The world is still reeling after the death of Nelson Mandela at age 95.
Mandela was many things: a revolutionary, a famed statesman, a voice for peace, the list goes on. But there’s something else about him that isn’t receiving as much attention as it probably should: Mandela was a staunch supporter of organized labour.
And the respect was mutual. Unions around the world demonstrated strong support for Mandela since the early days of his struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. Desperate to give voice to the suffering caused by Apartheid, women and men of South Africa went to their unions to give voice to their concerns. Unions around the world soon joined the cause of the workers in South Africa and used their collective voices to pressure government and business leaders of South Africa to end Apartheid.
Canadian unions featured prominently among the global unions offering assistance to the South African movement to end Apartheid. James Clancy, National President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) proudly recognizes the role unions played:
I’m honoured to say that Canadian unionists were at the forefront of this fight, holding rallies and protests and persistently urging our politicians to act on our convictions.
Clancy goes on to highlight some of the more particular involvement of Canadian unions in supporting the South African Anti-Apartheid movement:
Liquor-store workers in Ontario made South African apartheid an issue with their commitment to boycotting South African wine. We took the boycott campaign to large institutions such as hospitals and correctional facilities.
The solidarity and support of unions for the people of South Africa did not escape Nelson Mandela’s appreciation. After being elected president of South Africa, Mandela declared that he desired a type of democracy founded on solidarity and respect for workers, saying:
The kind of democracy that we all seek to build demands that we deepen and broaden the rights of all citizens. This includes a culture of workers’ rights.
Mandela’s early influences included being impacted by the African Mine Workers Union (AMWU) strike in 1946. The organizing skills he observed via the AMWU helped him to develop the skills necessary to resist apartheid. Mandela showed a lifelong respect for miners and all workers, stating that it was the sweat and blood of South African workers under apartheid that created the privilege and the wealth of white South Africa. It was this fundamental unfairness that helped fuel Mandela’s drive to end Apartheid.
And even after Apartheid was ended, Mandela remained committed to unions and the plight of workers. Into his final years, he was the honourary president of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers.
Union support for Mandela and anti-apartheid forces in South Africa was global, and so too was Mandela’s support for unions. Shortly after being released from prison Mandela traveled to North America. While in the U.S. he visited Detroit so he could give his thanks to the United Auto Workers, Local 600, which had aggressively opposed apartheid from early on in the movement.
And now that he’s gone, organized labour has lost a great champion of workers’ rights. It’s somehow fitting that the world joins in solidarity to grieve the loss of a man who believed in the importance of solidarity and union bargaining power, once declaring that he was, “fully committed to the protection of the integrity of the collective bargaining system.” Mandela didn’t forget the workers, and the workers won’t forget him.