South Africa in the apartheid era may seem as if it was another world and time.
But two and a half years ago, we–a white American labor leader
and African-American religious and community leader–went to South Africa to learn.
We were part of a small delegation from 32BJ and the African-American
church community in Brooklyn that spent a week in that country meeting with union, religious and community leaders. We went to learn irsthand how these diverse groups came together in that country to end apartheid and rebuild their society on the basis of justice and reconciliation.
We gained a fuller understanding of the horror of apartheid as a systematic dehumanization of the majority of the South African population. We also learned that the political freedom that came with the end of apartheid by
itself did not translate into economic prosperity and equality. Workers there are now struggling just like workers here for their workplace and economic rights.
Our trip served another purpose. It strengthened the friendship between the two of us, and expanded our vision of what we could accomplish beyond the immediate concerns that brought us together.
As we wrote in an earlier column, we met during 32BJ’s campaign to help thousands of New York City security oficers come together in a union to improve their wages, beneits and working conditions. Several thousand ofi-
cers joined the union in that campaign, and we saw that when the union and church join forces, our inluence and power to create change grows.
But how can African-American churches and labor unions work together more consistently and on a broader scale to bring change? One important starting point is through personal relationships that serve as bridges between the two movements.
As the two of us got to know each other, we learned how much we have in common, personally and in our work.
Mike is a leader in fostering a new era of social unionism, in which unions go beyond workplace concerns to engage in wider political struggles for social and economic justice.
Rev. Youngblood has similarly been a leader beyond his church’s walls in the larger community, including in education and as a force behind the Nehemiah Homes affordable housing initiative.
In South Africa, labor unions and religious organizations joined forces to fight apartheid because they saw that they were each dedicated to the same goal: justice and the need for ordinary people to live in dignity. They were moved to act, often risking their individual safety in the process, by the urgent need to end apartheid. People were suffering. Injustice was warping and destroying lives.
Isn’t that also happening here? While we were in South Africa, we had the opportunity to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Church leader who gained worldwide fame for his role in the ight to overthrow apartheid. We asked what led him to join that struggle, and his answer resonates for us today.
“I had no choice.”