The start of it all
Formed in February 1916, Sasbo is the oldest of all bank trade unions in the Commonwealth. It required considerable courage and fortitude to be associated with such a movement in those days, as instant dismissal from the bank was the likely reward of pioneers should it become known that you were part of a bank trade union. In the earliest days the founders met in absolute secrecy and it was necessary to produce proof of identity before admittance to a meeting. Indeed, it was advisable to take a walk round the block first and make sure that entry was not noticed by anyone who could do you harm. High living costs produced by the Great War, combined with a singular unwillingness on the part of the banks to do much to alleviate the plight of their staff, were the impulses which led to the formation of Sasbo. For example, bank managers were receiving salaries of about £250 – £300 per annum, with appropriate scaling-down for those less senior. The man generally accepted as the founder of the union was Leonard Trevor, working in the Standard Bank, Commissioner Street, Johannesburg, and although he died an early death (in 1923) his courage and his steadfastness left a beacon for all to light their way. He was a passionate orator who could sway his audience to heights of enthusiasm. Trevor was the bludgeon; the rapier was to be supplied by others. Among those who were associated with Trevor or who followed quickly in his footsteps, were Gilbert Matravers, later to become the first full-time organising secretary of Sasbo; Ernest Wheals who was the editor of the South African Banking Magazine which made its debut in November 1917; GC Edmonds; GT Jackson who came to the General Council in 1919 and remained there for the remarkable span of 27 years; JP Moore and JG Dean. In Durban there were FR Swan, later organising secretary of Sasbo, and HC Greenless who subsequently was general manager of Barclays Bank D.C.O. In Port Elizabeth there was JPF Grose, in Cape Town HM Steele.
Recognition at last
Naturally the first aim of the union was to induce the banks to recognise it as the mouthpiece of their staff. This they resolutely refused to do on the grounds that the general managers were at all times ready to give sympathetic consideration to complaints from their staff, whether individual or collective. However, continual pressure was applied, and on 1 April, 1919 (happy date!) the National Bank sent a letter to Sasbo stating their willingness to recognise the union provided satisfactory conditions could be agreed upon. Judging by the correspondence appearing in the SA Banking Magazine the Netherlands Bank appeared to be sitting on the fence, but the other two banks refused to consider recognition. In line with its more liberal outlook, the National Bank also conceded to the principle of payment for overtime, of which there was plenty. Sasbo attempted to make progress by asking the Department of Mines and Industries to establish a Joint Board by virtue of Act No. 20 of 1909, to provide for recognition by the banks. The Government replied that their legal advisors were of the opinion that banking was neither an undertaking, trade nor industry in terms of the Act! The threat of a strike ballot in April, 1920, however, appeared to have some effect somewhere, because a conference took place in Cape Town early in May. The ballot, by the way, was a postal one and resulted in a return of 78 percent, with 96½ percent in favour of drastic action. The conference was presided over by Sir Frederick de Waal, the Administrator of the Cape Province. A recognition agreement was drafted and provided for half-yearly conciliation boards, with resort to arbitration in the event of failure to agree. The union ratified the agreement on 18 May 1920. The Associated Banks were the other party, but they found themselves in difficulties over the arbitration clause. However, the agreement was made use of and although recourse had on two occasions been made to the Industrial Conciliation Act (IC Act), the system of private conciliation boards still prevailed. Arising out of the Recognition Agreement, the union, of course, presented certain demands to the banks, relating to salaries and other conditions of service, (which were totally unregulated). The settlement was reached by way of arbitration (the Hofmeyr Award). Considerable and acrimonious disputes took place over its interpretations, and the position was further aggravated by a decision of the Associated Banks not to accept the arbitration clause originally included in the Recognition Agreement. The banks also refused to associate themselves in a joint deputation to the arbitrator to seek clarification of the disputed portions of his award. The union, notwithstanding the impasse, asked the banks to agree to arbitration on a graded system of salaries. The Secretary of Mines and
Industries again intervened, asking the parties to a joint meeting, subject to the following matters: –
If there is anything in the correspondence which has taken place between the parties which stands in the way of a meeting, each party is prepared to withdraw anything of this nature;
That the parties will be prepared to discuss the Hofmeyr Award and the best means of applying it;
That the parties will be prepared to discuss the arbitration clause of the Recognition Agreement or some other means of settling disputes in the future.
On the same date (6 December 1920), the union, over the signatures of Messrs. JP Moore, JG Dean, FR Swan, GC Edmonds and ECE Wheals, agreed to the terms suggested but the Associated Banks refused to do so and Sasbo then informed the Government that a strike ballot would be proceeded with. The points to be decided by the members in balloting were two in number: –
That the Associated Banks shall forthwith meet the Arbitrator, Mr HJ Hofmeyr, jointly with the delegates of this Society and obtain his interpretation of the award on all disputed points; the Arbitrator’s interpretation to be finally accepted and binding on both parties.
That both sides shall agree to submit to immediate arbitration the question of a comprehensive grading scheme, to include –
Satisfactory remuneration for officials, based on age, sex, service, position and responsibility.
Grading of positions.
A circular issued about the middle of 1917 showed that the union was established in 86 towns in South Africa and represented by members in 125 bank branches. Among other things it reported 90 percent membership along the West Rand and 95 percent in Pretoria. It also gave a full report of a meeting held in Cape Town on 18 July, 1917, which was addressed by the late Mr Morris Alexander, M.L.A. By the end of 1917 membership exceeded 1 000 after starting less than two years before with a membership of 3. At that time membership was confined to men and it was yet some time before women were to be taken into the fold On 9 December 1920, just before the famous strike, total enrolments were 3 875 (still men only).
The early relationship with the banks
As may be supposed, the South African commercial banks were not exactly exuberant at the formation and progress of the union. “What!”, one can hear them say, “respectable professional men forming themselves into a low-down trade union!” The affected banks were the National Bank of South Africa Limited (later to become Barclays Bank D.C.O. and then First National Bank), the African Banking Corporation (soon to be merged with the Standard Bank), the Netherlands Bank of South Africa Limited (now Nedcor), and the Standard Bank of South Africa Limited. Needless to say, all were opposed to the union but there is no doubt that the inexorable enemy of those early days was the Standard Bank of South Africa. Had they not been on the scene there is little doubt that recognition of Sasbo by the banks, which was the first objective, would have been achieved earlier. Apart from direct or indirect intimidation of individuals by the general managers or branch managers, attempts were made to embarrass the union by dispersal of its leaders throughout the country. But this was to boomerang against the bank for the plague thus spread (at the banks’ expense!) throughout the country. Then, again, particularly in the Standard Bank, attempts were made to persuade employees to form internal guilds, or a company union. There were a few waverers, particularly in Cape Town where the influence of the Standard Bank Head Office made itself felt, but fortunately the vast majority would have no truck with beguiling words and SASBO continued on its way. Intimidation did go on, as witnessed by the attempted transfer of Matravers from Cape Town to Mafikeng, and on his refusal to go, his dismissal from the Standard Bank. This case, incidentally, caused a surge of new members into the union. l, requesting the early introduction of a Bill to provide for the registration and regulation of trade unions. The motion was proposed by Close, with the additional suggestion that the Government should provide legislation for the settlement of industrial disputes. It was carried by 60 votes to 26, the minority being in favour of Colonel Cresswell’s motion.
The first bank strike
The ballot was in favour of strike action and on 22 December 1920, the strike took place. There were a few backsliders, of course, but generally speaking it was an unqualified success, and a most satisfactory feature was the loyal support of the woman clerks in spite of their being excluded from membership of Sasbo. Their solidarity with the men gained them entrance to the union and instant respect. The consequence of the strike was arbitration and resulted in the Aiken-Lewis Award, in April 1921. Although by no means perfect, the award did grade the positions and established regulated salary scales, which prevailed without change until 1937. At this stage, one can perhaps say the early days of the union were past and a new era had began.
From this stage onwards Sasbo and the Associated Banks (the Netherlands Bank having withdrawn after the strike and the African Banking Corporation having been absorbed by the Standard Bank, the constituents of the Associated Banks were now reduced to two in number) embarked upon a series of private conciliation boards over a long period of years. At first progress was very difficult because in the view of Sasbo the bank representatives were apt to arrive with preconceived answers to the union’s demands, not subject to the power of argument, and with little or no plenary powers to negotiate. However, there are always teething troubles and soon the parties got to understand each other much better.
It was not to be expected that during the big depression of the early “thirties”, much could be done to improve conditions, but it is pleasing to record that salaries were never cut (although the customary bonus did disappear for a few years and this did result in what might be regarded as a 10 percent cut in emoluments) nor were staff laid off. In January 1936, the union succeeded in having the bonus restored and in getting some form of agreement on overtime payment. In February 1937, small improvements in salaries were negotiated.
During the War Sasbo refrained from making any demands for increased basic salaries but did negotiate on several occasions, improving cost of living allowances, with more for married than for single officials. The labour problem in the banks, as elsewhere, was acute during this time and women were perforce recruited in increasing numbers.
Industrial Conciliation Act
In October 1945, a private conciliation board took place in Cape Town to consider the union’s demands for: –
A right to a pension;
greatly improved salary scales;
a new overtime agreement.
There were other demands but these were the principal ones. Agreement was reached on overtime, but the board failed on the other two issues and, for the first time in its history, the Society resorted to a conciliation board under the Industrial Conciliation Act. Here it was agreed to differ on the matter of pensions but the banks agreed to an improved salary scale.
Inevitably in a period of such quick economic change, conciliation boards became more frequent. Generally it was possible to reach agreement on a basis of compromise but the time had to come when the Society and the banks were so far apart that no compromise could be found. In Southern Rhodesia living conditions had become very acute and ultimately a Temporary Industrial Council was formed. The Council failed to agree on salary proposals put forward by the Society and, as the banks refused to arbitrate voluntarily, the Society forced the issue to compulsory arbitration. This took place in 1951 and the result was a disappointment to the union although the award had satisfactory features. In South Africa matters came to a head in January 1956, and no agreement was possible on the union’s salary proposals at a private conciliation board. A Government board in April similarly failed and the banks accepted Sasbo’s proposal to proceed to arbitration. The Court sat in June 1956, and the award resulted in a very substantial increase in basic salaries. As seems to be usual in such cases, interpretation disputes took place but after a period of great difficulty for both sides a satisfactory solution was found in November 1957. An aftermath of the award was the suggestion from the banks, and accepted by the Society, that a Standing Joint Committee be formed, to sit once every three months. As this was a recent innovation it was impossible to predict how it would work.
The Organisation of Sasbo
In those years the union operated in the following territories:-
– The Union of South Africa
– South-West Africa
– The Protectorates
– The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
Membership was open to all white employees in banks but in practice was confined to Barclays Bank DCO and the Standard Bank of South Africa Limited. Membership was never compulsory but was always at good majority level, although the problem with recruiting temporary women staff was considerable.
Sasbo was a highly centralised organisation and was governed by a General Council of 18 members, with Headquarters in Johannesburg. The union operated the following branches: – Bloemfontein, Bulawayo, Cape Town, Copperbelt, Drakensberg, Durban, Eastern Highfveld, East London, Far East Rand, Germiston, Goldfields, Grahamstown, Johannesburg, Kimberley, Kingwilliamstown, Livingstone and District, Lowveld, Lusaka and District, Midlands (Southern Rhodesia), Nyasaland, Pietermaritsburg, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria, Queenstown, Salisbury, Umtali, Western Transvaal, Winhoed, Zeerust and District. These branches had no executive or negotiating functions, but acted in an advisory capacity to the General Council and were focal points of membership. Membership was widespread throughout the territories, a satisfactory feature being the very strong membership in country districts.
At no fixed times but at regular intervals conferences of branch representatives took place. At these conferences future policy was decided upon by the union members.
The Union Moves On
The appointment of Richard Haldane as General Secretary in 1943, as well as the return of soldiers to their banking jobs and the emergence of women as a force in Sasbo, combined to spark a period of dynamism in the post-World War II years. This advanced Sasbo/Bank interaction to new levels of sophistication and brought substantial improvements to salaries and working conditions.
A “Bread And Butter Union”
Strictly apolitical, the union always championed a fair deal for all. This attitude was frankly expressed by retiring Sasbo general secretary Haldane who in 1964 told organised labour: “I ask you to stand up for what is decent, humane and compassionate and to ensure that all citizens of this country receive the rights to which normal human beings are entitled.” Coming 30 years ahead of the advent of democracy in South Africa, that message served as a beacon to Sasbo members. Undoubtedly it influenced their decision to pressure the banks to circumvent employment apartheid restrictions in the workplace from the early 1970’s. For roughly the first 70 years of its existence the union focussed exclusively on representing employees in its two core banks – Standard Bank and First National Bank (Barclays). Members in those days believed that the inclusion of smaller/weaker banks would enable their employers to pay lower salaries.
The Troubled 1980’s
From the early 1980’s the union, already non-racial, responded to calls to recruit members from other financial institutions and in the 1990’s fulfilled this mandate by recruiting throughout the sector and by finally merging with the Financial Institutions Workers Union and the United Staff Association. Thus Sasbo became the national union for South African finance workers, now with members in some 197 financial institutions with recognition agreements with almost 20 of them. In the process, membership grew from 19 000 bank employees, with a more or less similar focus, to the present 66 800 plus members drawn from the full spectrum of racial, social, religious, economic, educational and professional backgrounds.
The Union At Present
Members presently control their union via a network of branch committees, its National Executive Congress (the union’s parliament, whose approximately 70 delegates are elected by the branch committees), Institutional National Councils, Management Committee and Standing Joint Committees, or Negotiation and Consultation Forums, whose members are all elected. The composition of all these structures superbly reflects our Rainbow Nation.