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Friday 22 November 2019

1984 walkout caused Ireland to lead world on imports ban

Mary Manning. Picture: Mark Condren
Mary Manning. Picture: Mark Condren
Strike: Mary Manning (second from right) with other strikers and activists at Dunnes in Dublin in 1985. Photo: Photocall

Anne-Marie Walsh

Refusing to put two grapefruit through her checkout was a pivotal moment for 21-year-old supermarket worker Mary Manning.

Her decision not to carry out that simple transaction at Dunnes Stores on Henry Street would later comfort Nelson Mandela during his time in prison.

According to some accounts, it also led to a street being named in Ms Manning's honour in Johannesburg.

But the response from management after she told a woman she would not sell her the South African citrus fruit in protest at that country's racist apartheid regime was to call her into an office and suspend her.

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As a result, 10 colleagues - nine women and a man - walked off the job in support of her stance.

None of them imagined that it would turn into a strike lasting almost three years - one of the longest in Irish history.

As events to mark the 35th anniversary of the walkout take place today and tomorrow at Liberty Hall, Ms Manning has been recalling what the strikers achieved.

Following a shift in public opinion, Ireland became the first western country to totally ban imports of South African goods. But at first the response from others was disbelief.

"At the time, people thought we were mad and asked 'What are you doing?'" recalled Ms Manning.

"There was a recession and people felt. 'Why are you putting your jobs in jeopardy for people so far away?'"

Ms Manning's refusal to sell the grapefruit followed a 1984 instruction by her union IDATU that members must not handle South African goods.

She admits she and her co-workers were not heavily politicised and were motivated to a large extent to get management to talk about their terms and conditions.

"It really was an 'up yours' to them," she said. "I had just turned 21. We were interested in getting a pay packet and going out at the weekend.

"There were about 10 or 15 things we wanted addressed, including the fact you couldn't call colleagues by their first names, but Ms and Mr. It was a case of do as you're told, or else.

"There were two Outspan grapefruits in a woman's basket. When I refused to put them through, a manager came up and told me to close off the register and come up to the office.

"I was given a few minutes to reconsider and when I refused I was suspended and the rest came out in support. Management was forcing the issue. The day it started they made up their mind to push it to some kind of outcome.

"We were put on checkouts with managers behind anybody who refused to handle goods. In Roches, management were turning a blind eye."

The workers survived on the equivalent of €21 a week strike pay - mainly because most were living with their parents.

"There was little support at first," Ms Manning said. "I was at the pickets and there were people who said, 'I don't blame you, I wouldn't touch anything after a black person handled it.' They had no idea why we were out. There was a priest who said we were harming the black people."

But the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and being deported under armed guard when they tried to visit South Africa changed views. They were described as the most dangerous shop workers in the world.

At the end of it all, Ms Manning felt her name was "like dirt" and she wouldn't get a job so moved to Australia for a while. Some of the strikers went back to college.

"I have no regrets," said the mother of two, originally from Kilmainham, who now works in an office in Dublin. It took a long time for people to get behind us and that's why it went on for so long. I think the biggest achievement was getting the government to ban the importation of South African fruit and vegeta bles. That's how the strike ended.

"Looking back on it now, I see we were on the right side of history.

"It's something I'm very proud of."

Irish Independent

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