Black unions thrive despite S. Africa's economic slump

Amid the worst economic downturn in the postwar period, and in an environment of bristling government suspicion and hostility, South Africa's emerging black trade union movement is showing surprising vigor.

Black trade unions were given legal sanction in South Africa in 1979. Although they have for the most part moved off the front pages of the newspapers here, recent statistics show black unions led the country to a record 394 strikes in 1982.

The record number of strikes - all of them by ''non-whites'' - is surprising to labor analysts for two reasons: (1)Conventional wisdom has it that union muscle would weaken considerably under the onslaught of economic recession such as South Africa suffered last year; and (2)South Africa's business and industrial sector took the strikes more or less in stride, with none of the exaggerated fears once associated with growing black bargaining power.

If there was ever any doubt, a South African labor specialist says, it is now clear that ''the major (black) union bodies have established themselves and they are here to stay.''

That is not to say there is yet a final answer to how the current economic slump and wave of black worker retrenchments will affect the trade unions. Recession is expected to continue here through most of the rest of 1983.

And there is always the wild card of the white government's attitude toward black trade unionism. The detention of union leaders in late 1981 has abated, but the threat of renewed attacks hangs like a sword of Damocles over the emerging unions.

Aside from holding a record number of strikes, black trade unions are estimated by most analysts to be at least holding their own, if not still making gains, in terms of membership. Independent black trade unions have a total membership of some 300,000 out of an economically active black population of some 6.5 million. (These figures do not include the so-called black ''homelands'' of Transkei, Bophutha-tswana, and Venda.)

Black trade unionism can also count to its credit dramatic inroads into the mining industry, where workers were unorganized in the past. The fast-growing National Union of Mineworkers expects to be representative enough to bargain for black miners this year, instead of leaving their wages to the unilateral decision of the mining employers.

Black unions are most preoccupied with fighting large-scale layoffs. And as the recession has gathered steam, the shop floor strength and organization of the unions are tested as they take up issues with managements that in some cases may welcome strikes as a way to precipitate firings.

Most labor analysts expect 1983 to be a year of ''consolidation'' that could shake out the weaker unions, leading to a leaner and more effective black trade union movement.

A deliberate move toward consolidation already appears under way in recent ''unity'' talks among major black unions. Seven independent trade union groups representing the bulk of the black union membership agreed earlier this month to look more closely at the idea of forming a national trade union federation. Similar talks never got off the ground last year.

The move is seen as a pragmatic response to the mounting economic pressures on black trade unions. Also, analysts note that issues that divided the union movement in the past - whether to register with the government and whether to use the industrial council bargaining system - have for the moment at least not been allowed to break up the ''unity'' talks.

''There is more building of bridges between the emerging black unions than I have seen in the past,'' a labor specialist says.

The high strike activity of 1982 is a signal to some analysts that employers and black workers are going through a learning process.

''The students of 1976 (the year of black riots) are the workers of today,'' points out a labor analyst, and the employers' ''go back to work or else'' strategy is not working anymore.

Although the heightened demands of black workers and the relative inexperience of most employers in dealing with black unions are producing friction, most analysts are encouraged that most work place grievances are being handled between worker and employer without government intervention.

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