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Trade Unions in South Africa and Argentina Essay

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South Africa is a country that is crippled by the heritage of the apartheid, this is because the struggle for democracy was a long and exhausting one (Budeli, 2009: 68). Argentina also suffered among the hands of the military regime, as the lives of ordinary people was accompanied with hunger and a forceful government (Brysk, 1994: 1). The trade union movement has been pivotal in both of the countries, as the labour movements were able to mobilise towards better countries. In this essay, South Africa and Argentina’s trade union struggles will be discussed through a political-economic and historical context, and the essay will portray how these two countries share similarities and differences.

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South Africa:

The Nationalist Party, which was a result of many Afrikaners going against the Smuts government, came into power from 1948 to 1994 (Baskin, 1996: 209). The apartheid laws came into full swing in 1948, where racial discrimination became institutionalised, which simply means that the segregation between whites and non-whites was enforced by the apartheid government (Baskin, 1996: 209). These laws played a large role in dictating which races received employment, for example in many cases jobs would be reserved for whites only, and were greatly protected (Baskin, 1996: 211). Trade unions had to struggle with political and industrial relations when trying to fight for the rights of workers (Baskin, 1996: 210).

In many cases African trade unions (Black, Indian and Coloured people) were not recognised and so it was a constant fight to try and get recognised as legitimate trade unions (Baskin, 1996: 210). In 1948, the Nationalist government, removed the Industrial Conciliation (Native) Bill that was in effect under the Smut government, and it introduced the Botha Commission (Baskin, 1996: 210). The Botha Commission was greatly criticised by the government as it gave African trade unions the ability to be recognised and to receive bargaining rights (Baskin, 1996: 210). The apartheid government rejected the application of acknowledging the African trade unions, due to the relations most of them had with the African National Congress (ANC), (Baskin, 1996: 211). This was because the ANC became one of the non-white political organisations that were going against the unjust laws that existed in apartheid South Africa (Baskin, 1996: 211).

In 1954 the Minister of Labour introduced the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA), in order to gain greater solidarity from the white workers, TUCSA also made it clear that their association with African unions was non-existent in order to win over the majority of white conservatives (Baskin, 1996: 214). This brought rise to the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), also in 1954 (Baskin, 1996: 214). SACTU, made it clear that it was in opposition of the union and political strategies that existed within TUCSA, this was because SACTU posed a large threat to TUCSA, as they argued against the control of African trade unions (Baskin, 1996: 214). SACTU embarked on a journey and agenda that involved political mobilization of the African working class as they continuously became proletarianized by the apartheid government (Baskin, 1996: 214).

But to importantly strengthen the political agenda by linking up with the ANC (Baskin, 1996: 214). In 1957, SACTU sent a number of invitations to TUCSA in order to discuss ways in which African unions can be recognised and that collective bargaining for Africans could be considered, even the Minister of Labour was often invited to these discussions and yet both the minister and TUCSA, rejected all the invitations (Baskin, 1996: 224).

Examples of the invitations would be that of the local committee of SACTU, appealing to TUCSA for a joint meeting to discuss a statement made by the Minister of Labour about job reservation for semi-skilled and skilled workers, it also refused the invitation given, where SACTU asked for TUCSA’s support for the Treason Trials Defense Fund (Baskin, 1996: 224). Therefore this shows that the African trade unions were trying by all means to cooperate with government departments and TUCSA, but they were not interested in any way. SACTU leaders such as the president, Leon Levy and the general secretary Leslie Massina were banned, due to the fact that they were in opposition of TUCSA (Baskin, 1996: 224).

By 1959, the alliance between the ANC and SACTU grew strong, as more and more people began to recognise the movement, over 46000 individuals became members of SACTU, these members were largely factory based (Baskin, 1996: 225). SACTU continued to campaign and attracted many Africans (Baskin, 1996: 225). The ANC and SACTU began to draft the Freedom Charter, which was a manifesto of what a democratic South Africa would be, where individuals would not be discriminated against because of their race, sex or disability, amongst others factors (Baskin, 1996: 228). By the time the protest in Sharpville arrived in 1960, there were many grievances that were felt by the African working class, but the main reason for the protest, was to protest against the pass laws and other factors such as constant low wages and poverty (South African History Online, 2012). Pass laws were used to control the movement of non-whites in apartheid South Africa (South African History Online, 2012).

The Sharpville protest was a peaceful one and the apartheid police opened fire on the civilians which resulted in a massacre where many lives were lost and so the African unions and ANC, SACP (South African Communist Party) began to intensify when Umkhonto weSizwe, which was the military forces used and occupied by the ANC, SACP and African trade unions in the armed struggle against apartheid (South African History Online, 2012). By 1965, many of the leaders of SACTU either went into exile, executed or were imprisoned at Robben Island and so the union activity died down, as there was no one to lead the organisation (South African History Online, 2012). SACTU was instrumental in paving the way for many of the other trade unions in strengthening their struggle for the working class.

The instability in apartheid South Africa, forced the United Nations to condemn the apartheid policies and to request the members of the United Nations and the international community to also condemn the South African apartheid government by stopping any economical and military business they had with South Africa (Budeli, 2009: 68). But dominant companies like Anglo American, Barlow Rand and Gencor, grew tremendously (Baskin, 1991: 113). These companies were negatively affected when non-whites decided to go on strike in 1973, their main grievance being that of low wages, this strike led to industry in South Africa come to a standstill (Budeli, 2009: 68). It became evident that the workers had gotten stronger in the sense that they were able to form pivotal stries without any formal backing from the government (Budeli, 2009: 68).

This led to the growth of many unions, which by the end of 1973 resulted in the government introducing the Bantu Labour Relations Act (Budeli, 2009: 68). The act was passed in order to control and regulate the conditions of black employees, to also regulate the disputes, prevention of disputes and settlements between black employees and their employers, in this way the government was able to belittle any relevance or influence that the African trade unions had (Budeli, 2009: 68). This did not stop the strikes from occuring as they spread through put the country, and the isolation from the international community had a negative affect on the economy of South Africa (Budeli, 2009: 69). This led to the rebirth of many trade unions such as SACTU, and later in 1976 the Soweto Uprising intensified the need for a change in South Africa (Budeli, 2009: 69).

By 1979, the South African government felt the pressure from the international community and brought to the table the Weihahn Commission of Inquiry (Budeli, 2009: 69). The Commission had its first report in 1979, as it presented fundamental changes in the labour relations system (Budeli, 2009: 69). The Commission, supported the freedom for all trade unions to make up their own rukes and regulations, amongst other things (Budeli, 2009: 70).

The formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) was also in 1979, where there was central decision-making by a panel of executive committees which represent delegates from all the factories, with the sole role to promote shop floor development and organisation, FOSATU proposing that they will only work with the government, for all races to be able to register to a trade union (Baskin, 1991: 60). FOSATU paved the way for the formation of trade unions such as the National Union of Mine Workers (NUM) in 1982 led by Cyril Ramaposa (Baskin, 1991: 115). NUM was used to protest against horrid working conditions and better wages.

In 1984, the government created the tri-cameral parliament, which fundamentally extended political rights and affiliation to Indians and Coloureds excluding black individuals (Budeli, 2009: 72). This made the black people very angry, and to further fight against the apartheid government strategies, the birth of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) occurred in 1985, COSATU formally allied itself with the ANC joining the organisation in the struggle against apartheid (Budeli, 2009: 72). The birth of COSATU was accompanied by a large strike, where a record of 185 000 work days were lost, during industrial activity in January 1986 (Baskin, 1991: 77). Official government records showed that 1985 brought the highest number of strikes in the last ten years, not knowing that the next 12 months were going to be pivotal point in South Africa (Baskin, 1991: 77). Impala Platinum, were in shock when on New Year’s day 1986, over 36 000 workers put their tools down, at the four Impala Platinum mines in Bophuthatswana, this created a large problem as the four mines produced over 30% of the world’s platinum (Baskin, 1991: 77).

The miners were in protest against receiving low wages and having to work over time on public holidays without being paid for the extra time, and that their living conditions should be the same as that of their white counterparts, where they are allowed to receive access to marital quarters as well (Baskin, 1991: 78). But even more important, the workers demanded that management should provide facilities to NUM even after management had refused (Baskin, 1991: 78). COSATU had to form their structures, and so they decided to take a participatory approach, where the majority of workers were delegates, and there was mass participation in the decision-making, what was most important to COSATU was to ensure that the workers were taken care and this was done at constantly looking at the grass root level (Baskin, 1991: 112).

By the late 1980s COSATU began to have issues within the congress where smaller unions like NUMSA, were unhappy and also conflict with community organisers (Baskin, 1991: 112). But such internal problems did not, distract the working class from the struggle, to the extent in which the apartheid government lost their tight control over the townships, and so the regime became increasingly compromised. By the early 1990s the struggle began to dissolve with the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC, SACP and PAC and all the other struggle organisations that were involved (Budeli, 2009: 73).


The military government came into power in 1943, at this time Peron was gaining a lot of recognition and in many ways Peron’s ideology coincided with that of the working class (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 127). The event that occurred in 1945 on the 17th of October was fundamental in the Argentinen labour movement (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 127). During 1943 and 1944, Peron’s support base grew tremendously due to the support received from inside the trade unions (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 127). The event that took place on the 17th October, it was the mobilisation of the working class as they demanded the nationalisation of industries, profit sharing for workers, an extensive social security system amongst other demands (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 127).

Peron used the event to his advantage by becoming allied with the trade unions by getting all the government employees and their unions to mobilise against the employers who were condemning the reformist social activities and soon to be policies of the military regime (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 128). Union leaders were often eager to ensure the linkage between the military politics and themselves, this was all in 1945 (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 128). Since Peron was the Minister of Labour, he introduced the Law of Professional Associations which amplified the power of the General Confederation Labour (CGT), and also gave the government the ability to allow unions legal status, as a precondition for collective bargaining, which was on the behalf of their members (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 128).

Peron chose this way forward as a response to the train drivers, textile and shoe makers unions (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 128). Though Peron was becoming increasingly popular, other military rulers were not taken by Peron, and in actual fact wanted to remove Peron from his position of power, unfortunately for the other military rulers, this did not necessarily affect Peron’s campaign to win over the working class (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 128).

In 1946, Peron was elected into office to be Argentina’s president, his first mission was to eradicate the Partido Laborista, to make way for his new party the Peronist party (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 130). Peron created his own kind of ideology, and it was known as Peronism which meant the people and so Anti-Peronism would be enemies against the people (Di Tella & Dornbusch, 1989: 91). The CGT became the foundation of the Peronist party (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 131). Even though Peron had succeed in wining over unions, some independent unions under Louis Gay, posed a threat to the succees of his office and in 1947, Peron executed the resignation of Gay, in order to have full control of the labour movement, and not allow the unions to have any political presence (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 131).

Peron adopted a corporatist model in Argentina, where the employers, government and unions would come together issues that affected the country (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 131). This was because in many cases, the working class would be striking, and demanding increases of wages being part of the employee contracts and yet the employees continued to refuse, but the turning point was reached in 1948, where higher wages were received due to the increase in the amount strike activity (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 136). Most of these strikes were pleads from the working class, for the improvement of working and living conditions (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 136).

Peron had big plans for Argentina, one of which was to turn Argentina into an industrialised country, this was done through the creation of a steel company but by 1950 the industrialisation faced a crisis (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 137). Peron’s economic policies faced a lot of negative comments by the Catholic Church (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 137). It became intensified when the Catholic Church began to use armed forces in order to make changes, the Church argued that it was no longer feasible that wages could always increase and that profits and capital to keep the companies was going to decrease (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 137).

Once the changes were made to the economic policies, real wage began to decrease in 1950, and the economic growth rate fell (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 137). Strike action began to rise, from 1950-1954 there were 125 strikes and 4,006,204 working days were lost (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 138). Even through the minor economic crisis Peron still soared to defend the working class (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 137). In 1955, the working class, the Peron government and CGT had a confrontation with the military, middle class and Catholic Church, many people were killed and a massacre resulted in Plaza De Mayo (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 142). The military were victorious which resulted in Peron being removed from office (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 147).

The fall of Peron, caused a period of political instability, which resulted in phases where different organisations would be in office from military regimes (1955-1958), to civilian interludes (1958-1962), or even a combination of both in 1962-1963 (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 147). In that time span, the factory floor was forced to conform to the new modern strategies that were meant to lead productivity, but two points were important at the time, which is labour resistance and the bureaucratisation of the unions (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 148). The labour resistance was often known as the Peronist resistance as socialist and communist parties became instrumental in the deterioration of Peronism, therefore trade unions became divided into Peronist, Socialist and Communist Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 148), The CGT was often divided between provinces, which resulted in the persecution of many union leaders in the Peronist resistance (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 149).

Vandorism became influential in the labour movement, this was because the Frondizi government, which came into power in 1958 had began to make changes in the economic policy, by promoting the privatisation of certain factories (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 152). The state had a confrontation with the labour movement when it was decided that Lisandro de la Torre near Buenos Aires (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 152). Vandorism was greatly a bureaucratic organisation even at the grass-root level, but eventually military coup led to the fall of Vandorism in 1966 (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 157).

Military coups became the usual, when from 1966-1971, Argentina went through three presidents, in 1966 it was Ongania, 1969 was Levingston and 1971 was Lanusse (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 166). A new working class emerged, where there was heterogeneity growth, internal diversification and an increase in the decentralisation on growth of labour productivity (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 168).

The situation in Cordoba, was a cause for concern as the strike activity in the area increased where workers were protesting against harsh working hours (44 hour week paid as 48) and they were questioning the power of employers in reducing the national wages due to the decrease in economic growth (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 169). Peron came back in 1973 as the president which did not last for a long time, because when Peron died in 1974, his ideologies died with him (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 187). By 1983, free elections had taken place, and the military regime began to die (223).


Argentina and South African trade union movements possess many similarities. The first similarity that was noted in both of these case studies, is the commitment of the trade unions in changing the political and economical structures of the countries, as mentioned above, South African trade unions were in constant conflict with the apartheid regime when trying to reform the structures (Baskin, 1996: 210), the same happened in Argentina, when Peron and the trade unions were at the forefront of trying to move the militant regime, in order to satisfy the needs of the working class (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 127). Industrialisation has played a large role in the history of both Argentina and South Africa, and it known that the same patterns of industrialisation existed in the countries (Cooper, 2011: 19).

The type of industrialisation that occurred in both countries is that of mass production and often on the manufacturing of engineering parts (Cooper, 2011: 19). The trade unions had a large role to play in the lives of the working class during the industrial booms of the two countries, for example in South Africa in 1986 many of the mine strikes that occurred in South Africa, trade unions such as NUM and COSATU were at the forefront trying to ensure that the interests of the working class are taken into consideration, which was mainly the improvement of working conditions and wage increases, the Impala Platinum strike mentioned above is an example of solid trade union support (Baskin, 1991: 77).

In Argentina 1958, there were many talks of privatisation of the factories and this would badly affect the working class as the wages were sure to decrease, in particular there was an intense labour movement formed at Lisandro de la Torre near Buenos Aires, to protest against the privatisation of the factory, Vandorist unions were at the forefront of the protests (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 152).

An important similarity would be that of both countries having the labour movements under harsh authoritarian regimes, where a bureaucratic model exists and only to those it benefits (Cooper, 2011:6). Therefore in most cases in both the countries there would be large mobilisation and resistance against the authoritarian rule, as mentioned above the trade unions were instrumental in coming up with certain policies that assisted the working class (Cooper, 2011: 6). In South Africa, the policy of the Freedom Charter is and example of the trade unions mobilising politically and formally against the apartheid regime (Budeli, 2009: 68). In Argentina, when Peron allied himself with the trade unions, and ensured that the CGT was backing him, it was a clear indication that changes and policies were going to be put into place to loosen the authoritarian control (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 128).

Both countries began to rely greatly on foreign aid and foreign investments in the 1950s and 1960s, this played a large in the restructuring of the economy to suit the needs of the foreign corporations than the people living and working in the country (Cooper, 2011: 5). In South Africa there was a large increase in the expenditure on machinery in 1956 and 1960 (Webster, 1985: 9). Argentina had the same thing happen, and the government’s inability to effectively deal with the political and economic conflicts gave rise to turning point strikes in the country (Cooper, 2011:19). The last similarity is that the trade unions formed in both countries wanted grass-root democracy and often socialist economic transformation (Cooper, 2011: 25). In South Africa this was done by COSATU, by introducing shop floor delegates in order to deal with the issues that the workers were having directly, this was done in a participatory manner (Baskin, 1991: 112). In Argentina, Vandorism used heavy bureaucracy as grass root organisation (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 152).


The differences found in the countries are also vital in the comparative analysis. The first difference is that the two countries often had different ideologies in their trade union and political movements, an example would be that most of the trade unions in South Africa such as COSATU had communist policies, even the ANC which as mentioned was the political party that was against the apartheid regime started of with communist political backing with SACP (Budeli, 2009: 73). Whereas in Argentina, Peron made it clear that only his policies that he implemented were to be used and in any cases trade unions who were communist were often deposed by Peron, and so the only successful trade unions in assisting the working were the ones that allied themselves with Peron, thus the success of socialist or communist trade unions was limited or non-existent (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli: 128).

South Africa’s apartheid regime differed from the military regime in Argentina, in the sense that it occurred according to race lines, this simply means that the African unions that represented non-whites were not recognised by the government and so jobs were often just reserved for white people, and there was no protection for non-white workers from the employers (Baskin, 1996: 224). Unlike in Argentina where the labour movement, did not have to concern themselves with racial issues directly.

Argentina even under the military regime did not experience the international community condemning the actions taken by government to the extent of actually placing sanctions on the economic, social and political activities in the international community, whereas South Africa had been sanctioned from the international community which was felt directly by the working class as wages became lower and the economy was crippled (Budeli, 2009: 73).


In conclusion, Both South African and Argentina’s trade unions have been instrumental in the reforms that occurred in both countries. The trade unions were not only revolutionising against the undemocratic regimes, but in the process of doing the trade unions in both countries were highly influential in making the lives of working class better through the struggles that were fought against harsh working conditions and low wages (Cooper, 2011:19). Even though the struggles in both countries lasted for many decades, labour movements in both countries, have improved since the regimes occurred, in the fight for a stronger and more effective working class.

List of References:

Baskin, J. 1991. Strking Back: A History of COSATU. Johannesburg: Raman Press.

Baskin, J. (ed). 1996. Against the Current: Labour and Economic Policy in
South Africa. Naledi: Ravan Press.

Brysk, A. 1994. The Politics of Human Rights in Argentina: Protest, Change and Democratization. California: Standford University Press.

Budeli, M. 2009. “Workers’ right to freedom of association and trade unionism in South Africa: An historical perspective”. Fundamina. Vol. 15(2) pp. 57-74.

Cooper, D. 2011. “Locating South Africa in the third world: Comparative perspectives on patterns of industrialisation and political trade unionism in South America”. Social Dynamics: A journal of African studies.Vol. 17(2) pp. 1-40.

Di Tella, G., & Dornbusch, R. 1989. The Political Economy of Argentina 1946-1983. London: MacMillan Press.

Munck, R., Falcon, R., & Galitelli, B. Argentina: From Anarchism to Peronism: workers, unions and politics 1885-1985. New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd.

Webster, E. (ed). Essays in Southern African Labour History. Johannesburg: Raman Press.

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