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A bitter pill to swallow

It is 9 o’clock in the morning. The trade union officials are walking up and down outside a big hall at Wits University. They check the time, day and date – yes, it is Saturday, November 28 1987.

At 11 o’clock the hall fills up — and the faces of the officials from the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) light up. They smile because they know union meetings never start on time.

It was a Saturday, it was the end of the month and it was close to Christmas — but over 800 shopstewards came. It was an important meeting.


The meeting was called to talk about a new law the government wants to bring out early next year. If the government makes this law, trade unions will lose much of the power they have today.

The government wants to change a law called the Labour Relations Act. The changes it wants to make are in a bill — if the government wants to change a law or make a new law, it must show parliament a bill. The bill explains the changes or the new law the government wants to make.

“When Parliament sits early in 1988, we believe the government will push through the bill to make it law,” said a NUMSA official before the meeting at Wits began.


At the meeting Adrienne Bird from the NUMSA Education Department said that 1987 was a great year in the workers’ struggle for a living wage. Workers went on strike everywhere — in the shops, mines, metal factories, railways and the post offices.

“Comrades, this year the workers really took control,” she said. “The bosses lost millions of rands because of strike action for a living wage. She told the meeting that the bosses ran to the government for help. They went to the Minister of Manpower, Pietie du Plessis and said the unions are getting too strong.

“If the bill becomes law it will push the unions back 10 years. It is an attack on all our rights as workers that we have won through hard struggle.

Many older workers nodded their heads. They remembered those dark days and they did not like what they were hearing.


“If this bill becomes a law, it will be illegal for our union to give support to other workers by joining them in strikes or boycotts,” said Adrienne.

She explained that bosses will also be able to sue workers for loss of production because of strikes. They could sue a union for millions of rands, and by doing so close down the union.

She said that the bill is also an attack against Cosatu’s policy of ‘one union one industry’ and ‘one company one union’. If the bill becomes law, the bosses will be able to make agreements with more than one unionin the same factory.

Adrienne spoke for a long time explaining the bill. She ended by saying: “So comrades, it is clear we have to defend our rights as workers. We must organise to kill the bill before the bill kills us.”


A young worker at the meeting said that everybody was now under attack — the students with the new university law, the newspapers with the new newspaper laws and now the workers with the new labour bill.

Another speaker got up to speak. Everyone knows her. Her name is Mama Maggie Magubane. She told the meeting that the bill was an attack against all the workers of South Africa.

“We must ask Cosatu to go out and tell other unions to join us in this struggle against the bill. We need unity to defeat these bills — that is the only way we can win.”


The bill attacks the right to strike.

  • Strikes that are now legal will become illegal — such as workers striking to support other workers on strike. “Grasshopper strikes” — strikes which start, stop and start again — will also be illegal.

  • Strikes or boycotts for the “same or similar” thing will not be allowed for 12 months. For example, if workers go on strike over wages, they will not be able to have another wage strike for another 12 months.

  • Even if workers follow all the steps of a legal strike, they can still be dismissed.

  • Wildcat strikes — when workers go on strike without first talking to the union or the bosses — will be illegal. If the bosses can prove that the union was behind the strike, they can sue the union.

  • Stayaways will be against the law and trade unions will be charged if they call for one.

  • Unions can be sued for “loss of production” for strike action, “go—slows”, boycotts and stayaways.

Dismissals of workers will be easier.

  • The bosses will easily be able to fire new workers. A worker who has worked for the same boss for less than 12 months will have little protection. The bosses will not need a good reason to fire these workers.

The retrenchment law will change.

  • The bosses can retrench anyone they like. In other words, they will no longer have to follow the “last in, first out” rule.

  • After a strike the bosses can take back only the people they like. In other words, they can selectively re-employ workers, which is now against the law.

  • When workers are retrenched, bosses will not be forced to pay workers for each year they have worked. They will not have to pay severance pay.

“One union, one industry” — attacked.

  • Bosses will be able to make agreements with “small or minority unions”. Unions with a 50% plus one majority in a factory will no longer be able to talk for all workers in the factory. They will have to share the table with lots of small unions. This will break the union rule of “one union, one industry.”

  • The bill will allow “apartheid unions” to register. For example, unions which have only white members will be allowed to register. Trade unions have fought against this in the past because it divides the workers.

The Industrial Court will be weaker

  • The Minister will be able to choose anyone he likes to be President and the deputy President of the Industrial Court. Now, only people who know labour law well can be President or deputy President.

  • There will also be a special new labour court. This court will have the same power as the Supreme Court. It will be very expensive to take cases to this court. If a union loses a case, it will have to pay the costs of the bosses. Most of the time their costs are higher than the unions’.

Some lawyers say this special labour court is not a good thing because it changes the whole idea of having the Industrial Court. The idea was for workers to use the Industrial Court easily and cheaply — and to solve disputes quickly.

Changes to the working of the Industrial Councils and Conciliation Boards

If your company falls under an Industrial Council (IC) or Conciliation Board (CB) there will be many changes.

  • There will now be a deadline for unions to take disputes to the IC or CB. Unions will only have 21 days to take disputes to an IC or CB. If unions miss the deadline, they will not be able to go on strike or take other actions.

  • An IC or CB will no longer have only 30 days to solve a dispute. It will have as much time as it wants. An IC or CB will be able to “drag its feet” — and in the meantime stop workers from striking or taking other action.

  • A good point: When there is a dispute, unions will be able to ask inspectors at the Department of Manpower for a CB or IC hearing. Now only the Minister of Manpower can decide to give a hearing. So hearings will become a right — and not something only the Minister has the power to give.

The bosses will get more power

  • The bosses will get new powers. There are many things in the bill to prove this. For example, the bosses can take the union to court if they believe that a union has used “unfair methods to recruit workers.” The new bill will change the balance between workers and the bosses. The bosses will now be in the “driving seat” — and many of the rights that workers have won through hard struggle in the past years will be no more.


Frank Meintjies of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) said: “This new bill is a big stick to hit the unions. It offers us no carrots or good things — only pain.

“This bill is one of the biggest attacks on the unions, especially Cosatu. We see this bill as a heavy attack on our living wage campaign.”

“If this stick hits the unions, unions will be forced to work outside the law because we will lose all the protection we have won from the bosses.”

Asked how Cosatu will fight the bill, Meintjies said: “For a start we will tell our friends overseas to help us in our fight against the bill. But we will also have to organise to defeat the bills. All Cosatu unions will meet in February 1988 to work out what action Cosatu will be taking against the bills.

“We must build a united front with the youth, women, and unemployed workers — and the struggle against the bills must be the number one issue.”

Mahlomola Skosana from the National Council of Trade Union (NACTU) said: “This bill will be discussed and passed by a white parliament. It is a parliament that does not speak for the workers.

“The aim of this bill is to protect the bosses — not the workers. The bosses have been asking the government for protection for a long time. They have told the government that the Labour Relations Act is is in favour of workers and unions. This is why they are changing it.

“The bill wants to clip the wings of the unions which have grown into a big force in the struggle for change. This bill wants to take away the right to strike. The right to strike and picket is the main right of workers all over the world.”

When asked how Nactu will fight this bill, Skosana said: “Our members on the factory floor have spoken about the bill and are making plans to fight it. Our power is in the factories and it is from there that we will fight. To fight this bill we are prepared to work with other unions and organisations.”


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