December 9th: Amid the avalanche of tributes paid to Nelson Mandela since his death last Thursday, our fellow trade unionists in the Congress of South African Trade Unions put it best when they noted that he was the “embodiment of the struggle against racist dictatorship, apartheid brutality and the exploitation of workers and the poor”.
Unite cherishes a very special connection to Nelson Mandela and the struggle of the South African people for democracy.
On April 27th 1994, the Middle Abbey street offices of one of our predecessor unions, the ATGWU, acted as the Irish polling station for the first democratic South African elections.
Over the weekend, my predecessor as Regional Secretary, Mick O’Reilly, recalled that day. All polling stations in South Africa and around the world had to open at the same time – which, given the time difference, meant around 5 am in Ireland. Mick got to Middle Abbey Street at about 4.30 am to open up, and found a man sitting on the steps. A South African of Indian descent, he had driven up from Limerick and, when Mick asked why he was so early replied: “I’ve been waiting a long time to vote”.
Following renovations, Unite will be moving back into the Middle Abbey Street offices early next year, and one of our first acts will be to re-attach the plaque commemorating that day.
It was fitting that those landmark elections were held in a union hall, since the trade union movement in Ireland and elsewhere had been among the staunchest supporters of the Anti-Apartheid struggle: we need only think of the Dunnes Stores strikers who spent three long years on strike after a co-worker was suspended for refusing to handle South African goods.
They were motivated by the belief that an injury to one is the concern of all – and it was a belief shared in full measure by Nelson Mandela. This was the man who, on his 1990 visit to the United States, visited a Ford motor plant in Detroit, where he received a union cap and jacket from UAW and told the workers “Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here. The man who is speaking is a member of the UAW. I am your flesh and blood”.
Solidarity is the bedrock of trade unionism and, speaking in Soweto in 2008, Nelson Mandela had this to say: “if a 90-year-old may offer some unsolicited advice on this occasion, it would be that you, irrespective of your age, should place human solidarity, the concern for the other, at the centre of the values by which you live”.
We shall not forget those words or the man who spoke them.