Like Lech Walesa before him, Nelson Mandela is making time in his first U.S. visit to court organized labor, thanking trade unions for helping South Africans and urging even greater support.
At Mandela's meeting with the AFL-CIO Executive Council, speech to the Miami convention of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and visit to Ford's historic Rouge assembly plant near Detroit with the United Auto Workers (UAW), his message has been the same: Keep the pressure on.
"Victory must come our way, victory is in sight, so let us keep the pressure on," the South African black leader told cheering AFSCME convention delegates yesterday. "We ask for your financial support. We need it."
AFSCME presented Mandela with a check for $275,000, but he has sought more than financial help during the first nine days of his 12-day U.S. visit. He told the AFL-CIO Executive Council here this week that "what we seek from the international community and particularly from the labor movement is help in skills and expertise.
"The labor movement in the United States is one of the strongest in the world and has immense experience in the very organization of trade unions. You can help tremendously by making this experience and expertise available to our own trade-union movement."
Mandela, deputy leader of the African National Congress, repeated the call at the AFSCME convention, saying his nation's black trade unions "require your maximum support."
American labor has been in the forefront of the U.S. anti-apartheid movement and internationally through such groups as the International Labor Organization. One of the first resolutions of the newly merged American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1956 was a condemnation of South Africa for racial segregation and violation of international standards of freedom of association.
In 1978, eight years before Congress imposed punitive sanctions against South Africa, the UAW withdrew funds from banks that retained links with Pretoria. Since then, 26 states, 80 cities, 150 colleges and scores of unions have divested stock in companies that do business with South Africa.
In the 1980s, American labor was a major force in forging economic sanctions against South Africa and backing divestiture.
When the 300,000-member National Union of Mine Workers (NUMW) struck in 1987 for better pay and working conditions, South African law prohibited establishment of a strike fund.
"We developed a strike fund for the NUMW," said Nomande Ngubo, a young South African who works for the UMW. "We have been able to provide material support when it was needed."
William Lucy, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME and one of the highest-ranking blacks in American labor, said his union has been active in helping black municipal workers in South Africa. AFSCME also has pressured state employee pension funds to divest more than $20 billion in South African investments.
"Black labor has been a key component of the liberation struggle within South Africa, and certainly our union along with the mine workers and the auto workers have been very active on their behalf," Lucy said, explaining why Mandela has chosen to court American trade unions.
Relations between the AFL-CIO and ANC have only recently become cordial, according to several U.S. labor sources who asked not to be identified. The AFL-CIO, strongly anti-communist throughout its existence, has never been comfortable with the ANC and its ties to black independent trade unions.
Much of the federation's international aid to South African unions has been through the African American Labor Center (AALC), financed primarily with tax dollars although union dues sometimes account for as much as 17 percent of its funds. Deputy Director David Brombart said the AALC has provided about $5 million in aid to the unions since the mid-1980s.
"Our program really started when the black trade-union movement was legalized, and we expect to continue to respond to an increasing number of proposals that the black trade unions submit to us," Brombart said.
Asked about the relationship between the AALC and Mandela's organization, Brombert said, "The ANC is clearly one of the political parties. We are dealing with the trade-union movement."
U.S. labor sources said the relationship between the AFL-CIO and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the federation of black trades, has been improving. But they cited continuing wariness by the South African group, which is closely linked with the ANC.
"The fact that the AFL-CIO is meeting with the ANC is an incredibly significant event," Lucy said. The UMW's Ngubo calls it a "watershed."
Staff writer William Claiborne, in Detroit, contributed to this report.