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History of trade unions in South Africa

2-22 Jul 2003

Sesli strike for higher wages and trade union rights.

26 Jan 2003

National Textile Bargaining Council is registered, a significant step forward in the union’s long campaign for centralised bargaining in the textile industry.

Jul/Oct 2002

Team Puma, a textile factory in the Western Cape legally strike over wages and the unilateral introduction of a new shift system. The strike lasted 16 weeks.

23 May 2002

Registration of the National Clothing Bargaining Council. The National Clothing Bargaining Council provides the industry with a vehicle through which to address the new social and commercial challenges of the industry and regulates the wages of over 120 000 clothing workers.

28 Feb - 3 Mar

Sactwu holds its first-ever National Bargaining and Servicing Conference in East London. The theme of the Conference was "Buy local, save jobs, crush poverty, build Sactwu".

27 Feb - 1 Mar

1000 David Whitehead workers in Durban, strike in defence and protection of worker rights. The strike was the largest and strongest protected wage related legal strike in the textile industry since 1993.

16 Nov 2001

Parliament votes to approve changes to the LRA and BCEA, giving workers the right to strike on retrenchments.

24 Oct 2000

35 workers from Castellano Beltrame in East London are dismissed for an illegal strike in protest against unfair production targets.

21 Jul 2000

Start of a 12 day long strike by more than 1 000 Seton leather workers. The strike related to workers working rotational shifts and a demand to be paid for 42 hours per week.

May 2000

South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) is established

10 May 2000

More than 4 million workers throughout South Africa strike from work. The action was the third leg in Cosatu's campaign to protest against job losses and fight for new policies to create jobs.

8 Sep 1999

Over 100 000 Sactwu members nationally participate in protest action in defense of jobs. In Cape Town, more than 30 000 workers march in the biggest ever union march on parliament.

30 April 1999

Affiliation of the National Medical Alliance to SAMA, unifying organised medicine in South Africa through the SA Medical and Dental Practitioners, Society of Dispensing Family Practitioners, Family Practitioners Association, Dispensing Family Practitioners Association and the Eastern Cape Medical Guild.

21 May 1998

South African Medical Association (SAMA) established from a merger between the Medical Association of South Africa (MASA) founded in 1927, and the Progressive Doctors Group (formerly NAMDA).

31 Jan 1998

Nictex blanket workers strike for more wages.

3 Feb 1998

Table Bay Spinners strike in support of industry- wide-cotton-worker demands.

18-21 Aug 1997

Cosatu rolling strike action campaign for fair employment standards.

3 Jun 1997

110 Botshabelo workers embark on a 10 week long strike for better working conditions and wages.

24 Jul 1996

Start of a 7 day strike by more than 80 000 Sactwu clothing workers nationally.

May 1996

Formation of the Communication Workers' Union of South Africa (CWU), through the merger of the Post Office Employees Association (PEASA), Post and Telecommunication Workers Association (POTWA) and South African Post Telecommunication Employees Association (SAPTEA).


Public Servants League (PSL) changed to PAWUSA (Public and Allied Workers Union).

19-23 Nov 1993

After a 4-day strike, monthly staff at Frame – all members of Sactwu – win a 9,5% increase after the company initially proposed a wage freeze.

24 Mar 1993

Over 2000 Da Gama workers strike for 47 days in support of a demand for higher wages. This is one of the longest strikes in Sactwu.

19 Sep 1992

300 Sactwu members occupy Woolworths, a clothing shop in Cape Town, in solidarity with workers dismissed by Woolworths supplier factories for taking part in a union march.

3-4 Aug 1992

3 million workers support a strike action in support of peace and democracy – the biggest strike action in South Africa.

18 Jun 1992

More than 50 000 clothing workers in Natal and the Cape march during working hours in support of their wage demands.

7 Apr 1992

A 16-day strike at Pep Textiles in Transkei ends, with workers winning a 17% wage increase.

4-5 Nov 1991

General Strike by 3 million workers against Vat and for a National Economic Forum.

1-17 Feb 1991

Over 1000 SANS workers strike for higher wages.

15 Oct 1990

8 000 workers and an aeroplane form part of the Transvaal human chain in support of the workers charter demands.

6 Oct 1990

SADTU, South Africa's largest teacher's union, was launched in Johannesburg

1 Oct 1990

Da Vinci Clothing workers in Natal go on strike, sparking off an industry-wide strike of 15 000 workers, over wage increases.

9 Sep 1990

1000 Da Gama workers march through East London, to force their company to recognise SACTWU.

28 Aug 1990

Natal Human Chain Day: 23 800 workers link hands in support of the Workers Charter campaign. With the Cape (July) and Transvaal (October) human chains, over 60 000 Sactwu members took part in the chains.

11 Jul 1990

10 000 Frame cottonworkers start a 3 week long legal strike over wages.

May 1990

3 day strike of Eastern Cape Clothing workers

4 Dec 1989

550 Cotton textiles workers march to the industrial court to show support for a dismissed worker leader.

21 Nov 1989

Start of the Cape Cotton “grasshopper strikes

25-27 Oct 1989

1400 Leather workers at Futura (Bata Shoes) shoe company in Pinetown went on strike. They demanded recognition of their trade union, SACTWU.

6 Jul 1989

260 Textiles workers at Finitex strike against the company’s use of breathalyser tests, and the involvement of the police in petty theft cases.

18 May 1989

Start of the 7 week long Hextex strike (one of the longest strikes ever in the industry) over a service bonus to workers.

15 Feb 1988

Cape Cotton workers strike for June 16 as a public holiday, and higher wages.


South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) is formed.

5-6 Dec 1987

GAWU formed through a merger of the Garment Workers’ Union (Western Cape) and the Garment Workers’ Industrial Union (Natal) beginning of new chapter of militant worker struggles in the garment sector of the Cape and Natal.

7-8 Nov 1987

ACTWUSA formed through a merger of the National Union of Textile Workers (NUTW), Textile Workers Industrial Union (TWIU) and National Union of Garment Workers (NUGW), ending the long history of separate organisation by textile and garment workers.

19 Aug 1987

Hundreds of workers at SBH Cotton Mills strike over a company rule which requires them to ask permission before going to the toilet. The rule was subsequently changed.

27-28 Jun 1987

NEHAWU was founded by workers from the Education, Health, Government and Social Welfare sectors.

May 1987

National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) was formed, through the merger of 5 different unions.

2 May 1986

Start of 21 day Rex Trueform strike.

17 Feb 1986

BKB woolworkers in Port Elizabeth strike.

1 Dec 1985

Formation of Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions)

21 Feb 1985

Workers at SA Nylon Spinners go on strike

27 Jun 1983

Natal Thread strike – first ever legal strike in South Africa since the Wiehahn reforms, by 300 NUTW workers.

22 Feb 1983

Bata shoe workers in KwaZulu, members of NUTW, strike


UMMAWOSA was a breakaway from MAWU, formed in 1983.

5 Dec 1982

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was formed

4 Aug 1982

Veldspun Textile company – 1000 workers strike against retrenchments.

Jul 1981

The industrial court reinstates dismissed workers at Stag Packing Textile company – the first ever reinstated decision of the court.

22 Jun 1980

Rex Trueform workers go on strike for higher wages.

22 May 1980

6000 Frame workers strike over wages and recognition of their union (NUTW).

5 Mar 1980

300 African and coloured women at Berkshire clothing factory go on strike over production bonuses


Dissatisfied members of NAAWU broke away in 1980 to form their own union - MACWUSA


NAAWU was formed in 1980 from 3 unions in the motor assembly industry - NUMARWOSA , WPMAWU and UAW . NUMARWOSA and WPMAWU had been formed in the 1960s. NUMARWOSA had its base in the Eastern Cape around the auto assembly factories eg. Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen. WPMAWU was a Western Cape union organising Leyland and Chrysler workers (both plants closed in the 1980s). The laws of the time forced them to organise only one “race” -- so-called coloureds. Later NUMARWOSA set up its own parallel african union - UAW - and african membership grew.


Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) formed.


The Wiehahn reforms deracialise South Africa’s statutory system of collective bargaining and dispute resolution, and introduce an Industrial Court to adjudicate unfair labour practice claims. To participate in the system, African trade unions have to register in terms of the Labour Relations Act. After initial reservations, most did so. The Wiehahn reforms gave the independent unions legal recognition and protection. Subsequent decisions by the industrial court entrenched the right to strike, and forced employers to bargain in good faith with representative trade unions.

Nov 1976

John Copelyn, SACTWU’s General Secretary, is banned together with a number of other trade unionists.

29 Sep 1976

3000 workers at Da Gama’s King Williamstown plant go on strike.

27 Oct 1975

Natal Cotton and Woollen Mills (Frame) workers strike for 2 weeks, and 200 policemen arrive to break the strike.

Sep 1975

Workers at the Carpet Manufacturing Co. in Jacobs go on strike over the dismissal of a shop steward.

3 Aug 1974

Zwelitsha – 3500 workers at Good Hope Textiles (Da Gama) go on strike over wages.

29 Jul 1974

East London Frame workers strike.


Trade Union Advisory and Co-ordinating Council (TUACC) formed


MAWU was the first union formed in Durban from the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund. Back then it was illegal for black workers to belong to a registered trade union so workers joined Benefit Funds - a cover for trade unions. Thousands of workers joined the fund after the Durban strikes in 1972 and 1973. MAWU was formed in 1973, and the Transvaal branch in 1975.

Nov 1973

Smith and Nephew Textile workers strike

Sep 1973

The National Union of Textile Workers is born at a meeting in Pinetown.

4 Feb 1973

Smith and Nephew Textile strike of 600 workers for more wages.

26-30 Jan 1973

10 000 Fine Spinners and Weavers (Frame) workers strike in Natal

18 Jan 1973

East London Consolidated Fine Spinners and Weavers (Frame) - 1000 workers strike for wage increase.


MICWA formed as a union for coloured workers (laws forced unions to be divided along racial lines) in the motor industry (components manufacturing, body building, servicing, and petrol attendants).

12 Feb 1958

2000 workers fired during a strike at Amato Textiles in Transvaal.

12 Mar 1956

Workers at Hextex in Worcester go on strike for 4 days in support of a demand for higher wages.

11 Aug 1954

Durban – 1500 workers strike at Consolidated Fine Spinning & Weaving (Frame)

8 May 1952

The government bans Solly Sachs, secretary of the Transvaal Garment Union.


Formation of the African Mine Workers Union

11 May 1935

Blanket workers strike in Transvaal: 250 white women strikers picket the factory every morning from 3am.

4 Sep 1932

General Clothing strike in Transvaal.

Jul 1931

2,300 white clothing workers in Johannesburg and Germiston strike for higher wages.

22 Dec 1920

SASBO members strike


70 000 African mineworkers in the now PWV region participated in strike action.

7 Jan 1919

Formation of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) in Cape Town, the first mass trade union of black workers.

Feb 1916

SASBO is formed, becoming the first of all bank trade unions in the Commonwealth.


Amended regulations of De Beers Consolidated Mine in 1883 required all diamond mine workers, other than managers, to wear uniforms and to strip naked in searching houses when they left work. White workers complained of being degraded to the 'Kafir's' level and went on strike, demonstrated and rioted. Twenty-five Africans who had joined in the turmoil were sent to jail for disorderly conduct, and the company rescinded the order to strip. A new instruction issued in 1884, required white employees to be searched while clothed in shirt, trousers and socks, and those who refused were threatened with instant dismissal. The men called a general strike, stopped the pumps on all mines and when the 'French' company resumed work, marched on the mine to put the hauling gear out of action. The company's guards, barricaded behind sandbags, called on them to halt, opened fire, killed four demonstrators outright and fatally wounded two more. The workers held a splendid funeral, gathered at mass meetings to protest, and went back to work after the owners had agreed to subject white employees to only irregular surprise searches.


Communication Workers' Union


National Education Health and Allied Workers Union

National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa

National Union of Mineworkers

Public and Allied Workers Union of South Africa

SASBO - the Finance Union

South African Medical Association

South African Municipal Workers Union

South African Transport and Allied Workers Union

Southern African Clothing an Textiles Workers Union


South African Trade Unions in a Time of Adjustment

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