When Nelson Mandela passed away on Dec. 5, 2013, CUPE members shared the sorrow with the rest of the world. His greatness touched us all and we grieved this loss. With the formation of a national committee on international solidarity following the 1987 Quebec National Convention, CUPE was there in the immediate post-apartheid period. The committee’s first task was to develop a set of operating principles based on the notion of worker to worker solidarity.
Then we sought to establish our first international solidarity partnership. The most urgent need was in South Africa where workers were struggling against tyranny and for democracy. Soon an exchange between CUPE and the National Education and Health Workers Union (NEHAWU) began. Thus our first partnership in South Africa was born out of the struggle to end apartheid. The exchanges continued with our members learning about the effective organizing methods practiced by NEHAWU and their members studying our structure, political affiliations and staff functions.
During one exchange visit, NEHAWU members joined then National President Judy Darcy at the CUPE National Health Care Conference in Montreal. As usual, it was a freezing cold winter, but it was politically hot as Quebec trade unionists protested cuts to employment insurance. As we prepared to march, a fierce blizzard blowing outside, some of the Montreal members supplied our South African comrades with parkas, scarves and boots. They stepped into winter for the first time in their lives and marched next to Darcy on the front line.
One of the NEHAWU members reflected as he shuffled to keep warm. “Had this been the kind of weather we faced in South Africa”, he said jokingly, “we might never have defeated apartheid.” We laughed and considered ourselves lucky that we had to contend with blizzards rather than bullets and bombs.
CUPE went on to establish a productive partnership with the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU), another union that had fought against apartheid. The partnership continues today with both unions providing strike and other support when needed. Now with Mandela gone, we remember with great respect his incredible contribution to humanity. The international solidarity movement of which CUPE was a part of helped make some of Mandela’s dream a reality.
Ron Verzuh is a former CUPE international solidarity staff member.