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South African and US Labour in the Era of the Second World War: Similar Trends and Underlying Differences

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Abstract

By imposing similar priorities on each of the belligerents, wars provide a valuable setting for cross-national comparison. Despite this, none of the fine comparative studies of the US and South Africa considered the period 1939–45 in any detail.’ In addressing this weakness, an attempt will be made to justify two related conclusions. First, in the period under consideration, although there were important differences between the two countries’ labour movements, similar trends were also apparent. More specifically, it was particularly in this period that, as a consequence of war-related industrialisation and resistance, black workers joined labour movements en masse. Secondly, the claims of exceptionalism that have been made for the working class of both countries are implicitly regarded as unhelpful (because they inhibit valuable comparative enquiry) and with respect to this period they are explicitly rejected as unwarranted.2

Keywords

Union Membership Union Leader Black Worker African Union White Worker 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    See Stanley B. Greenberg, Race and State in Capitalist Development: South Africa in Comparative Perspective (Johannesburg, 1980);Google Scholar
  2. George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: a Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York, 1981);Google Scholar
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  5. 2.
    Whilst judgements about South Africa are based on my recent PhD dissertation, opinions about the US are drawn from a limited range of sources; thus conclusions should be regarded as suggestive rather than definitive. For further discussion and fuller references on South Africa, see Peter Alexander, ‘Industrial Conflict, Race and the South African State, 1939–1948’ (PhD thesis, University of London, 1994).Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    For a pioneering critique of the former, see Martin Legassick, ‘The Frontier Tradition in South African Historiography’ in Shula Marks and Anthony Atmore, eds, Economy and Society in Pre-industrial South Africa (London, 1980). For the latter view, see South African Communist Party, ‘The Road to South African Freedom’ in South African Communists Speak: Documentsfrom the History of the South African Communist Party, 1915–1980 (London, 1981), 297–307.Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    See, in particular, Stanley Trapido, ‘South Africa in a Comparative Study of Industrialisation’, Journal of Development Studies, 7:3 (1971).Google Scholar
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    In particular, Jon Lewis, Industrialisation and Trade Union Organisation in South Africa, 1924–55: the Rise and Fall of the South African Trades and Labour Council (Cambridge, 1984);Google Scholar
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    See, for instance, Frederick A. Johnstone, Class, Race and Gold: a Study of Class Relations and Racial Discrimination in South Africa (London, 1976).Google Scholar
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    Here I am at odds with Rob Davies, who argued that industrial capital was hegemonic in the early 1940s; R.H. Davies, Capital, State and White Labour in South Africa 1900–1960: an Historical Materialist Analysis of Class Formation and Class Relations (Brighton, 1979). See also,Google Scholar
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  15. 15.
    As late as 1948, 64 per cent of Africans employed in the Transvaal engineering industry were housed in compounds. See also, Doug Hindson, Pass Controls and the Urban African Proletariat (Johannesburg, 1987), 53–5; andGoogle Scholar
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    The mining revolution of the late nineteenth century, which transformed South Africa, was based particularly on gold mining, and from 1930 mining contributed more to national income than agriculture. Publicly-owned industry, which in the 1940s was far less substantial than private industry, was more concerned than private industry with providing employment for white workers. For a recent history of state industries, see Nancy L. Clark, Manufacturing Apartheid: State Corporations in South Africa (New Haven, 1994).Google Scholar
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  19. 29.
    However, in both countries, levels of segregation were probably higher in the 1940s than the 1930s (partly because of rapid urbanisation), although lower than they became in the 1950s. Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA., 1993); A.J. Christopher, ‘Segregation Levels in South African Cities, 1911–1985’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 25:3 (1992).Google Scholar
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    For instance, Manning Marable, Black American Politics: From the Washington Marches to Jesse Jackson (London, 1985), 86–7.Google Scholar
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    Jack and Ray Simons, Class and Colour in South Africa 1850–1950 (London, 1983), 534; Department of Labour, ‘Minutes of a Conference of Divisional Inspectors Held… 8th–9th November, 1944’, ARB A181 pt 2, State Archives, Pretoria.Google Scholar
  22. 32.
    Dale T. Hiestand, Economic Growth and Employment Opportunities for Minorities (New York, 1964), 43, cited in Fredrickson, White Supremacy, 237.Google Scholar
  23. 34.
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  27. 36.
    For an insider’s account of one of these unions, see Bettie du Toit, Ukubamba Amadolo: Workers’ Struggles in the South African Textile Industry (London, 1978).Google Scholar
  28. 37.
    Although, partly perhaps because of opposition from the CPSA, no definite steps were taken. Bill Andrews, the party’s national chair and a former SATLC general secretary, offered an alternative perspective. Like Sachs he was impressed with the CIO, but he was pessimistic about the possibility of involving key white workers, in a similar South African organisation, and he argued that, instead, the left should attempt to reform the SATLC. ‘We Must Learn From the Workers of the USA’, Garment Worker Jan./Feb. 1945; ‘A CIO for S. Africa?’, Guardian, 8 April 1943; Lewis, Industrialization and Trade Union Organization, 161. For an account of the GWU by its general secretary, see E.S. Sachs, Rebels’ Daughters (London, 1957).Google Scholar
  29. 38.
    For instance, at the 1940 SATLC conference, an anti-war motion received 23 votes to 30 against. Following the German invasion of Russia, this leftwing opposition evaporated, but many Afrikaner and African workers still refused to support the war. For the US, which did not enter the war until late 1941, see Gary Gerstle, ‘The Working Class Goes to War’, Mid-America, 75:3 (1993), 303–22.Google Scholar
  30. 39.
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  32. 40.
    For South Africa, particularly Baruch Hirson, Revolutions in my Life (Johannesburg, 1995), 175. For the US,Google Scholar
  33. Martin Glaberman, Wartime Strikes: the Struggle Against the No-Strike Pledge in the UAW During World War II (Detroit, 1980), 10, 34; Lichtenstein, Labor’s War at Home, 73–4, 81; Gerstle, ‘Working Class Goes to War’, 305.Google Scholar
  34. 41.
    Philip S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619–1973 (New York, 1974), 243.Google Scholar
  35. 42.
    Secretary for Native Affairs to Secretary for Labour, 10 April 1942, NTS 35/362/1 pt 2, State Archives, Pretoria. David Duncan, ‘The State and African Trade Unions, 1918–1948’, Social Dynamics, 18:2 (1992), 66, misrepresents the significance of this event.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 43.
    At a government conference in October 1943 the SATLC’s president and general secretary repudiated the SATLC’s position, but it is unlikely that this was decisive. I would certainly contest the claim that ‘there was more support for African unions from white capital than from white labour’; Merle Lipton, Capitalism and Apartheid (Aldershot, 1986), 194.Google Scholar
  37. 45.
    This argument is presented by Baruch Hirson, Yours for the Union (London, 1989), 96.Google Scholar
  38. 46.
    Alexander, ‘Industrial Conflict’, 67–71. US wartime strike statistics should also be questioned. See Monthly Labor Review, 57:3 (1943), 537; Glaberman, Wartime Strikes, 49.Google Scholar
  39. 47.
    The best account of the strike is that provided by T. Dunbar Moodie with Vivienne Ndatshe, Going for Gold: Men, Mines, and Migration (Johannesburg, 1994).Google Scholar
  40. 49.
    See particularly, Norman Herd, Counter Attack: the Story of the South African Shopworkers (Cape Town, 1974).Google Scholar
  41. 50.
    For example, Davies, Capital, State and White Labour. The most detailed account of the strike is unpublished: Jon Lewis, ‘The South African Labour Movement and the Building Workers’ Strike’ (Johannesburg, c.1980).Google Scholar
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    Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step: the First Twenty Years of the CIO, 1936–1955 (New York, 1964), 236.Google Scholar
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    Lichtenstein, Labor’s War at Home, 135; Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington, 1950), Table 915.Google Scholar
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    For Durban unions, see David Hemson, ‘Class Consciousness and Migrant Workers: Dock Workers of Durban’ (PhD thesis, Warwick University, 1979), andGoogle Scholar
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  46. 65.
    W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Race Relations in the United States, 1917–1947’, Phylon, IX (1948), quoted inGoogle Scholar
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  48. 66.
    For valuable discussions of the CIO debate, see Goldfield, ‘Race and the CIO’, and Rick Halpern, ‘Organized Labor, Black Workers, and the Twentieth Century South: the Emerging Revision’, Social History, 19:3 (October 1994).Google Scholar
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  50. Herbert Hill, ‘Black Labor and Affirmative Action: an Historical Perspective’, in Steven Shulman and William Darity Jr, eds, The Question of Discrimination (Middletown, 1989). For recent contributions to the debate, see Bruce Nelson, ‘Organized Labor and the Struggle for Black Equality in Mobile During World II’, The Journal of American History, 80 (1993), and Rick Halpem, ‘The CIO and the Limits of Labor-based Civil Rights Activism: the Case of Louisiana’s Sugar Workers, 1947–1966’, in Robert H. Zieger, ed., Essays in Recent Southern Labor History (Knoxville, 1997).Google Scholar
  51. 70.
    Marable, Black American Politics, 86. See also, Desmond King, Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the US Federal Government (Oxford, 1995), Appendix 4.Google Scholar
  52. 73.
    For instance, Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, ‘Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement’, Journal of American History, 75:3 (1988), 798;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Roger Keeran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Unions (New York, 1980), 232.Google Scholar
  54. 74.
    For Durban, see, for instance, Bill Freund, Insiders and Outsiders: theIndian Working Class of Durban, 1910–1990 (Pietermaritzburg, 1995), who, however. downnlavs the success of these unions.Google Scholar
  55. 78.
    Many of the CIO’s anti-discrimination activities were organised through its Committee to Abolish Racial Discrimination; see Robert H. Zieger, The CIO (Chapel Hill, 1995), 155–61.Google Scholar
  56. 80.
    Goldfield, ‘Race and the CIO’. See especially Michael Honey, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (Urbana, 1993).Google Scholar
  57. 81.
    See also, Tom Lodge, ‘Class Conflict, Communal Struggle and Patriotic Unity: the Communist Party of South Africa During the Second World War’ (Seminar Paper, African Studies Institute, Witwatersrand, 1985);Google Scholar
  58. Dominic Fortescue, ‘The Communist Party of South Africa and the African Working Class in the 1940s’ International Journal of African Historical Studies, 24:3 (1991).Google Scholar
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    For South Africa, D. Harries (Baruch Hirson), ‘Daniel Koza: a Working Class Leader’, African Perspective, 19 (1981);Google Scholar
  60. Baruch Hirson, ‘The Trotskyists of South Africa, 1932–48’, Searchlight, 10 (1993), 51–115.Google Scholar
  61. C.L.R. James et al., Fighting Racism in World War II (New York, 1980), 23.Google Scholar
  62. 84.
    H.J. Simons, ‘Trade Unions’, in Ellen Hellmann, ed., Handbook on Race Relations in South Africa (Cape Town, 1949), 165–6.Google Scholar
  63. 85.
    See also, Les Witz, ‘Support or Control: Children of the Garment Workers’ Union, 1939–1945’, in Alan Mabin, ed., Organisation and Economic Change (Johannesbure. 1989).Google Scholar
  64. 88.
    For South Africa, see, for instance, Miriam Basner, Am I an African? The Political Memoirs of H.M. Basner (Johannesburg, 1993). 177.Google Scholar
  65. 90.
    Indeed, a good deal of my argument could be expanded to include Britain and much of the Commonwealth. See, for instance, Richard Croucher, Engineers at War, 1939–1945 (Basingstoke, 1986); andGoogle Scholar
  66. Douglas Blackmur, Strikes: Cause, Conduct and Consequences (Sydney, 1993).Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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