May 20, 2010

Twenty-five years ago, a group of retail workers began industrial action in support of a colleague and ended up as heroes in the fight against Apartheid. Caomhan Keane speaks to the Dunnes Stores Strikers. Photographs by Rose Comiskey and An Phoblacht

As they came in to work on July 19th, 1984, the staff of Dunnes Stores on Henry Street couldn’t have known that this day would begin one of the longest industrial disputes in Irish history. For months, they had been trying to pin down management about what they saw as unfair working conditions; so when instructions came down from their union, IDATU, telling them not to handle South African produce, they were only too willing to enforce it.

“We weren’t making a stand against Apartheid,” says Mary Manning, now 48, the first person to boycott. “It was more of an ‘up yours’ to Dunnes.”

Those who had pledged not to handle South African goods were put to work on the tills, which they saw as a ploy by management to speed up a confrontation.And so it began. A woman approached Manning’s till with Outspan grapefruit. “I was sitting beside Alma Russell at the time,” she tells us. “And I just prayed, ‘Go to Alma.’ None of us wanted to be the first one who took some action.” Mary told the customer she couldn’t handle South African products. Unperturbed, the customer put the products back on the shelf, but Manning’s manager had overheard. The 21-year-old was suspended, and ten of her co-workers went on strike in solidarity.

Not everyone who passed by their picket was sure what it was that Manning and her colleagues were protesting against. “We had one old woman who said, ‘Fair play to you love, I wouldn’t touch them oranges after those blacks handled them either,’” she recalls.

The strikers were taken aback at the attitudes of their former colleagues. “They were horrific to us,” says Karen Gearon, 48, the shop steward at the time. “They threw tomatoes, tea bags and rubbish at us. They waved their Christmas bonuses in our faces and they tried to prevent us getting the holiday pay we were entitled to.”

“We would picket the deliveries out the back door,” continues Mary. “The delivery men would push, punch and hit you with the packages as they threw them to management.”

Having begun the strike for different reasons, as time went on, the issue of Apartheid became more and more important to them. “At the beginning, we knew very little about it. It was just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Gearon. “But by the end, even if the union had instructed us to go back to work, we still wouldn’t have handled South African goods.”

The protest gleaned international attention. Bono invited the strikers to sing on the anti-Apartheid anthem ‘Sun City’; there were songs written about them by Christy Moore (‘Dunnes Stores’) and Ewan MacColl (‘Ten Young Women and One Young Man’). Gearon and Manning were invited to meet Desmond Tutu in London and Gearon testified in front of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid.

When not spreading the message around the world, they were back on the picket line, in the rain and the snow, with plastic bags in their shoes.

The turning point came when the girls were invited by Tutu to visit South Africa. “Myself and eight of the strikers flew to South Africa and weren’t allowed in,” says Brendan Archbold, the IDATU official in charge of the strike. “We were held at the airport and weren’t allowed contact our families for over 24 hours.” They were put on the next plane back home. The furore over their disappearance captured the public imagination. “It definitely changed the tide,” says Gearon.

Ruairi Quinn, minister for labour at the time, met with a number of fruit importers to see if a voluntary agreement could be met. “That didn’t prove possible as Dunnes said they couldn’t disadvantage themselves.” So they looked into trying to ban the importation of fruit. A civil servant in his department alerted him to a loophole. Quinn continues, “He discovered an international labour organisation resolution which stated that produce that was the product of forced or coerced labour was not included in normal free-trade arrangements.”

It took from October 1986 to March 1987 to find the proof they needed – that there was indeed prison labour involved in the production of South African goods – and a ban was introduced. After two years and nine months, the strike came to an end.

Back in the late-1980s, jobs were scarse and many of the workers had families to support, so most chose to go back to work at Dunnes. Within a few weeks, Manning and Gearon were offered management positions. “If you were a manager in Dunnes you couldn’t be a member of the union so they thought if they could get me as a manager they would be able to control me,” says Gearon. “I turned them down.”  The management started a campaign to get rid of her, she claims, and a year later they got their way. She eventually won an unfair dismissal case but found it difficult to get work afterwards.

Mary Manning, the most high-profile striker who has a street in Johannesburg named after her, sometimes feels that her co-workers’ struggle is overlooked. “Every single one of us was put in the position where we could be next. We were all out there the exact same amount of time. None of us was out there on our own.”

A play inspired by these events, STRIKE!, will run at the Samuel Beckett Theatre from May 25th-29th. 7.30pm daily, with a matinee on Saturday at 2pm. €4.99-€15.99.


3 Responses to “STRIKE!”

  1. […] out my interview with the actual strikers right…about…HERE! Posted in Theatre Interview | Tagged dunnes stores anti apartheid strike, samuel beckett centre, […]

  2. […] was a response to her union’s anti-apartheid position, she admitted in an interview published in 2010 that at first the strikers’ action was “more of an ‘up yours’ to Dunnes.”  […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s