A poster created by the United Auto Workers welcomes Nelson Mandela to Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, plant in 1990.
(image by Digital Innovation South Africa.)
Nelson Mandela was a union man.
Long aligned with the Congress of South African Trade Unionists, Mandela framed his presidency with a declaration that: "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."
In South Africa, as a young campaigner for racial justice, Mandela was profoundly influenced by the 1946 African Mine Workers Union strike. He learned organizing skills from AMWU activists and would become a champion of the miners, telling workers that "it is your sweat and blood that has created the vast wealth that white South Africa enjoys."
Mandela, the African National Congress leader, Nobel Prize winner and first president of the new South Africa, who died Thursday at age 95, recognized the organization of workers as a part of the freedom struggle and of the formation of a just society.
Unlike so many leaders who rise to power with the support of organized labor but then distance themselves from the movement, Mandela never broke the bond. He proudly served to the end of his days as the honorary president of South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers. He declared himself to be "fully committed to the protection of the integrity of the collective bargaining system." And he spoke movingly about how the "international solidarity of workers of the world enables us to learn from each other, to support each other and strengthen our ties in the face of multinational strategies for profit maximization and exploitation."