Larkin’s road to revolution
The Lockout saw Irish employers attempt to use Larkinite tactics against the unions by challenging them with a united front, writes Emmet O’Connor
James Connolly was a founding member of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or ‘Wobblies’) in America in 1905 – its leaders William (Big Bill) Haywood (centre), flanked by Adolph Lessing and Carlo Tresca are pictured as they lead a silk workers’ demonstration during the 1913 strike in Paterson, New Jersey. Haywood was among international personalities who came in person to support Dublin. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
The 1913 Lockout has served the labour movement well as a foundation myth. For decades, it was the only bit of labour history that featured in a public history dominated by nationalism and unionism.
Moreover, it’s an event in which Labour were the good guys and the bosses were the bad guys. The risen people came out of the slums to challenge poverty and plutocracy, and militant trade unionism won a moral victory. But is that what it was about?
To understand the Lockout, one has to understand Larkinism, and why the employers were so hostile to it. Before coming to Ireland in 1907, Jim Larkin was a union organiser in England and Scotland. Yet we don’t speak of Larkinism in England and Scotland. Larkin became an “ism” in Ireland because what he stood for had a strategic relevance for labour, and because Irish employers were so hostile to it.
Employers coined the term “Larkinism” to distinguish Larkin’s methods from what they called “bona fide” trade unionism. By Larkinism they meant the unionisation of unskilled workers, militancy, the influence of professional agitators, and the sympathetic strike. They accepted craft unions. The craftsman was presumed to be responsible and respectable.
But they said it was dangerous to put a weapon like trade unionism in the hands of the unskilled. Moreover, they argued, the economy couldn’t afford it; economic development depended on a ready supply of cheap labour. Above all, they hated full-time agitators and the sympathetic strike.
The Dublin Lockout was the culmination of escalating employer militancy which saw the formation of employers’ federations throughout Ireland, and a series of generalised confrontations, in Belfast in 1907, in Cork in 1909, in Wexford and on the railway in 1911, and in Galway and Sligo in 1913.
In the public memory, Larkinism is usually equated with Big Jim. There was certainly a personality cult, and Jim would promote it shamelessly. There was too a method, involving tactics of sympathetic action, a strategy of industrial unionism, a politics of socialist republicanism, a morality of class solidarity, and an ambition to bring “culture” to workers and class to “culture”.
What gave these a broad relevance was that they answered the two great questions facing trade unionists: how to build a bargaining power in an economy where craft unions were too weak to be a leading sector, and where seven out of every nine employees were unskilled and easily replaced, and whether to stick with the big battalions of British Labour or build an Irish labour movement?
Sympathetic action and industrial unionism seemed effective answers to the first question. The second question was more thorny. De-industrialisation and population decline in the 19th century had led many Irish unions to believe they had no future except as branches of British unions. By 1900, Ireland had about one million employees and 70,000 trade unionists, of whom three-quarters were in British societies.
An increasing number of activists felt that the British would never commit the resources necessary to tackle Irish employer militancy, but it is doubtful if anyone other than Larkin could have realised a credible Irish labour movement.
Nor is it likely that Larkinism would have become so influential without the growth of unrest internationally. In the early 20th century almost every industrialised country was rocked by events unsettling to the bien pensants who imagined their world to be the pinnacle of civilisation.
Increasingly, strikes became generalised, violent and involved confrontation with police or troops. There were general strikes in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and Sweden between 1902 and 1904; major strikes in German and Russian textile factories in 1903; and attempted revolutions in Russia and cities of Russian Poland, protests in Austria which compelled the introduction of universal suffrage, and serious unrest in Hungary in 1905. Romania was convulsed by a peasant revolt in 1907, leading to the deaths of more than 10,000 people.