“I’d say Ben Dunne knows that song off by heart” – Diarmaid Ferriter, historian.
World news this week was totally – and rightly – dominated by the passing of former South African president Nelson Mandela.
The story of Nelson Mandela’s life and struggle to overcome the oppressive apartheid regime, culminating in his election as president in 1994, provides inspiration to struggles against repression and injustice across the globe.
The role of Irish trade unions in the anti-apartheid movement has also been highlighted this week, as the brave stance of the Dunnes Stores strikers was acknowledged and celebrated. Twelve Dunnes workers were on strike for two and a half years after being victimised for refusing to handle goods produced in the apartheid state. Nelson Mandela said that their stand helped keep him going during his imprisonment.
South African trade union federation Cosatu hailed the Dunnes Stores strikers this week as an exceptional example of international solidarity among workers. Cosatu said the strike action of Mary Manning, Karen Gearon, Liz Deasy and their eight colleagues in 1984 brilliantly embodied the organisation’s core principal: “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Without a doubt, the Dunnes Stores strikers brought the apartheid issue to national attention like never before, helping to galvanise opinion against the regime. When the strike began, theirs was not a popular position. Their consistency and determination, almost 30 years on, is much to be admired.
I was a young teenager at the time and the Dunnes strikers were the first people to make me aware of what was happening in South Africa. Their picket had a landmark presence in Dublin’s city centre throughout the strike, and I can only imagine how tough it was to maintain that for two and a half years. One of my schoolmates (now an IMPACT member as it happens) organised a similar boycott of South African goods in our school, and pestered the school staff until they got behind it.
It forced a bunch of young school kids to have a discussion about what apartheid meant, a conversation we probably wouldn’t have had unless the Dunnes strike had happened. The gradual realisation that our small action was part of something much bigger, something that helped put pressure on the apartheid regime, was an important lesson in activism for us.
This week, of all weeks, it’s good to be reminded of the Dunnes strikers’ achievement.