Beyond  /  Antecedent

US Worker Movements and Direct Links Against Apartheid

Today's pro-Palestinian activists are utilizing anti-apartheid tactics from thirty years ago.

Some earlier historical scholarship on the US-South African relationship viewed the 1980s as the beginning of prolonged US trade union action against apartheid. Recently scholars like historian Peter Cole have instead insisted that US unions were engaged in anti-apartheid action from at least 1962. These early worker movements condemned corporate America for its complicity with apartheid. Polaroid’s Black workers in the United States protested the use of Polaroid film for passbooks, South African identification that constrained the daily movement and freedoms of Black people. The Polaroid Revolutionary Workers’ Movement (PRWM) demanded that the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company immediately cut all business with South Africa. Due in part to worker pressure and to the exposure of Polaroid’s failed multi-year “experiment” with responsible engagement, the company completely abandoned business in South Africa in 1977. The Polaroid result spotlighted the possible power of US worker movements in holding US corporations accountable for their engagement with South Africa.

Following the PRWM’s action, US trade unionists used worker power and connections to companies with South African ties to further isolate the apartheid regime. Around the same time as the Polaroid experiment, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) would draw attention to the plight of Black workers in South Africa. The CBTU initiated direct contact with workers and unionists in South Africa and linked domestic Black worker concerns to human rights violations abroad. Frustrated with the conservative direction of the AFL-CIO, the CBTU became the first US labor organization to advocate for an economic boycott of South Africa. In 1975, the CBTU passed a resolution in support of the South African Congress of Trade Unions federation, which was aligned with the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement. By 1980, the CBTU was actively supporting strikes in South Africa and sending funds to workers and unions. President of the CBTU, William Lucy, would go on to become a founding member of the grassroots Free South Africa Movement in 1984.