The nearly 10,000 members of the Maryland/DC region of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East are honored to wish Nelson Mandela a most happy 95th birthday. In the heat of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, 1199 stood with Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, and we are proud to stand for him and salute him today and wish him continued recovery.
The labor movement, here in the United States and in South Africa, was an integral part of the victory in South Africa, over a genocidal, racist system of repression where nearly half of all Black children died before the age of five. In the 1970s, there was increased labor militancy in South Africa in places like Durban, where 30,000 brick, tile, transport, industrial and municipal workers went on strike and demonstrated their ability to disrupt the economy that kept the apartheid regime in power. Those strikes inspired other strikes, then the powerful student movement and Soweto uprising—which was pivotal in building a mass movement inside the country and drawing international attention to and support of the anti-apartheid struggle.
In the United States, workers were at the forefront of the boycott and divestment movement, which took away financial support from South African businesses as well as from companies doing business there. Inspired by the uprising of South African students in Soweto in 1976, a longshoreman in Oakland, California--Leo Robinson—staged a series of successful actions where dockworkers refused to unload cargo from South Africa. The 1984 Bay Area action lasted 11 days, defying a federal injunction under the pro-apartheid administration of Ronald Reagan.
Here on the East Coast, in New York City, The New York Labor Committee Against Apartheid (LCAA) was formed in June 1983 and grew to more than 30 unions representing more then one million workers in the New York area, including members of 1199. According to the African Activist Archive, The LCAA was “founded to support independent black unions in South Africa and to work for the abolition of the racist system of apartheid.” The organization’s first action was a labor delegation to the South African Consulate to protest the persecution of Oscar Mpetha in July 1983. LCAA supported the Shell Boycott and the Mobil Disinvestment campaigns. It also supported bills to limit New York City government purchases from South Africa and investments of pension funds in companies doing business in South Africa. It was involved in the campaign to free South African unionist Moses Mayekiso from prison and in facilitating visits between New York and South African unionists, the archive said.
Again, under the brutal repression of apartheid, nearly half of the Black children died before the age of five. So to make it to 95! Nelson Mandela’s life is evidence of the perseverance and strength of the South African people. As a union made up overwhelmingly of Black women—the mothers of the world—we celebrate with the world on Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday, while we recognize the commonality of our struggles and continue to work for social justice—in South Africa and here in the United States as well.
Happy Birthday Madiba!
Delivered at the Baltimore Celebration of the 95th Birthday of Nelson Mandela, at the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, 1206 Etting St., July 18, 2013.