NUSAS students set up the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund (GFWBF) in 1972. They worked closely with Harriet Bolton of TUCSA. The aim of the GFWBF was, through worker organisations, to make workers aware of their rights through its in house paper, Isisebenzi (in English and isiZulu), to make representations to Wage Boards for worker determinations, medical and funeral benefits and worker complaints around issues such as working conditions, Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and Workmen’s Compensation.
The General Factory Workers Benefit Fund (GFWBF) was started up with a loan from the GWIU. Initially it offered funeral benefits and a Christmas bonus, but later supplied sick and unemployment pay. From the outset, workers ran the GFWBF. It became a dynamic point of contact between African workers in different industries and the Bolton Hall trade unionists, and by 1974 claimed 22 000 members.
Following the 1973 Durban strikes, crowds of workers gathered each Saturday morning at Bolton Hall, premises of the GFWBF to apply for membership. These developments expedited the formation of trade unions.
The GFWBF consisted of activists from different trade union and political backgrounds, SACTU unionists, student radicals and sympathetic registered unions. The GFWBF also attracted a fair number of worker members, who their own experiences of collective action and modes of organisation contributed to building the GFWBF.
Through their financial contributions, the GFWBF generated an independent resource base and by drawing on workers’ own traditions, they deepened democratic practice.
The GFWBF was only operational for a few months when the conditions under which workers had to organise were totally transformed by the 1973 strike wave. Alongside semi-skilled African and Indian workers, new layers of workers, unschooled in trade unionism, were radicalised and migrants and African women often spearheaded the militant activities of workers.
In May 1974, the Commercial Branch of the police confiscated the GFWBF’s records claiming that it was operating as an unregistered Friendly Society. At the end of the year the GFWBF was charged with contravening the Group Areas Act, while officials from the GFWBF and CAS were later charged and found guilty of contravening the Friendly Society Act in January 1975.
The GFWBF activists such as Omar Badsha, David Hemson, Halton Cheadle and their colleagues then used loopholes in the labour laws to mobilise and organise workers (who by now were contributing members of the GFWBF) into joining fully fledged trade unions.