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Nelson Mandela’s passing brought about mass discussion of his legacy and the fear of reducing him to an activist caricature. Mandela’s history as a freedom fighter and anti-apartheid activist can’t be denied, but he also fought for economic justice as well. Something not lost on many American unions.
Union leaders came expressed their grief for the passing of one of the most well-known activists in the world’s history.
“President Nelson Mandela gave more than 60 years of his life fighting for the rights of South Africans and all of humanity,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement. “His quiet dignity earned respect for him and his cause across the globe.
When Mandela visited the United States after being released from prison in 1990, he spoke to the AFL-CIO and said that the labor movement should use its history of empowering America’s workers as a model for South African workers.
“He once said, ‘After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb,’” stated Trumka.
When Mandela first began his activist life, he took notes from the African Mine Workers Union strike of 1946 for inspiration. Mandela went on record in past interviews stating that he learned his organizational skills from that union.
Hector Figueroa, President of 32BJ SEIU, called Mandela “was a beacon of hope for people around the world, his commitment to equality and justice unwavering. One of the fiercest warriors to walk this earth, his steadfast belief in and commitment to reconciliation spoke to the highest parts of the human soul.”
District Council 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts echoed similar sentiments in an email statement by using Mandela’s own words to express her gratitude for his contributions when she said “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
But while unions all over the world mourn his death, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, wanted to remind everyone that the fight Mandela devoted his life to isn’t over.
“As we celebrate his life , let us all renew our conviction and commitment to work for peace , justice, equality , human dignity , democracy and a better life for all the people,” read COSATU’s statement. “Let us fight against the demon of racism, tribalism, corruption and greediness. Let us strive to end the violence against women and children. Let us fight to defeat the scourge of HIV/AIDS that has destroyed so many families and have claimed so many lives.”