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A big step forward

On the 6th of February, 1941, about 40 people met in a house in Bloem Street, Cape Town. One person brought milk, one person brought tea, another person brought biscuits, another brought cake. It was a small meeting but it was an important meet­ing. By the time people finished their tea, the first trade union for food wor­kers was born. They called it the Food and Canning Workers Union .


Forty five years later another meeting was held in Cape Town which was very important for food workers. Four hundred food workers from factories all over the country came together.

They came from different unions from all over the country. There were people from the old Food and Canning Workers Union, from the Sweet, Food and Allied Workers Union, from the Retail and Allied Workers Union, from General Workers Union of South Africa, from General and Allied Workers Union.

This time people were not starting a union for the first time. They came from different unions. They came to start one, big union from all the differ­ent food unions in the country.

People came from all the different unions. But their reason for coming was the same – they all wanted one big union for all food workers.


Chris Dlamini was made President of the new union. And Jan Theron was made the general secretary of the new union. They told Learn and Teach why it was so important that all the food workers came together.

Chris said, “When we talked to the bosses about problems in the facto­ries, the bosses used to say, ‘We work well with the other unions, why are you giving us so much trouble?’ “The bosses also gave better wages to one union than they did to the others. So unions started to fight between themselves.

“At the same time,” said Jan, “there are fewer and bigger bosses in the food in­dustry. The big bosses were buying up the small food factories. This made the bosses stronger. So we needed to be stronger too.”


“We knew that unity is hard work,” said Chris. ”So when our members said we must all come together in one union, we started to work together. “Workers in different places had branch meetings together. We made plans for the new union. We talked about our problems. And we started to talk to the bosses together, not as different unions, but as food workers.”


John Pici is a shop steward at Atwell Baking Company in Cape Town. He went to the big meeting. He said, “There was a very good spirit at the meeting. But sometimes it was difficult. We said we were just food workers from different places but peo­ple sometimes forgot. They stood up and said I am from Food and Canning,’ or I am from Sweet, Food. Then they remembered about the meeting and they felt shy.

“We had a lot of problems to get a name. Some people wanted the new union to be the Food Workers Union of South Africa. Others wanted Food and Allied Workers Union – FAWU. In the end we all voted, and most people voted for FAWU.

“People also voted on the sign for the union. We made different signs. We showed them to all the people at the meeting. All the signs had numbers. Everyone chose no. 4.”


“One thing made our joining easier,” said Jan.” Everyone agreed that wor­kers must control the new union. Workers must make all the important deci­sions. But there are still small differ­ences in the unions that must change. In the Food and Canning Workers Un­ion, each branch kept their own money. But in Sweet, Food there was only one bank account.

“The unions also organise different­ly. Sweet, Food organises all the food workers in one place. But Food and Canning Workers Union organises all the same kind of factories, like all the bakeries, and all the mills. But we hope that if we put our different ways of working together, FAWU will get stronger.’ ,

But Jan said that a big union can be a problem. “It is more difficult for wor­kers to come together and make deci­sions for the whole union. We must work harder to make sure that workers keep control over the union.”


“We were all members of COSATU”, said Chris.’ ‘When COSATU started, everyone said unions that organise the same kind of workers must come together. So far only the food workers and the transport worker have joined.

“We hope that our joining together will help other unions in COSATU. We don’t say that people must all join like we did – they can’t. Different factories have different problems. But we do feel that people must want to join together. Maybe when they see that we have taken this big step forward, they will see that it is not a bad thing.

“We are facing bad times now. If the workers are going to be strong, they must come together. And if COSATU is going to be strong, it must be made out of big, strong unions – not small, weak ones.”


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