Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) general secretary Patricia King paid tribute to Dunnes Stores staff at an event to mark the 35th anniversary of their strike against apartheid in South Africa.
The strike began in July 1984 when Mary Manning was suspended for refusing to sell a grapefruit after her union had backed a boycott of South African goods. Her shop steward, Karen Gearon, ordered a walk-out, and eight more young workers downed tools.
The dispute was to last for two years and nine months, during which the young workers experienced employer hostility, Gardaí harassment, public condemnation by the Catholic Church, and scant support from politicians or even trade unions.
But they gained international attention in 1985 after the South African government deported them from Johannesburg airport eight hours after they arrived at the invitation of anti-apartheid campaigner Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Later that year, two of the strikers were invited to address a UN special committee against Apartheid. In 1987, Ireland became the first west European country to ban South African imports.
“On that day in 1984, none of those workers believed that they had embarked on a particularly lonely road to take on the Irish establishment, make international labour history, and win,” said Patricia.