Black labor unions - the black-protest tool least constrained by South Africa's state of emergency - are suddenly becoming more militant. The new mood is tempered by one key factor: the unions' abiding preference for working within the boundaries of a labor-relations system that has proved the most durable of race-policy reforms enacted here in the past decade.
Yet on both economic and political issues, black labor leaders are speaking with new confidence, fire, and determination. Late last year, the small Commercial, Catering, and Allied Workers Union embarked on the country's longest strike ever against a retail chain, OK Bazaars. It ended only days ago in a major victory for the strikers.
Now, the largest black union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), is demanding an across-the-board wage hike of 55 percent in an industry that provides the lion's share of South Africa's export earnings. Moreover, the NUM is retreating from its early reluctance to assume a high profile in the wider movement of black antigovernment protest.
In a news conference this week at the close of NUM's fifth annual congress, union chief Cyril Ramaphosa announced the union's endorsement of the 1955 ``Freedom Charter'' of the outlawed African National Congress. The union vowed to ``cooperate with democratic and progressive [political] organizations ... to make sure that mineworkers participate effectively in the struggle against oppression and exploitation.''
The NUM also threatened to call its some 360,000 registered members to strike if mine owners do not move convincingly by the end of March to begin dismantling the century-old practice of relying largely on migrant, contract workers from neighboring black states. In the short term, the NUM congress demanded, management must radically improve conditions in the single-sex hostels in which migrant laborers are housed.
``In earlier years, when we were building up the union, we felt the need for caution,'' a top NUM official remarked privately. ``Now there is a generally more militant mood among our members. And the union is strongly established, presenting a situation in which we can move on political issues.''
The practical effect of the unions' mood of militancy is hard to predict. Privately, black labor leaders make it clear their main concern remains to press dollars-and-cents issues. These sources say that the unions, by themselves, have neither the ability - nor intention - to set off renewed unrest on the scale that marked black townships from the fall of 1984 until the government's fierce counterthrust in June last year.
``There is now an overall sense in the black community,'' said one union leader, ``that liberation will be achieved by a long-term struggle and political strategy - not a matter of one or two years.'' He said the significance of the NUM congress was firmly to place the country's largest black union as a determined participant in that process. ``We have come to see economic issues as inseparable from the goal of replacing the present political system by a free and democratic South Africa.''
One NUM official added that his union has increasingly viewed its own economic demands as linked to those of other economic sectors badly hit in recent years by unemployment. One example, he said, is the union's determination to refuse all overtime work and fight mine mechanization, both of which reduce the number of employed blacks.
On wage and work issues, there seems little doubt the mood in the NUM and other black unions is to press harder than ever before. One catalyst is political frustration, union leaders say. Yet at least as important a prod is the linked pressure of inflation and unemployment.
``The 1987 wage-negotiating environment will be the toughest on record,'' says a recent study by a leading South African labor-relations firm cited in a Johannesburg newspaper early this week. This is particularly true in light of recent union successes on the wage front, according to the study. And the firm predicted longer strikes in the months ahead.
The walkout at OK Bazaars may become the model for these strikes. The union had demanded an across-the-board monthly wage hike of 160 rands - roughly $80 - and a 450-rand minimum wage. Management initially offered only a fraction of this, but settled on a two-stage monthly increase of 100 rands and a 400-rand minimum wage.
The NUM congress has set up a major test of strength between the union and mine managers. In past annual wage negotiations, the union has won hefty increases by retreating from high opening demands and shunning lengthy strike action. Last year, for instance, the NUM demanded a 45 percent wage increase.
But with the value of the South African currency sagging and the domestic economy in recession, the union settled for barely half that figure - 23.5 percent, bringing the average NUM mineworker's wage to about $170 a month.
Mr. Ramaphosa suggests that this year may be different. He is insisting that wage talks open in April - a month earlier than usual. He maintains that, given a rebound in the world gold price, mine owners can well afford the increase his union is asking. He adds that the NUM has the will and resources to sustain a national strike if necessary.
When asked at his news conference if this was mere opening rhetoric, Ramaphosa replied: ``I leave that to your analytic judgment.... But 1987 is not 1985 or 1986.''
This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.