By Kevin Devine
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 383

The stamp of militancy

This article is over 10 years, 2 months old
One hundred years ago thousands of workers took part in what became known as the Great Dublin Lockout.
Issue 383

The Irish state postal service recently issued a series of stamps showing scenes from the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913. The stamps are very handsome, but this isn’t the point. Rather it is the irony of the government issuing them being responsible for imposing the worst cuts in living memory on Irish workers. This shows how important it is to properly recall the memory of the events of 1913. For the lockout is not just the most important struggle of the Irish working class; it is also one of the most important industrial episodes in British history.

One hundred years ago Dublin was still part of the United Kingdom. But in spite of this, or rather because of it, living conditions for its workers were far worse than for their British counterparts. Dublin had some of the worst slums in Western Europe. A combination of disease, disability and premature death meant that the overall mortality rate was 22.3 per 1,000 people, compared with 15.6 per 1,000 for London. In fact Dublin’s mortality rate was closer to the rates found in Eastern European cities, and in its poorest districts the rates were closer to those of cities such as Cairo.

The decline of manufacturing and the spread of lesser-skilled jobs, particularly on the docks and in transport, meant that in occupational terms, Dublin’s working class was more like that of London than of Birmingham or Manchester, where manufacturing predominated. And much of the work was insecure. On the docks, for example, as few as a third of the workforce might be permanent, with the remainder so-called casual workers who were employed day by day, if they were lucky, and paid by the hour, as long as there was work for them.

Most dock workers might have been casual, but the centrality of their industry to the trade between Ireland and Britain meant they had tremendous potential strength. In the early years of the 20th century, militant trade unionism took root on the Irish docks. A Liverpool-born organiser for the British-based National Union of Dock Labourers, James Larkin, was the prime mover. His most famous success was in Belfast in 1907 when he succeeded in uniting Catholic and Protestant workers in strike action against the employers. By the end of 1908 he had established NUDL branches in every major port in Ireland.

But Larkin’s methods brought him into conflict with the leadership of the union, who sought to enhance their position with the employers by curbing militancy and emphasising responsibility. They suspended him and, in response, he established the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1909. This wasn’t the only breakaway from the NUDL. Another took place on the Glasgow docks. Both were militant responses to a leadership that refused to back its members when they wanted to fight for better conditions. But Larkin wanted to use the docks as the base for a union that would organise all Irish workers. This attempt to build “One Big Union” would lead to the Dublin Lockout.

How did Larkin’s syndicalist ideas take shape? In some ways Dublin wasn’t a very favourable location for such ideas to take root. The extent of casualisation, made worse by the depth of the pool of poverty from which the labourers were drawn, initially made union organisation difficult. But if things were bad for the workers, they couldn’t get any better through continuing in the same old way. And this is where Larkin and syndicalism came in. The man was certainly important, but it was his methods that were central – mass meetings, a newspaper (the Irish Worker) to spread his “divine gospel of discontent”, and last but most important of all, the sympathy strike.

None of this took place in a vacuum. The years after 1910 in the UK are remembered as the “Great Unrest”- a wave of strikes that emphasised the importance of militancy and solidarity, and that broke beyond the confines of normal, official industrial relations. And neither was Ireland immune. In 1911 the ITGWU’s membership leapt from 5,000 to 18,000. Labour unrest was general all over Ireland in that year, and Dublin, though important, was only an element of a national picture characterised as “strike fever” by one newspaper.

The ITGWU organised all sorts of workers, and this broad appeal was central to its popularity. But more fundamentally, Larkin’s militant brand of trade unionism became Dublin’s workers’ main way of improving their living standards. Charity, pity and philanthropy had all failed, and if they now wanted to take matters into their own hands, who could blame them? At the same time, Larkin wanted to consolidate the union by pushing into areas with more secure employment, especially the trams.

This would lead to confrontation with William Martin Murphy, Ireland’s leading nationalist politician. Murphy was the owner of the Dublin United Tramways Company, and he was determined to stop the ITGWU.

Unofficial action
Murphy was class-conscious and far-sighted and he understood the threat presented by the union’s militant approach. He drew up a pledge for employers to present to their workers, demanding they renounce membership of the ITGWU. If they refused they would be locked out. The stage was set. Workers at Jacob’s Biscuits were the first to be locked out in early September 1913, with 3,000 mostly women workers excluded from work for supporting male colleagues sacked for wearing the union’s badge. The lockout soon spread city-wide, indicating the huge support for the union, but also the strength and mutual solidarity of the employers.

The sympathy action among the employers simply had to be met by sympathy action among workers. In Dublin this was made extremely difficult by the backing of the state authorities, who filled the city with police and troops. They broke up attempts at mass pickets, and assaulted demonstrations and meetings. The scale of support for the union prompted the employers to start importing scab labour, and this more than any other factor changed the situation in Dublin.

The police protected the scabs, who were frequently armed, and while they didn’t have it all their own way, the struggle began to turn into a one-sided war of attrition. This prompted Larkin to look to solidarity from British workers, and with his supporters he embarked on his famous “Fiery Cross” crusade, speaking to thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, across Britain.

The lockout and Larkin’s tour elicited a number of significant responses. On the one hand there were collections in every town and city. These collections, the likes of which were probably not seen again until the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, were vital in enabling the ITGWU to continue the fight. But crucially, a number of unofficial sympathy strikes were staged.

The first took place in September 1913, when Liverpool rail workers blacked Dublin traffic. The strike spread to the Midlands, with an estimated 13,000 workers involved. Only intervention by rail workers’ leader JH Thomas secured a return to work.

The second was in November, with workers in Wales taking a lead, and this time some 30,000 were involved. Again the officials moved heaven and earth to ensure a return to work. Meanwhile on the docks the officials were having real difficulty in maintaining control.

This unofficial action showed that sympathy action in support of the Dublin workers was a realistic strategy. In fact it was the only way to break the employers’ solidarity and force individual firms to settle on terms dictated by the union. But British TUC leaders were determined to keep the reins in their hands. They saw “Larkinism” as a threat to their orderly relations with the employers. In fact, they continually tried to reach agreement with Dublin employers over the head of the ITGWU. Only the intransigence of the employers and their determination to crush the union prevented a deal being reached.

The TUC called a special delegate conference, made up of full-time officials, for 9 December 1913. As one commentator remarked, while the conference was ostensibly “to decide what was to be done about Dublin, [in reality] it was to decide what was to be done about Larkin.” Instead of calling on the rank and file to take action to force the TUC’s hand ahead of the conference, Larkin put all his energy into calling for instructions and resolutions. He seems to have put his faith in left wing union leaders in the hope that they would carry the day in favour of solidarity action. Sadly, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

The proposal to “black”, that is boycott, Dublin traffic was defeated and a motion censuring Larkin passed. Dublin’s workers were on their own. The vast majority were forced to renounce the ITGWU and return to work on the employers’ terms.

Larkin’s great strength was that he wanted to raise the working class up from subordination and recognise its own power and strength. He rejected a narrow economic view of trade unionism as a capitulation to the employers, and instead wanted to use it as a tool to build a better society. But he didn’t recognise that the officials’ main concern was the machinery of their unions rather than the ordinary members.

The union leaders saw themselves mainly as arbitrators rather than leading their members in a fight for better working conditions or, like Larkin, a better world. They could not countenance support for Dublin becoming synonymous with unofficial action as this would threaten their control. And while they may not have wanted Murphy and the employers to win, they worried more about the threat to their own position from the rank and file. The result was that they constantly sought ways to compromise. The problem in this situation was that no compromise was possible for Murphy and his allies, and so the TUC strategy ended in disaster.

The lockout was certainly a defeat, but it stands as a great example of the importance of inspirational leadership and militant tactics when it comes to organising workers. The fact that many Dublin workers were “casual labourers” shows that this isn’t a sociological issue, but a political one.

Larkin’s conviction that “One Big Union” was the key to a new society underlay his determination to build the ITGWU as widely as possible, whatever the wider weaknesses of his politics. The lockout also highlighted the importance of class unity and solidarity. Women’s support was central to the fight. Significantly, the women of Jacobs’ Biscuits were the last to return to work. And crucially, as John Newsinger has put it, in Jim Larkin and the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913, the lockout “laid bare the nature of trade union officialdom”.

The very success of Larkinism was the basis of its spread. And winning real improvements in working conditions via militant action not only gained members, but also brought an arrogant and patrician employing class to heel, forcing them to at least pay lip service to the terrible conditions that workers endured. The ITGWU’s growth, and particularly the militant basis on which it grew, also ran counter to the notion of a unified nationalist Ireland. This was why the employers and their supporters in the church and the establishment so resented Larkin and his members and supporters.

Larkinism didn’t simply engender a form of trade union consciousness, but something more, that we perhaps might call “proto-syndicalism”. As a result, the lockout left a legacy of adherence to the importance of solidarity in the Irish working class that has never been completely eradicated. This more than anything else has ensured the resilience of trade unionism in the country, and the spirit and reality of solidarity are reborn whenever new struggles take place.

The outcome of the lockout might have been different, especially if there had been sufficient independent rank and file organisation and activity to force the TUC to fight. The scale of the collections showed the extent of support but on their own they were simply not enough.

Today we urgently need a renewal of the will to organise and fight. To imagine a revival of popular trade unionism without successful strikes is fanciful, and for strikes to be successful they’ll have to involve militancy. Back in 1913 capitalism was in its grand expansionary phase. It is far from healthy now, and as a result, the stakes are much higher and the need for militancy and solidarity even greater. That is why the Dublin Lockout deserves to be remembered.

Go to: ‘A titanic struggle’ by James Connolly.

Jim Larkin & the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913 by John Newsinger is available from Bookmarks, the Socialist Bookshop.

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