What is the truth about the Dublin dispute?
In the year 1911 the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, as a last desperate expedient to avoid extinction, resolved upon calling a general strike in all the home ports… the call was in danger of falling upon deaf ears, and was, in fact, but little heeded until the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union began to take a hand in the game.
As ships came into the Port of Dublin, after the issue of the call, each ship was held up by the dockers under the orders of James Larkin until its crew joined the union, and signed on under union conditions and rates of pay. Naturally, this did not please the shipowners and merchants of Dublin… It brought the union into a long and bitter struggle along the quays, a struggle which cost it thousands of pounds, imperiled its very existence, and earned for it the bitterest hatred of every employer and sweater in the city, every one of whom swore they would wait their chance to “get even with Larkin and his crew”.
The sympathetic strike having worked so well for the seamen and firemen, the ITGWU began to apply it ruthlessly in every labour dispute… When the coachmakers went on strike the ITGWU took over all the labourers, paid them strike pay, and kept them out until the coachmakers won. The latter body are now repaying us by doing scab work while we are out.
The mill-sawyers existed for 20 years in Dublin without recognition. The sympathetic strike by our union won them recognition and an increase of pay. The stationary engine drivers, the cabinetmakers, the sheet metal workers, the carpenters, and, following them all, the building trades got an increase through our control of the carting industry. As did also the girls and men employed in Jacob’s biscuit factory.
In addition to this work for others we won for our own members the following increases within the last two years: cross-channel dockers got, since the strike in the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, an increase of wages of 3s. [shillings] per week. In the case of the British and Irish Company the increase, levelling it up with the other firms meant a rise of 6s. per week. For men working for the Merchants’ Warehousing Company 3s. per week, general carriers 2s. to 3s., coal fillers halfpenny per ton, grain bushellers 1d. [penny] per ton, men and boys in the bottle-blowing works from 2s. to 10s. per week… mineral water operatives 4s. to 6s. per week…
These things well understood explain the next act in the unfolding of the drama. Desiring to make secure what had been gained, Mr Larkin formulated a scheme for a Conciliation Board. This was adopted by the trades council, at least in essence, and eventually came before the Employers’ Executive, or whatever the governing committee of that body is named. After a hot discussion it was put to the vote. Eighteen employers voted to accept a Conciliation Board, three voted against. Of that three, William Martin Murphy was one.
On finding himself in the minority he rose and vowed that in spite of them he would “smash the Conciliation Board”. Within three days he kept his word by discharging 200 of his tramway traffic employees for being members of the ITGWU, and thus forced on the strike of the tramway men. Immediately he appealed to all the Dublin employers… and lured them on to a desperate effort to combine and destroy the one labour force they feared. The employers… rallied round Murphy, and from being one in a minority of three he became the leader and organising spirit of a band of 400.
I have always told our friends in Great Britain that our fight in Ireland was neither inspired nor swayed by theories nor theorists. It grew and was hammered out of the hard necessities of our situation. Here, in this brief synopsis, you can trace its growth for yourselves. First a fierce desire to save our brothers of the sea, a desire leading to us risking our own existence in their cause. Developing from that an extension of the principle of sympathetic action until we took the fierce beast of capital by the throat all over Dublin, and loosened its hold on the vitals of thousands of our class. Then a rally of the forces of capital to recover their hold, and eventually a titanic struggle, in which the forces of labour in Britain openly, and the forces of capital secretly, became participants.
That is where we stand today. The struggle [is] forming our theories and shaping the policy, not only for us, but for our class. To those who criticise us we can only reply: we fight as conditions dictate; we meet new conditions with new policies. Those who choose may keep old policies to meet new conditions. We cannot and will not try.
Jim Larkin & the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913 by John Newsinger is available from Bookmarks, the Socialist Bookshop.
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