Mandela, An Inspiration for Chicago Union Leader

Friday, February 7, 2014

(Second in our occasional series on the death of Nelson Mandela)

Hundreds of union members and anti-apartheid activists packed the Plumbers Hall in Chicago to overflowing on that warm July day in 1993 for a Labor Rally to Welcome Mandela. The racially mixed crowd came to share the excitement of seeing Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress (ANC), only three years after his release from the South African prison system, where he had been held for twenty-seven years. This world-famous fighter for freedom and justice was running for president of the new South Africa. He was in Chicago raising money for voter education as the nation prepared for its first multi-racial election.

The rally marked the labor movement’s successful fundraising drive, which garnered $60,000 for that cause. Rose Daylie, a Chicago labor leader and associate director of Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), gave the keynote speech.

“The fight for a new South Africa is about economic rights,” Daylie said that day. “What rights will workers have? It is about universal health care, education, and public service for all. . . . Every inch of freedom that has been won in South Africa has been won by the democratic movement, by the sweat and toil of workers, by mass resistance.”

Council 31, which includes every AFSCME local in the state, was a leading member of the Illinois Labor Network to End Apartheid, and Daylie was its co-chair. As editor of Council 31’s newspaper, read by members statewide, I was there, reporting on the event, taking notes while squirming among the overflowing crowd and the multiple layers of security to get a good angle for photos.


A year after that rally, as 300 years of white minority rule in South Africa came tumbling down, the nation held its first all-race election, with hundreds of international election observers there as witnesses. Daylie was there, on U.S. labor’s team of observers.


Daylie and I are both retired from our jobs with AFSCME now, but we got together after Mandela’s recent passing, to let me probe her memory of the man and her deep involvement in the anti-apartheid movement. Her somewhat scratchy voice makes her sound like the wise elder that she is, but belies the vigor she still brings to organizations—community, church, labor—that continue to clamor for her time.

She began her risky journey to South Africa by landing in Johannesburg a few days before the election. Trying to rebound from jet lag, Daylie was sleeping late the first day when she heard what sounded like thunder.

“I pulled the covers back over my head, but by the time I did that, the phone rang. It was the hotel calling, saying I needed to put my clothes on because we were being moved from there.  Someone had just blown up the ANC office down the street.”

Even now, as she ended that story, her usually hearty laugh had more than a tinge of nervousness.

Before the labor observers left for their various assignments, they attended a big Mandela rally at a stadium in nearby Soweto. “To go into that rally at first was frightening, all these people with their battle gear on, and I was tempted to turn around and go back. They had teenagers searching people as we went in. Everybody was a part of this movement. The young folks were so involved.

“Once I got to the entrance, I was still very fearful, but I looked into the eyes of the people and I got at peace. The rally turned out great.”

Daylie was sent to Cape Town to observe. “When I arrived, I went to my room and turned on the TV and found out the airport we had just flown out of, they had bombed. That was getting a little shaky” (another nervous laugh).

“Cape Town was the base for the ‘coloreds’ (mixed race)and it became very obvious that the people there were not supportive of Nelson Mandela. And the reasons amazed me: ‘I’m black and live in a shanty, but you’re colored and you live in a shanty but it has electricity or you have something a little bit more than I had,’ and they were so afraid that they were going to lose that extra something.”

The election began in hospitals and prisons, a couple of days before the general voting. “We were allowed to go into jails and into hospitals and take the voting equipment with us. People in hospitals, especially the seniors who were bedridden or something, were so excited. They thought they’d never see the day they’d be able to cast a ballot for president of their country.”

Political prisoners and those doing time for “minor” violations were allowed to vote, Daylie said. “So we took the equipment into the prisons, and they lined up all those people who could vote. It was exciting.”

But on her way out of one prison, she saw a handmade sign that read: “Don’t kill the dream, assassinate it.”

“I wanted to get out of that prison so fast.”

Then came the general election. Daylie marveled at the older folks’ willingness to stand for hours in long lines and wait for their chance to vote. “One older lady, we wanted to get her something to drink, but she said, ‘No, they’ll never poison me before I get my vote.’

“The pride they felt to see us there, and somebody like me, their color, to be able to tell somebody white, ‘No, you can’t step in front of her in line; you have to go to the end of this line.’ You could just see the pride coming from people.”

Daylie found Cape Town one of the more beautiful places she had ever been. “One of the things that amazed me was how the condos where the very, very rich lived, along the riverfront, were just a few blocks from the shantytowns. In my mind I was comparing it to going from Cabrini-Green in Chicago, maybe five blocks, to the expensive hotels and where the very rich live. I thought, ‘It’s not really very much different.’”


Daylie started her career as a kitchen worker in a state psychiatric hospital, Chicago-Read Mental Health Center. Early in her days at Read she became involved in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), a group that focused on training and educating African American workers to take their rightful place in labor leadership. [run in] When she organized a “sick-in” among coworkers, to protest a change in working conditions, her action gained the attention of union activists, who signed her up for AFSCME.

Daylie became a steward, chief steward, then president of Local 1610 at Read; she worked on organizing campaigns for City of Chicago, then Cook County employees.  And when a number of smaller Illinois AFSCME councils consolidated into Council 31, she was elected the group’s first president. She was hired in a full-time position and retired as associate director.

It was with CBTU that Daylie got her start in the anti-apartheid movement. “Bill Lucy [co-founder and longtime president of CBTU, and mentor and friend to Daylie] always had somebody at the conventions talking about Africa and encouraging us to get involved in freedom movements in Africa. That got me almost ready for it.

“The first time I was at a CBTU convention, they brought Randall Robinson [founder of TransAfrica and a leading U.S. advocate for the anti-apartheid movement] to talk about what was going on in Africa. He was telling us how people were starving in Africa, and I thought, ‘People are starving down on 39th Street where I live.’

“But then the more I read and the more I heard people from Africa speak, it made me aware that the struggle for African Americans here was the same struggle as the Africans in Africa. People had had to fight for our freedom, and so we had to be part of the fight for their freedom.”

When a South African activist from Alexandria Township, near Johannesburg, was in Chicago, Daylie volunteered to host a young woman from there who came to urge the Chicago City Council to make the all-black area a sister city.

“She stayed with me for two weeks. We built a relationship, and when I was in South Africa, she came and got me after the election and introduced me to her family and showed me around Alexandria Township.”

As she predicted on her return from South Africa, the memories have remained clear of those tumultuous days when she helped bring about the birth of a new nation:

“I’ll always remember the strength of the South African people and their determination to make this happen.”