Postcards typically arrive after you’ve returned from your holidays, don’t they? Last week I was in Dublin for a few days break before the new academic year, but despite the downtime, this project was never completely out of my head. One day, taking a slight detour from the standard tourist trail, my partner and I took a walk up Henry Street looking for the plaque that commemorates the anti-apartheid protest of the Dunnes Stores Strikers. Despite being there before and been reminded to look down, we walked past it twice before finding the small brass memorial embedded in the pavement in front of the main Dunnes Stores premises. In many ways, the unassuming nature of the memorial is appropriate – a reminder of the (international) significance of a single small act of solidarity. Here I want to recount the story of the Dunnes Stores strike, and tease out some of the connections between their struggle and the solidarity work of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and its allies.
In 1984 Mary Manning was 21 and working in the Henry Street branch of Dunnes Stores. On 19 July 1984 a customer approached her checkout and amongst the items she hoped to purchase were two oranges (or maybe it was a grapefruit, depending on which story you read). What is undisputed is that it was South African fruit. Mary Manning told the customer that she couldn’t handle the fruit because it was South African. The obliging customer put the fruit back on the shelf, but Mary Manning’s statement was overheard by a manager. Her action did not come out of nowhere – two days earlier, the workers at Dunnes Stores had received a directive from their trade union, IDATU (the Irish Distributive and Administrative Trade Union) instructing them not to handle South African goods in support of the international boycott campaign against apartheid South Africa. Mary Manning chose to support that call, knowing that the management at Dunnes Stores had spent the previous two days attempting to intimidate staff and undermine the union’s action. She was given five minutes to reconsider her action by the manager, and when she refused to capitulate, she was immediately suspended from her job. Ten of Mary’s co-workers walked out in solidarity with her. Together these ten young women and one man continued their strike for the right to boycott South African goods for nearly three years. In 1985, they were joined by a twelfth striker in another Dunnes Stores branch.
Although Mary Manning’s stand 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.” Over time, they learnt more and more about the realities of apartheid and the campaign broadened. What began as a picket of their workplace became a campaign that stretched far beyond Henry Street. The Dunnes Stores Strikers action grew into a national and international campaign for the boycott of South African goods and for the rights of workers to refuse to handle them. Karen Gearon, the IDATU shop steward at the Henry Street store, and Mary Manning were invited to London to meet Desmond Tutu; Gearon testified in front of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid; and eight of the strikers were invited to South Africa by Tutu. They were detained at the airport and denied entry. The media coverage for their brief detention in South Africa upped the stakes in the campaign, especially in Ireland. In March 1987, the Irish Government banned the importation of South African goods – a ban that stayed in place until 1994 – and the strikers returned to work.
In amongst these high-profile meetings and speaking engagements, the strikers toured Ireland, Britain and beyond building support for their cause. In turn, trade unionists and anti-apartheid campaigners travelled to Dublin to support them. Ross Galbraith and Gary Sherriff who were sacked from Granby Plastics in Leicester in July 1989 for refusing to work on an order destined for South Africa acknowledged that their actions were partly inspired by their previous contact with the Dunnes Stores Strikers. Both before and after the launch of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London in April 1986, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group were active in supporting the Dunnes Stores Strikers. Andy Higginbottom, City Group Secretary at the time, recalled his involvement in a solidarity trip to meet the strikers in Dublin:
One thing I did that sticks in my memory is the trip to Dublin. This was a lovely experience – there were these (I think) five [sic] women and one man, a small group of workers at Dunnes Stores in Henry Street in Dublin who had refused to handle or take money for South African produce and they were sacked by their employer. The union IDATU backed their case and I went over there on our behalf. That was a very nice trip; and they came over to us. They were decent folk who had just taken a moral stand. (Interview with Andy Higginbottom, April 2012).
City Group co-organised a meeting for the strikers with the Greater London Council in March 1985, as part of a national speaking tour of England and Scotland, and in September 1985 one of the strikers addressed City Group’s Islington Rally Against Apartheid. That City Group was involved in organising speaking engagements for the strikers was a point of contention with the British Anti-Apartheid Movement and some of its big trade union supporters. On 18 March 1985, the General Secretary of the (British) Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers wrote to Dundee Anti-Apartheid Group (who were sympathetic to City Group within the national movement) expressing concern that Mary Manning and other strikers were planning a speaking tour of the UK “without official endorsement”.
What started with the action of a single young shop worker as a ‘up yours’ to her local managers in a Dublin department store had wide-reaching effects. The chain of events unleashed by Mary Manning’s initial action eventually spurred a change of national policy in Ireland. The steadfast action of the twelve strikers over those three years built national and international support for the anti-apartheid cause and inspired workers in Britain to take their own workplace boycott actions. Connections made between the strikers and their supporters continued to have effects after the strike had ended. City Group continued to work closely with John Mitchell, the General Secretary of IDATU, who they had met through the Dunnes Stores strike. Mitchell worked particularly closely with City Group on the campaign in support of the imprisoned South African trade union leader Moses Mayekiso, and he spoke at several rallies on the Non-Stop Picket.
The actions of the Dunnes Stores Strikers and the support networks they built during the strike demonstrate how acts of solidarity with distant others can generate new political possibilities at various spatial scales. Mary Manning’s stand shows that acts of international solidarity are also often entangled with more local struggles (against bullying shop managers, for example). That the plaque commemorating their action was unveilled on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day also symbolically connects the strikers’ actions with those of countless women across time and space, placing them in a wider context still. If you’re ever in Dublin, I recommend that you go down Henry Street, look for the plaque and trace the connections stemming from Mary Manning’s ‘up yours’.