Posted tagged ‘IWW’

How 1913 was a cornerstone of the Labour Movement

May 4, 2013

This year’s Jim Connell festival saw a discussion about “how 1913 was a cornerstone of the Labour Movement”, with Senator Denis Landy, longtime SIPTU member Alan MacSimóin, Cllr Mary Foy from Gateshead, and Stephen Hepburn MP fom Jarrow.


This is what Alan MacSimóin had to say.

For many of this year’s Lockout commemorations, we will be presented with a picture of a brave working class which was beaten down by an all-powerful ruling class. We will be reminded of the soup kitchens, of tenement life, of the police attack on corporation buildings, of the baton charges which killed James Nolan and James Byrne, of the murder of Alice Brady by a scab, of barefoot and hungry children, of food ships, of suffering and of ultimate defeat.

However, that is but part of the story of 1913. What is less often talked about is the militancy of the Dublin workers, the huge support for sympathy strikes, the abhorrence felt by most working people at the idea of passing a picket, the fact that the Irish Citizen Army was formed as a trade union defence force that was prepared to take on the police, and most notably, the acceptance by tens of thousands that there was a class divide and that you stood with your own side.

Today, just about everyone in our movement agrees that the Lockout was probably the most important single event in our history.

Some see it as a complete and total defeat, a warning that if our unions go too far in fighting for their members they will bring down on themselves the entire might of the state, and will be crushed. The defeat of the British miners by the Thatcher government in 1985 reinforced this view.

scab, tailors

Others look at 1913 and see a spirit of solidarity and militancy, class pride, a refusal to bend the knee, and a belief that life can be made better.

When looking at the Lockout it is important to remember that the ITGWU were not fighting for a pay rise, for better conditions, or for recognition. They were fighting a defensive action against 400 employers set to destroy them. In all defensive battles simply surviving the attack can be a victory.

For the ITGWU to remain active, with many smaller employers actually granting official recognition during the struggle, must be seen as a victory in the long term. In the hundred years since, the employers have never dared to mount such an offensive against the union’s existence again.

James Connolly summed up the balance sheet:

The battle was a drawn battle. The employers, despite their Napoleonic plan of campaign, and their more than Napoleonic ruthlessness and unscrupulous use of foul means, were unable to carry out their business without men and women who remained loyal to the union. The workers were unable to force the employers to a formal recognition of the union, and to give preference to organised labour.”


The strikers who could return to work did so, but many hundreds were victimised as employers took the pick of those they would allow to return. While the end of the Lockout was a bitter experience for the working class, it would be a mistake to view the result as a total defeat.

Murphy had promised not only to defeat the strikers, but to smash their union and to erradicate Larkinism. As leader of the 400 employers Murphy rejected conciliation efforts by both the British government and the TUC leadership. He was after nothing less than total victory. Yet, in this aim he was unsuccessful. The union survived and continued.

In 1915 James Connolly, then acting General Secretary of the ITGWU, gave a report to the Irish Trade Union Congress. He declared:

You will remember how four hundred employers banded themselves together to destroy us, and pledged their sacred word of honour that they would wipe that union off the map; that when the fight was over no man or woman affiliated to us, or friendly to us, would ever be employed in Dublin. … Well, did the unholy conspiracy against Labour achieve its object? Was the union crushed? Did our flag come down? Let me tell you our position today, and tell it by an illustration.

  • Stevedores Association: One penny per ton increase on all tonnage rules.
  • Deep Sea Boats: One shilling per day on all day wage men.
  • Casual Cross Channel Boats: One shilling per day.
  • Constant Cross Channel Boats: Eightpence per day.
  • Dublin and General Company’s employees: Four shillings.
  • Dublin dockyard labourers: Three shillings per week.
  • Ross and Walpole: Two shillings per week
  • General carriers’ men: Two shillings per week granted direct to men after receipt of letter from the Union.”

As time is short I’ll just look at two elements, which were very much a part of union culture in 1913 but which badly need resuscitation today.

The first is Solidarity action

It is good that our unions issue messages of solidarity to others in struggle. It’s better when they make cash donations. But expressions of sympathy and financial help, on their own, are not enough. If ‘An Injury to One is the Concern of All’ is to be taken seriously is has to be backed up with action.

soli fish

We need to know that the full weight of the movement can be mobilised when necessary. Goods which have been handled by strikebreakers should be blacked. A picket should mean you don’t go in, no staff, no deliveries, no customers, no services. That’s the sort of solidarity that really matters, because it is effective. It empowers union members and it get results. Today that sounds almost extreme, yet it was what our unions proclaimed until the advent of the Two-Tier picket in 1970, and then ‘social partnership’ from 1987.

And one of the fruits of that partnership was given to us in 1990, when with barely a murmur from the trade union leadership, we were landed with the Industrial Relations Act. Since then, almost all forms of effective solidarity action have been illegal.

Almost before the ink was dry, the Act was used in the River Valley dispute (February 1991). The strikers’ union, SIPTU, instructed its members in Roches Stores and Quinnsworth not to handle River Valley produce. The company sought, and were granted, a high court order restraining the union from interfering in their business “…in any mode whatsoever.”

If our movement is to cease being a defensive one, merely ensuring a slow and orderly retreat in the face of the employers’ offensive, it will have to seriously discuss breaking this law. It’s a big step for most of us to take, but we know that breaking unfair laws is part and parcel of how progressive changes are won, to give two examples from the 26 counties in our own lifetimes: the sale of contraceptives and information about abortion. Both of these were won after mass lawbreaking made the old prohibitions unenforceable.

But it’s not just our side who see it like that. In 1966, Paddy Hillery, the man who went on to be President, introduced into the Dail a Trade Union Bill whose provisions included:-

a majority of all workers in a workplace would be required to authorise strike action

legal immunities would not apply to unofficial action

This Bill was heavily criticised by the Trade Union movement and Hillery was eventually forced to withdraw it. In doing so, he made a statement which today’s union leaders would do well to take note of –

the only law that will work is that in which trade unions co-operate.’”

The second element I want to touch on is Class unity

The early ITGWU was no run-of-the-mill trade union. It was established in the syndicalist and socialist tradition of the Industrial Workers of the World; the ‘One Big Union’ whose ultimate goal was the general strike to lockout the bosses and place production in the hands of the workers. The preamble to the IWW constitution said, and still does today,

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common … Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production and abolish the wage system”.



That’s where the OBU inscription on the old ITGWU badge came from. Both Connolly and Larkin organised with the IWW during their times in America, and Big Jim’s brother, Peter was an IWW organiser in Australia.

Interestingly, the current president of the Musicians Union, which is part of SIPTU, Andy Irvine, was also – and possibly still is- a member of the IWW.

From its beginning the ITGWU set out not only to organise in the workplace, but to see every battle as part of a broader fight to empower the working class and transform society. Through the Irish Worker newspaper, (which sold an average of 20,000 copies a week) and through the union’s social and cultural activities, Dublin’s workers were given a vision of a new world. A vision which, at times, could be summed up in Connolly’s words about “our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth”.


click here to read this pamphlet

Now zip forward to the ‘social partnership’ years. After the results of the 1992 election for SIPTU General Secretary, the unsuccessful candidate, Carolann Duggan, shocked some in the media. While she had been critical of the union leadership, she said that members should never lose sight of the fact that the employers were the “enemy”. One writer in the Irish Times (2 April 1998) found this “shocking”.

The thing is that the Irish Times would not be alone today. Most senior union officials would probably have a difficulty with her statement because they would almost certainly never say – and never, never in public, that the employers are our enemies. The notion that – regardless of how pleasant some bosses may be personally – that employers and workers have different class interests is regarded as out-of-date, as belonging to another time. Instead, from the 1980s onwards we were told that we had become social partners, not equal partners of course, but we could all get along happily together as long as we didn’t ask for too much.

no unions

The activist base in many unions declined as fewer workers saw the point in going to meetings when all the big decisions were being made elsewhere. In so far as any vision was promoted by the advocates of partnership it was one of maintaining our living standards, with the possibility of small and incremental improvements when our partners were agreeable.

When our partners walked away from the process, it was because they felt they could get away with throwing us fewer crumbs. And, until the very welcome defeat of Croke Park II, some of the gains from decades of union activity were being given away.

We have seen

  • the introduction of yellow pack grades into unionised jobs like Aer Lingus and the Bank of Ireland,
  • outsourcing of cleaning, security, IT, and more to contractors who pay lower wages,
  • modernisation” which often means more work for the same pay… I could go on, and on, and on… suffice to say that it does not exactly contribute to rebuilding a union culture of confidence, of membership involvement, of being part of a collective struggle to improve the lot of the vast majority.

work harder

Despite a national public sector strike, despite protests and marches; grassroots activism remains sporadic and our unions remain unwilling or unable to fight. The austerity offensive of the Coalition continues and we remain in retreat.

The Dublin that was part of the British Empire and the Dublin of U2 and the Financial Services Centre are not the same place, yet what inspired our predecessors 100 years ago, with its promotion of class unity and a fight for something more than just minor workplace improvements, is needed more than ever.

We can call it Larkinism. This is not a case of hero worshipping another long dead man. Larkin was certainly heroic, but was certainly not flawless.

There was the man who, being a Catholic, refused to attend a fund-raising rally because the proposed chairman was divorced. There was definitely the man who was difficult to get on with, the man who was probably capable of having a row with himself.

But we have no need of great all-knowing and perfect-in-every-way leaders, we are not sheep in search of a shepherd.

What do need is a vision for our unions. A vision of actually fighting for what we want, of unapologetic militancy, of solidarity action, of active participation by a lot more of the membership, and of our class embracing the slogan of the Three Musketeers – One for All, and All for One. That is the spirit of Larkinism, and I submit that is just as relevant & useful today as it was 100 years ago.