The passing of Nelson Mandela has inspired activists and scholars around the world to recall grassroots elements of the anti-apartheid struggle, as Mandela did not bring down that horrific system all by himself. Minnesota in the 1980s was the site of dynamic connections to this struggle. In our increasingly globalized operations today, from multinational employers to an ever more diverse working class, there is much to learn from revisiting this chapter in our history.
In early June 1986, Amon Msane, the chief shop steward of the Commercial, Catering, and Allied Workers’ Union (CCAWUSA) of South Africa’s local at the 3M plant in Johannesburg, visited Saint Paul and Austin. He was on a six-week tour of the United States, accompanied by Stanley Fischer, president of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) local at 3M’s audio/video tape plant in Freehold, New Jersey. Together they addressed mass audiences at United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 879’s hall on Ford Parkway and at the Austin Labor Center, the headquarters for the Hormel strikers, Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union.
Image above coutesy of Mike Alewitz: “Dedication Ceremony P-9 Mural – Austin, MN 1986 by Mike Alewitz, Denny Mealy & Volunteers Mural for striking meat packers – Local P-9. Dedicated to the then-imprisoned ‘terrorist’ Nelson Mandela. Destroyed by UFCW union bureaucrats.”
Msane and Fischer had a complex agenda and a simple message. They had come to 3M’s home state to expose their employer’s behavior and to ask for solidarity. Speaking about the situation in South Africa, Msane explained that 3M paid black workers about one-third the wages that whites earned for the same work, did not promote black workers to supervisory positions, and refused to negotiate with the union.
Fischer decried 3M’s plans to shut the Freehold plant in New Jersey, eliminating 1,000 jobs there. His local’s campaign had secured the support of recording industry icons Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson, who had taken up the workers’ cause and popularized their slogan, “3M – Don’t Abandon Freehold, My Hometown.” Springsteen dedicated his popular song, “My Hometown” to the Freehold workers.
At this time, Ronald Reagan was readying his campaign for a second term, touting his firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981, his support for capital’s mobility across borders, and his opposition to sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime. In opposition, Msane and Fischer called for international labor solidarity to counter-balance the growing power of employers and anti-union politicians.
Their message did not consist of words and ideas alone. In February 1986, CCAWUSA members had engaged in an illegal wildcat strike at the Johannesburg 3M plant, in support of the New Jersey workers. Msane brought a grainy videotape which electrified viewers in Saint Paul and Austin. It showed hundreds of black workers, wearing t-shirts reading “3M – Don’t Abandon Freehold, My Hometown,” streaming out of the plant, singing and dancing (toyi-toying), around the plant and then lowering the U.S. and 3M flags which waved over it. Msane explained that South African workers were unsure how they would be treated by management and the police, that they could have been fired, arrested, even shot, but that they saw the New Jersey struggle as an opportunity for them to provide solidarity for their North American fellow workers. The t-shirts had been brought to South Africa weeks earlier by Emma Mashinini (put her autobiography, STRIKES HAVE FOLLOWED ME ALL MY LIFE, on your reading list), CCAWUSA’s General Secretary, who had visited the United States, including Saint Paul, in January, a month before the wildcat action.
Msane and Mashinini emphasized that this was a critical period in the long South African struggle. U.S. and European movements to pressure multinational corporations to withdraw from South Africa by boycotting their products and urging their institutional investors to withdraw their funds (divestment) was not only having a direct impact on corporate behavior but it was also increasing the pressure on governments to impose sanctions on South African businesses, banks, and its government. The U.S. Congress had just passed a sanctions bill which President Reagan vetoed. It was still possible to override his veto.
Inside South Africa, the anti-apartheid movement had developed a two-pronged offensive, in communities through the newly organized United Democratic Front and in workplaces through unions linked to the newly formed COSATU, the Confederation of South African Trade Unions. COSATU affiliates practiced not only workplace militancy, grounded in shop stewards’ networks, but also overtly political activism directed against the apartheid regime and its rules.
Msane told his Minnesota audiences that these interwoven forces – external economic pressures, militant political unions, and energized community-based organizations – could succeed in bringing an end to the apartheid regime, a goal long sought by the African National Congress, Umkonto we Sizwe (the ANC’s guerrilla force), the South African Communist Party, the Black Consciousness Movement, the Pan Africanist Congress, and the heroic student movement of the mid-late 1970s.
At the Minnesota events, Fischer added that this was a critical period in the struggle of workers in advanced industrial societies to hold on to their post-WWII economic gains and continue to improve their own lives. Pushed by multinational corporations, Reagan, Thatcher, and Nakasone were leading the U.S., Great Britain, and Japan to repudiate the demand-driven growth which had brought middle security within the reach of workers in their countries, and to replace it with a “supply side” approach which would cut government, taxes, and all costs, especially labor costs.
The Freehold plant was in peril because it had been so productive and successful that 3M had preferred to keep it operating twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, without updating or replacing equipment. Management had literally run the plant into the ground and now saw an opportunity to move the entire operation somewhere where environmental and labor costs would be cheaper. Plant closings and ensuing global capital flight were becoming commonplace corporate strategy, and if these patterns were allowed to expand, working class economic security would become a figment of workers’ memories.
Msane and Fischer’s visit to Minnesota came at a critical period in the evolution of our local labor movement. Early 1980s plant closings – Whirlpool, American Hoist and Derrick, Hamm’s and Schmidt’s breweries – had cost thousands of jobs. Hormel meatpackers had been on strike for ten months, and a combination of economic, political, and legal factors indicated that the union and its members were going to lose. In the face of such challenges, an impressive movement had taken shape, not just in Minnesota but across the country, not only in support of the Hormel workers but also around the broader agenda of resisting the anti-worker juggernaut. The Hormel struggle had become a symbol of what was going wrong in the U.S. and how to resist it.
Minnesota workers also identified with the New Jersey and South African workers. Their creativity echoed and reinforced local activism. Labor songsters Utah Phillips, John McCutcheon, Arlo Guthrie, Charley King, and Larry Long used their music to promote the Hormel strike story. Speakers Jesse Jackson and General Baker, a founder of Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers, had connected the struggle against corporate greed to the struggle against racism. Labor activists in the Twin Cities and Austin were ready for Msane and Fischer, and they were eager to offer their strategic support.
In Austin, by early June 1986, more than one hundred strikers and family members completed painting a huge mural on the exterior wall of the Labor Center, using materials donated by Twin Cities Sign Painters Local 880. Activist artist Mike Alewitz had employed a participatory process in the development of concepts and images for the mural, as well as its painting. Msane and Fischer arrived just in time for the mural’s dedication, joined by several South African ex-pats who were living in the Twin Cities and organizing against apartheid. The mural’s creators expressed their solidarity with the South African struggle by incorporating a banner reading “INTL LABOR SOLIDARITY – ABOLISH APARTHEID,” and dedicating the mural to Nelson Mandela, still imprisoned on Robben Island and labeled a terrorist by the U.S. government. Local P-9 President Jim Guyette spoke of the “profound parallels” between the Hormel and South African struggles. In the dedication ceremony, they gave Msane a “Cram Your Spam” t-shirt with the request that he deliver it to Mandela.
The bonds of solidarity were re-enforced in the summer of 1986. Austin and Twin Cities activists, while still focused on the Hormel conflict, organized multiple letter-writing campaigns. Led by OCAW Local 6-75 at the Saint Paul 3M plant, they inundated corporate management’s offices with calls to keep the Freehold plant open. They would be successful, and the plant is still operating today.
When activists learned that Amon Msane had been arrested at the airport upon his arrival in Johannesburg, they launched a campaign that included letters to 3M management, the South African government, and the U.S. State Department. That effort, too, would be successful and he would be released after thirty days of “preventive detention.” Local activists also became part of hue and cry to insist that Congress override Reagan’s veto of the sanctions bill, which also happened that summer.
Things took a turn that fall. The Hormel strike was lost and more than one thousand workers lost their jobs. The UFCW International put Local P-9 in trusteeship, took over the Austin Labor Center, and sandblasted the mural. Amon Msane was arrested again in 1987, and he would be held for almost a year, while Nelson Mandela, who had received the “Cram Your Spam” t-shirt, would spend another four years behind bars before his release and his eventual election as South Africa’s first post-apartheid president.
Local labor activists – meatpackers, autoworkers, oil, chemical and atomic workers, nurses, clerical workers, painters, printing pressmen, public employees, railroad workers, carpenters, and more – ha practiced deep lessons about solidarity. In the early 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World, the “Wobblies,” had insisted that working people could only move forward if they embodied the principle that “An Injury to One is an Injury to All.” In the 1980s, Minnesotans demonstrated that solidarity had to cross national boundaries and racial boundaries, and they left a legacy instructive for today’s labor activists as they seek to build a new labor movement in a fragile globalized economy rooted in an ever more diverse working class.