A resurgent union shaped by world events
The survival of the ITGWU owed much to the shortage of labour the British war economy helped create, writes Padraig Yeates
MOMENT OF HARMONY – Executive of the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party at the 1914 congress when the Labour Party’s constitution was agreed. Standing (from left): James Connolly, William O’Brien, MJ Egan, Thomas Cassidy, WE Hill, Richard O’Carroll. Seated: Thomas MacPartlin, DR Campbell, PT Daly, James Larkin, MJ O’Lehane. Connolly and O’Carroll would die in Easter Week in 1916. Connolly’s friend O’Brien’s, co-founder of ITGWU and later TD, involved in bitter split with Larkin and ally PT Daly which would divide the labour movement for decades.
The 1913 Lockout is the Cinderella of the Decade of Centenaries, as is appropriate for a rising of the marginalised and oppressed. Being a member of a trade union has always been a pathway to better living standards and upward social mobility in good times; as well as a defence of existing benefits when times are bad.
One of the great achievements of Jim Larkin was to break down the traditional barriers that barred unskilled workers from trade union membership. The other great achievement of Larkin and other Lockout leaders was ensuring the survival of the ITGWU from the counterattack led by William Martin Murphy in 1913.
Less well acknowledged was the role of the British war economy in helping, inadvertently, to ensure the union’s resurgence. One of the social consequences of a low wage economy was that large numbers of unskilled workers in the city had served in the British army and were now reservists.
Within days of the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914 thousands of men, including nearly 3,000 members of the ITGWU, were back in uniform and the labour market pendulum had begun to swing against the employers. Men blacklisted as union militants in the lockout were taken back, albeit often on a casual basis, although this did not apply to all sectors. For instance, many women locked out of Jacob’s were never taken back. Confectionery was not essential to the war effort.
Initially the decline in ITGWU membership continued. It had survived the lockout remarkably well, only falling from 30,000 at its peak in August 1913 to 26,000 in December. But the fall continued in 1914, possibly accelerated by Larkin’s departure to America in October.
By the end of the year union membership was 15,000, falling to 10,000 in 1915 and a mere 5,000 in 1916. There seems little doubt that Larkin’s successor, James Connolly, was increasingly preoccupied with the possibility of an armed uprising rather than rebuilding the union.
He was deeply disappointed by the poor performance of the “Larkinite” candidates in the Dublin municipal elections of January 1914. They polled an impressive 12,026 votes to 16,627 for the dominant nationalists, but only secured one seat. This was partly due to the restricted franchise, but also to a flawed electoral strategy. Unrealistic expectations deepened the disillusionment with electoral politics all the more.
Paradoxically the massive TUC support for Dublin during the Lockout spurred separatist tendencies as Irish trade union militants such as Connolly resented British efforts to direct their struggle.
Majority support for the war effort among British socialists led Connolly to resign from the Independent Labour Party. He told his political confidant, Bill O’Brien, “I am ready for any call”.
A mere four days after war was declared he wrote in glowing terms of “Our duty in the crisis” in the Irish Worker: “Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.”
Four weeks later at a public meeting organised by Eamonn Ceannt in the Gaelic League offices, Connolly said it was time to forge links with Germany and organise an insurrection. Under Connolly’s stewardship, the Irish Neutrality League that emerged from that meeting made no attempt to hide which side it was neutral on.