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.
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
The points to be decided by the members in balloting were two in number: –
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).
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.
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.
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.
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