The Irish In Labor

One hundred years ago on August 19, a force was born that changed Irish history.  It is doubtful that the Easter Rising of 1916 could have taken place without the organizational ability of the Irish Citizen Army which sprang from the labor union movement in Dublin and the effects of the Great Dublin Labor Lockout.  Yet, that movement was very slow to organize in Ireland compared to the remarkable impact that the Irish had on organizing labor earlier in America which will be presented in Part Two.  The labor union movement was slow to grow in Ireland, partly because there was little industry in the country outside the north-east and most businesses, industrial and otherwise, enjoyed government support which meant local constabulary would enforce any anti-union action of the employers.  Further, the few trade unions that did exist were headquartered in England and focused on working conditions rather than management-labor relations.

Some organizations did exist, but they were more nationalist oriented and focused mainly on political change and the land issue, despite the fact that conditions of the working class in larger cities like Cork and Dublin were deplorable.  In 1911, Dublin’s work-force was unskilled, unorganized and 20% were unemployed.  Those who did find a job earned half the wage being paid in London.  Almost 30,000 worker’s and their families lived in one-room flats in decaying tenements where greedy landlords failed to provide decent sanitary living conditions causing disease to take inordinately high death tolls.  A report published in 1912 claimed that TB-related deaths in Ireland were fifty percent higher than in England.

The first indication of change came with the arrival of James Connolly in 1896.  He had been blacklisted in Scotland for trying to organize workers there and was invited by the Dublin Socialist Society to try his hand as a paid labor organizer in Ireland.  He had little success since the laborers had been so intimidated by management and in 1903 he left for the United States, frustrated by his lack of progress.  Five years later, James Larkin took up the challenge and began to reap the seeds that Connolly had sewn.  In 1906 Larkin had been sent as General Organizer of the British-based National Union of Dock Laborers (NUDL) in Belfast, but his tactics were so controversial that in 1908 he was transferred to Dublin to recruit dock labor there.  In Dublin he found that all unskilled workers were at the mercy of employers who ‘blacklisted’ anyone suspected of union activity, destroying their chance of future employment.  Outraged by conditions bordering on serfdom, Larkin set about trying to organize them all, regardless of trade.  That became a concern for the NUDL who were reluctant to engage in an industrial dispute with Dublin Businessmen.  As a result Larkin was suspended from the NUDL in 1908.  He quit and set up his own Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) to mobilize the city’s unskilled labor.

Meanwhile, Connolly had been involved in the American Labor movement and published a newspaper aimed at the Irish labor market in America.  It featured many articles on Irish happenings and he realized that was where his heart had always been.  Connolly returned from America in 1910 and settled in Belfast to help Larkin organize the ITGWU there.  In August, 1912 Connolly was called to Dublin where one of the greatest labor struggles in the history of Western Europe was about to begin.  By 1913 Larkin and Connolly had signed up 10,000 members making their organization Ireland’s largest and most militant union with its own blend of unionism, republicanism and socialism.  Larkin, a hero to the working class, preached that workers should share ownership of the product or service they produced and should control the government in a socialist economy as opposed to Communism where the state controlled the unions.

In 1913, he and Connolly were determined to break the anti-union stance of the Dublin United Tramway Company (DUTC) owned by William Martin Murphy, an ex-MP and proprietor of the city’s biggest newspaper, largest department store and hotel and founder of the anti-union Dublin Employers’ Federation (DEF).  A dispute began when Murphy demanded that his employees re-apply for their jobs and membership in the ITGWU would be cause for denial.  Larkin and Connolly knew this was a death threat against the Union, so they called for a walkout by the Tram workers on August 26.  Murphy locked them out and brought in scab labor.  The strike was a daring move, since labor unions had never succeeded in Ireland where government troops supported employers.  Ironically, 33 years earlier the Land League had introduced a ban on work and services against the landlords which was so successful it became a standard tactic.  Named for the first landlord’s agent against whom it was used, the Boycott was essentially a strike and Connolly, a student of Land League tactics, knew that well.  In America, as a paid organizer for the American labor union movement, he learned that a well-planned strike was an effective weapon.

Larkin called a series of sympathy strikes, affecting other parts of Murphy’s empire as well as the businesses supporting him.  The DEF supported the DUTC by locking out all who belonged to the union and replaced them with strike-breakers.  By late September, the dispute involved 20,000 workers across the city and their dependents.  Larkin planned to remove dependent children from the effects of the strike by sending them to caring families of union workers in England, but the Catholic church stepped in and forbade it fearing the children would eventually become Protestant!

Violent clashes between workers and the police were frequent, especially where scab labor was employed. On 31st August, Dublin Police baton charged a crowd leaving two dead and hundreds injured.  In November 1913, Connolly formed the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) at their union headquarters in Liberty Hall to protect workers.  The ICA would become a far more significant force than originally planned.  However, despite Larkin’s fund-raising trips, by January 1914, it was evident that the workers had lost the dispute.

Lacking the resources for a prolonged campaign, starving workers began to drift back to work on the employers’ terms.  Larkin conceded, We are beaten, but truly they had achieved something significant.  They had mobilized a Dublin labor force for the first time and the cost to employers insured that the lockout as a tactic would never be used again and employers would never again treat their employees with the same indifference as before.  In Easter Week 1916, the tenement dwellers would take revenge on the businesses which supported Murphy, but in October 1914 Larkin, worn out and frustrated, left for America.  James Connolly ably filled the vacuum.  After the union defeat in the great Dublin Lockout, Connolly began preaching a more militant stance against the merchants and their government supporters.  Fearing that he would incite a rising before they were ready, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), who had been secretly planning just such an action, snatched him on 19 January 1916 and held him for 3 days.  Connolly was briefed on the plans for the Easter Rising and given a seat on the Military Council.  He gladly promised the support of the Citizen Army.  In April, the proclamation of the Irish Republic was printed on a press in the basement of Union headquarters in Liberty Hall.  On April 24, James Connolly led the Irish Citizen Army, alongside the IRB and the Irish Volunteers, into the streets of Dublin and the pages of Irish history.  Organized labor was now a factor in Ireland’s future just as it had been in America.

(Next month – the Irish in American Labor)

Print this entry