National Union mourns loss of Nelson Mandela but vows to keep the fire burning | National Union of Public and General Employees

National Union mourns loss of Nelson Mandela but vows to keep the fire burning

"It was members of unions – workers who felt empowered enough and safe enough to speak their minds and act on their consciences – who were among the first to take up Mandela's cause" - James Clancy, NUPGE National President.

Ottawa (05 Dec. 2013) - It's in sorrow and grief, but also pride and optimism, that the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) marks the death of Nelson Mandela.

"The face of freedom in South Africa, Mandela struggled his entire life for what so many of us know in our hearts – that all people deserve the same respect, dignity, and opportunity," said National President James Clancy.

Mandela a true leader

Mandela was a true leader: compassionate, loving, and determined. He didn't just talk about justice, he made incredible sacrifices in its name. When, for example, he was offered release from prison after 20 years of hard labour, he refused. “What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people [the African National Congress] remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts."

According to Clancy, "like the ripples from a stone thrown into a pond, Mandela's stand inspired an ever-growing number of people to join his struggle. It would take years, and millions of people from all around the world standing together, but his vision was eventually realized."

Unions played indispensable role

"His dream might not have been achieved, however, without organized labour," explained Clancy. "It was members of unions – workers who felt empowered enough and safe enough to speak their minds and act on their consciences – who were among the first to take up Mandela's cause."

South Africans, particularly women, harnessed the power of their unions to talk openly about the pain and suffering being wrought by apartheid. Word spread quickly throughout the global labour movement and soon countries around the world were exerting pressure on South Africa's most powerful political and business leaders.

Canadian activists and unions at the forefront of the struggle

"I'm honoured to say that Canadian unionists were at the forefront of this fight, holding rallies and protests and persistently urging our politicians to act on our convictions," said Clancy.

"Liquor-store workers in Ontario made South African apartheid an issue with their commitment to boycotting South African wine.  We took the boycott campaign to large institutions such as hospitals and correctional facilities."

A wide range of Canadian organizations and individuals rose to the call for action from Mandela and the South African people.  Clancy recalls that "there were students, churches, NGO's, civic organizations along with us in the trade union movement."

"I think that the union support was key.  We provided resources that many of these groups just didn't have."

For generations of Canadian activists, especially trade unionists, the anti-apartheid struggle was their first experiences with grassroots organizing.  

"I can't help but think of the women and men who worked so hard in solidarity with the South African people.  People like Brenda Wall and Ken Luckhardt were both inspired by the cause and inspired others to join them in it," said Clancy.

Union Convention among first of Mandela's stops after release from prison

After more than 27 years in prison Mandela was released on February 11, 1990.  Shortly afterwards he took his message to the world including meetings with François Mitterrand, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, Sr. and other world leaders.

But he never forgot the support he received from the union movement and activists. Among his first international appearances was a visit to Canada.

"In 1990, I was immensely proud when my union (OPSEU/NUPGE) awarded Mandela the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award," explained Clancy.  "In presenting the award I was face-to-face with a true hero of freedom and one of the most famous people in the world. And yet, he was humble, friendly, and good-humoured."

Support for first post-Apartheid elections

Clancy, through the Canadian Labour Congress, as President of NUPGE served as a monitor during South Africa's first post-apartheid elections in 1994.

"I was incredibly proud in that moment to have been able to give some small but meaningful support to Mandela. But looking back now, I see that he gave me – and all Canadian unionists – an incredibly valuable gift in return: a vivid and inspiring illustration of just how powerful one voice can become, and of just how much unions matter."

The National Union says farewell, brother. We carry your struggle forward in solidarity.


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE