Global support

The Lockout resonated with trade unionists and activists worldwide, writes Francis Devine

Wed, Sep 11, 2013, 00:00

From 1889, trade union organisation extended internationally from craft workers into the masses of transport, waterfront, mine and semi-skilled metal workers. Aggressive employer action, supported by state, police and army, countered this mobilisation. Conflicts were marked by violence, damage to property and deaths.

After 1900, socialist parties rose alongside trade unions. For workers fighting to gain their rightful share of the wealth they created, this was class struggle. Established political elites and their commercial and industrial backers understood this, fearing the outcome. Disputes were fought on pay and on issues that reflected growing tensions in production methodologies: length of the working day/week, payments and reward systems, discipline.

The “Great Unrest” in Britain of 1910-14 was mirrored in France, Germany, the US, South Africa and Australia. Worker organisation was “syndicalist”, a multi-faceted phenomenon characterised by reaction to the perceived failure of parliamentary action, and the caution and incorporation of trade union leaderships.

Militant sympathetic strike action was a new tactic: “an injury to one as an injury to all”. Industrial unionism countered sectionalism and craft conservatism with an ultimate ambition, through One Big Union (OBU) and the use of a general strike, to claim state power for workers.

The ITGWU informed members of global struggles through its weekly paper, the Irish Worker. James Connolly was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) in America in 1905 and James Larkin, as the paper’s editor, reprinted syndicalist material.

IWW and Western Federation of Miners’ leader Big Bill Haywood was among the international personalities who, in person, came to support Dublin. Dublin employers saw the Lockout as a pulse in a global convulsion of revolt, an unfinished rising quenched only by divisions created by war.

In Ireland, “New Unionism” among unskilled workers in the 1890s impacted but was not sustained. Larkin’s arrival in Belfast in 1907 reinvigorated his Liverpool-based National Union of Dock Labourers branches. The resultant dockers’ and carters’ strike became the foundation stone of the island’s modern labour movement.

The Irish expression of syndicalism – “Larkinism” – instilled hope where previously acceptance and despair diminished workers. Larkin ignited Dublin’s accumulated social tinder of low wages, insecurity of employment and insanitary, over-crowded housing,with its attendant disease.

The ITGWU was not just another union. It instilled a belief that things could be changed significantly for the better. Its appeal went far beyond its own members. Employers instantly recognised this threat to their hegemony, attacking the ITGWU in Cork in 1909; Wexford, 1911-12; and Sligo and North Dublin, 1913. The union nevertheless grew. In 1911, by providing unquestioning industrial support for striking British railwaymen and sailors, Larkin and the ITGWU were on the lips of rank-and-file activists everywhere.

The British-based Trades Union Congress (TUC), founded in 1868, was criticised for “offering charity instead of solidarity”, of “wanting to settle while the Irish wanted to win”. From 1894, with the foundation of the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC), Irish unions had ceased to affiliate to the TUC. In 1913, only two of the 544 TUC delegates were Irish-based: a Dublin railwayman and a Belfast shipwright.

With Home Rule imminent, demarcation lines grew between national congresses. Events in 1911 had reversed isolationism and introspection among Irish unions. They reminded British executives that a distinctly Irish movement existed, free of their colonising hand.

TUC leaders, such as JH Thomas of the National Union of Railwaymen, were hostile to Larkin, personally and politically. Thomas had not returned ITGWU solidarity to his members when Irish railwaymen later struck in 1911. TUC caution and reluctance was not merely disinterest in Ireland: their leaders displayed similar prevarication and weakness to their own during the 1926 General Strike.

Larkin’s Lockout demands challenged TUC rule, procedure and possibility. That said, Dublin was not Dulwich or Durham, Dolgellau or Dundee. The TUC constrained possible supportive industrial action and, at the Special TUC in December – the first special congress since the TUC’s formation – it isolated Dublin. Food ships sustained Dublin’s struggle, nourishing bellies and hearts, but December’s cold shoulder signalled the end. The TUC should remember 1913 as an important event in British labour history.

From September, British and international workers expressed support for Dublin through collections that translated into the food ships. Larkin’s “Fiery Cross Crusade” drew tens of thousands to London’s Albert Hall and Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. TUC men Harry Gosling and James Seddon unstintingly oversaw aid and strove to broker an honourable peace.

In addition to foodstuffs, the TUC channelled financial aid administered through Dublin Trades Council as strike pay for affected unions. After the Lockout, an offer to purchase Liberty Hall – which would have led to the ITGWU’s expulsion from its iconic headquarters – was thwarted when unclaimed TUC strike pay, secreted from Larkin in a safe, was found to be sufficient to match the asking price.

The South Wales Miners’ Federation donated £1,000 for 14 weeks to the TUC Food Fund. This “historic debt” was repaid with interest in 1984-85 when Irish workers raised over £2,000,000 and provided holidays for 5,000 miners’ children.

Abandoned industrially by the TUC, how far did Irish workers develop a sense of separateness, of standing alone? Equally, how many British workers viewed the ITGWU and Irish movement as separate, deserving of independence? A distinctly Irish union won worldwide recognition from sister organisations. While it was Irish employers, assisted by Irish authorities under British direction, who were the class enemies, would any other major British city have been left in industrial stasis for months? The ITGWU’s commitment to Ireland as an industrial commonwealth was central to its internationalism.

From Butte, Montana to Marseilles, Sydney to Stockholm, Dublin’s heroic struggle was understood and supported. In an era of globalisation, that international solidarity is an important, necessary and still to be fully understood lesson of 1913 for today’s beleaguered working classes.


Francis Devine is a retired trade union official, the author of Organising History, A Centenary of SIPTU, and honorary president of the Irish labour History Society