The Dunnes Stores Strike – lessons in solidarity
Unite regional coordinating officer Tom Fitzgerald pays tribute to Dunnes Stores strikers and highlights new play
As Irish trade unions, including Unite, step up to challenge the false narratives of the far right today, we draw inspiration from events nearly 40 years ago, when Dunnes Stores workers took strike action after a colleague was suspended for refusing to handle goods from apartheid South Africa. The suspended worker, Mary Manning, had refused to check out a South African grapefruit in compliance with the policy of their union IDATU (now Mandate). Her shop steward, Karen Gearon, supported her and was likewise suspended.
Regional Coordinating Officer Tom Fitzgerald (left) with Karen Gearon, IDATU shop steward during the Dunnes Strike, and David Gibney of IDATU’s successor, Mandate trade union. They are pictured at the Ireland for All demonstration on 18 February which saw tens of thousands take to the streets on Dublin in solidarity with migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.
Eight colleagues joined Mary and Karen on the picket line in Dublin’s Henry Street in a dispute which lasted from July 1984 until April 1987. The strikers included Tommy Davis, a member of Unite’s predecessor, the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union.
As well as raising awareness of apartheid among the public at large, the strike is credited with prompting the Irish government’s ban on the import of goods from South Africa.
The strikers knew little about the South African government’s apartheid policies when the IDATU conference passed a motion instructing members not to handle South African produce, but by the time the strike concluded they were among the most visible and articulate faces of Ireland’s anti-apartheid movement.
Notwithstanding this, both the official Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions were initially ambivalent towards the strike, with some reportedly dismayed by the strikers’ militancy.
That ambivalence was not shared by anti-apartheid campaigners in South Africa: the Dunnes Stores strikers were invited to London to meet with then Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela wrote from prison that they “gave him great hope and optimism”. Bishop Tutu also invited the strikers to visit South Africa, but they were refused an entry visa and turned back at the airport.
Closer to home, the strikers received support from militant trade unionists including Matt Merrigan, regional secretary of the ATGWU, and Des Bonass, a senior ATGWU activist and member of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions. In 1985, the Dunnes strikers led the traditional DCTU May Day march through Dublin
By the time Mandela visited Dublin in 1990s, just four months after his release, the strikers were receiving the credit they deserved and met the legendary anti-apartheid leader at a lunch hosted by the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
Four years later, South Africa held its first free elections, and the Dublin offices of the ATGWU served as the polling station for South Africans living in Ireland. The African National Congress won a resounding victory, and Nelson Mandela became the first president of the new ‘Rainbow Nation’.
Nearly four decades after the Dunnes Stores strikers took to the picket line in solidarity with those oppressed by a racist South African state, the peddlers of hate and division are attempting to gain a foothold in communities throughout Ireland and Britain. The Dunnes Stores strike offers a valuable lesson in solidarity as the trade union movement mobilises to counter those threats.
Now, the Dunnes Stores strikers’ story is being brought to life in a brand new play called STRIKE! which will be staged by the Ardent Theatre Company at Southwark Playhouse Borough in London. The play will run every day Monday through Saturday at 7.30pm from April 13 to May 6, with an additional matinee show at 3pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
You can find out full details about the play STRIKE!, including how you can book tickets, on Southwark Playhouse Borough’s website here. Don’t miss it!
By Tom Fitzgerald, Unite regional coordinating officer
Lead pic by Eamonn Farrell / RollingNews.ie
Dunnes Stores strikers Sandra Griffen, Alma Bonnie, Karen Gearon, and Mary Manning with anti-apartheid activist Nimrod Sejake and ATGWU member Tommy Davis, who also took part in the strike.
Pic in text by Unite