Socialist Worker

Lessons of the 1913 Dublin Lockout

A hundred years ago this month Dublin’s bosses launched an all-out assault on workers. John Newsinger looks at why the struggle lost—and how the workers could have won

Issue No. 2367

 
Jim Larkin leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union

Jim Larkin leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union


By the summer of 1913 a trade union had turned Dublin into one of the best organised cities in Europe, if not the world. Jim Larkin led the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). It successfully rallied some of the lowest paid workers, with the worst living and working conditions, in Western Europe.

Employers had been used to exercise a relentless tyranny over their largely casual workforce—the zero hours workers of the time. 

But a succession of bitter struggles forced the employers back. Success was achieved by founding the union on the principle of solidarity, on the recognition that an injury to one was an injury to all. 

There was a determination that no group of workers would be left to fight alone. The strong sections were persuaded that it was in their interests to help the weak. Turning Dublin into a union city would benefit the whole working class. 

Militancy and solidarity were the watchwords. 

Effective picketing, the blacking of any work touched by scabs and solidarity strikes forced bosses to toe the union line.

Union organisation liberated men and women who had previously lived in fear. It raised them up to the recognition of their true worth and to a healthy contempt for the rich and powerful.

One crucial weapon in achieving this astonishing turnaround was the union’s weekly newspaper, the Irish Worker. It famously promised workers that it would be “a lamp to guide your feet in the dark hours of the impending struggle”. 

The paper preached militancy, socialist politics and republicanism. It had a circulation of 20,000 and each copy was passed around. It was the voice of the Dublin working class.

The only employer holding out against the union was the Dublin Tram Company, owned by Ireland’s most powerful capitalist, William Martin Murphy. He was determined to crush the union. The Liberal government in London gave Murphy its full support and promised to provide the necessary police and troops. Murphy set about rallying Dublin’s bosses for an all-out attack. He began with the wholesale victimisation of suspected union members in his employ.

The union responded by calling tram workers out on strike on 26 August—and the authorities arrested the union leadership and turned the police loose.

Over the weekend of 30-31 August the police ran riot. They beat people in the street and even invaded working class homes, smashing furniture and assaulting men, women and children. There were four people dead by the end of the weekend.

Riot

Count Casimir Markiewicz described the riot. “Scores of well-fed metropolitan policemen pursued a handful of men, women and children running for their lives before them,” he said. 

“Round the corner of Princes Street, I saw a young man pursued by a huge policeman, knocked down by a baton stroke. Then, whilst bleeding on the ground, batoned and kicked, not only by this policeman but by his colleagues. It was a complete triumph for the police.”

Dublin’s employers were encouraged by this display and began locking out their workers. Some 400 employers had locked out 25,000 workers by the end of September.

From the beginning there was an unprecedented solidarity movement in Britain. The London Trades Council called a massive rally in Trafalgar Square in support of Dublin workers on 7 September. The TUC organised financial help and unions donated funds. 

But collections were also held at meetings and rallies throughout Britain, on streets, in workplaces and in pubs, week after week. 

People kept collecting as long as the lockout continued. 

The largest meetings in living memory were held in support of the Dublin workers in city after city and town after town. Around £150,000 was donated to the cause altogether—about £11 million in today’s money—and this was a crucial support in the struggle.

But there were still scabs at work in Dublin. Workers on the docks and railways in Britain were determined to black “tainted” goods from them. In mid-September rail workers in Liverpool refused to handle Dublin traffic. 

The dispute spread down the tracks as far as Birmingham, Crewe and Derby before the full time officials got a return to work.

Union leaders were prepared to donate funds to help Dublin workers but they were determined to prevent action in their support. 

Calls for solidarity action were widespread. The Daily Herald newspaper led the way, attacking the union and Labour Party leaderships for their cowardice.

The ITGWU withstood police violence, press lies, clerical intimidation and political attack. Larkin was imprisoned for seven months on 28 October, provoking widespread protests. The government backed down after just 17 days and Larkin was released.

This was an unprecedented victory. 

By now, however, the employers were beginning to import scabs into Dublin. The need for solidarity action was becoming urgent. 

Solidarity

Larkin launched his “fiery cross crusade” tour in Britain, urging the blacking of Dublin traffic as the way to win the dispute. He spoke at a series of massive meetings across Britain. 

Dockers’ leader Ben Tillett was one of the British union leaders who often shared the platform with him. Both savaged the British labour and union leaderships for their unwillingness to fight.

Tillett had once described the Labour leadership as “liars at five and ten guineas a time”. They charge considerably more now! Tillett could talk militancy, but when it came to putting it into practice was either nowhere to be found or on the other side.

Rail workers took unofficial action once again, and dockers were only kept at work with great difficulty.

Larkin and his supporters, together with the Daily Herald, were causing considerable trouble for British union leaders. Their members were increasingly demanding a fighting policy at home together with action in support of Dublin. 

Larkin issued a manifesto to British workers to appeal for support.

He asked them to tell their union leaders “that this bloody warfare in Dublin must come to an end, this sacrificing of men, women and children must cease, and if they are not prepared to bring it to an end, then you of the rank and file will see to it that ‘finis’ [conclusion] shall be written.”

The decision was taken to put down this unofficial movement and to deal with Larkin. A special TUC conference was held on 9 December, the first in its history, to deal with the Dublin crisis. Larkin hoped for official support for the blacking of Dublin traffic. 

He was confident this would bring the dispute to a victorious conclusion. Many employers had had enough and this would have finished them off. 

Instead, the first motion on the agenda censured him for his criticism of British union leaders. It was proposed by Ben Tillett, no less. A resolution calling for official action in support of Dublin workers was overwhelmingly defeated. 

The Dublin workers were left to be defeated in isolation, saving what they could. Workers returned to work on what conditions they could get in early 1914. There was widespread victimisation. 

The TUC betrayed the Dublin workers’ fight. But it could have won.

Jim Larkin and the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913
by John Newsinger £4
Available from Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London  WC1B 3QE 
020 7637 1848 

bookmarksbookshop.co.uk 

John  is speaking at Dublin Lockout Centenary Conference
Sat 24 Aug 2013 Conway Hall London 
£5 for waged; £1 for non-waged
Email: au5tin67@yahoo.co.uk
Phone 07980 255 642

 


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Features
Tue 20 Aug 2013, 17:49 BST
Issue No. 2367
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