COSATU affiliates in the Eastern and Western Cape. But the strained relationship with ACTWUSA did not improve.

In   mid-1988 the unions accused each other of poaching members. For example, at one Durban factory where GAWU claimed majority support, ACTWUSA disputed this. The matter was only settled shortly before an impending court battle between the unions. Joint co-ordination and negotiation by both unions resolved the dispute.

Continuing conflict, especially in Natal, prevented formal merger talks. But late in 1988, after COSATU intervened, a positive merger process started. Following a meeting between representatives from GAWU, ACTWUSA and COSATU in December 1988, a committee of four delegates from each union and COSATU's Jay Naidoo and Sydney Mufamadi was established to examine all areas of conflict and to discuss the merger. The committee met four times, resolving several issues of tension between the unions. At the fifth meeting differences arose over political policy and structure.

The differences centred around political differences between GAWU and ACTWUSA. GAWU, clearly more closely allied to the mass democratic movement, strongly supported involvement in community structures. The union also drew up a charter similar to the Freedom Charter. ACTWUSA on the other hand came from a strong tradition of shop floor-based trade unionism. Its predecessor, NUTW, was often very critical of union involvement in what it termed 'political' issues. The union claimed that worker issues, while political in nature, needed to separate from broader political issues, as otherwise their essence risked being lost.  

Despite these differences, both GAWU and ACTWUSA were firmly committed to maximum worker unity by now and resolved at their special April Congresses that such differences should not stand in the way of merger. As a show of unity, the unions exchanged speakers at their individual congresses, which were held on the same weekend.

On 16-17 September 1989, GAWU and ACTWUSA merged, to form SACTWU. The membership composition (multi-racial, predominantly women) of the new union was major boost for COSATU.




Special acknowledgement goes to Shareen Singh (1989) whose article 'Garment Workers: A Huge New Union' has been used almost verbatim.