The Dublin Labour War was one of the great battles of the working class. In 1913, under the leadership of Jim Larkin, the working class of Dublin was making Dublin one of the best organised cities in the world.
Dublin’s slums were officially admitted to be among the worst in the British Empire. Infant mortality was higher there than in Calcutta. During the 1914-18 war, a British Army recruiting leaflet would tell the workers of Dublin that the war trenches of France were healthier than the slums of Dublin! But now the workers were on the move.
The workers had discovered the power of the sympathetic, solidarity strike. Where necessary they brought their weight as a class to bear on each individual employer on behalf of his employees.
Wages were pushed up. Conditions began to improve. The workers, long downtrodden, became everywhere assertive and confident. A tremendous growth of working class dignity ad self respect began to make Dublin uncomfortable for the upper classes.
So the bosses organised themselves in a cartel and locked out every worker who would not leave or promise never to join “Larkin’s union”.
This week we print two articles by James Connolly, “Glorious Dublin” and “A titanic struggle”.
To the readers of Forward possibly some sort of apology is due for the non-appearance of my notes for the past few weeks, but I am sure that they quite well understand that I was, so to speak, otherwise engaged. On the day I generally write my little screed, I was engaged on the 31st of August in learning how to walk around in a ring with about forty other unfortunates kept six paces apart, and yet slip in a word or two to the poor devil in front of or behind me without being noticed by the watchful prison warders.
The first question I asked was generally “say, what are you in for?” Then the rest of the conversation ran thus:
“For throwing stones at the police.”
“Well, I hope you did throw them and hit.”
“No, by God, that’s the worst of it. I was pulled coming out of my own house.”
“Pulled” is the Dublin word for arrested. It was somewhat mortifying to me to know that I was the only person apparently in prison who had really committed the crime for which I was arrested. It gave me a sort of feeling that I was lowering the moral tone of the prison by coming amongst such a crowd of blameless citizens.
But the concluding part of our colloquy was a little more encouraging. It usually finished in this way:
“Are you in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union?”
“Of course I am.”
“Good. Well if they filled all the prisons in Ireland they can’t beat us, my boy.”
“No, thank God, they can’t; we’ll fight all the better when we get out.”
And there you have the true spirit. Baton charges, prison cells, untimely death and acute starvation — all were faced without a murmur, and in face of them all, the brave Dublin workers never lost faith in their ultimate triumph, never doubted but that their organisation would emerge victorious from the struggle. This is the great fact that many of our critics amongst the British labour leaders seem to lose sight of. The Dublin fight is more than a trade union fight; it is a great class struggle, and recognised as such by all sides. We in Ireland feel that to doubt our victory would be to lose faith in the destiny of our class.
I heard of one case where a labourer was asked to sign the agreement forswearing the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and he told his employer, a small capitalist builder, that he refused to sign. The employer, knowing the man’s circumstances, reminded him that he had a wife and six children who would be starving within a week. The reply of this humble labourer rose to the heights of sublimity. “It is true, sir,” he said, “they will starve; but I would rather see them go out one by one in their coffins than that I should disgrace them by signing that.” And with head erect he walked out to share hunger and privation with his loved ones. Hunger and privation — and honour.
Defeat, bah! How can such a people be defeated? His case is typical of thousands more. Take the case of the United Builders Labourers’ Trade Union, for instance. This was a rival union to the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. Many sharp passages had occurred between them, and the employers counted confidently upon their cooperation in the struggle; Mr William Martin Murphy especially praising them and exulting in their supposed acquiescence in his plans. Remember also that they were a dividing society, dividing their funds at the end of each year, and therefore without any strike funds. When the members of their union were asked to sign the agreement, promising never to join or help the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, not one man consented — but all over Dublin their 2,500 members marched out “to help the I.T.&G.W.U. boys.” Long ere these lines are written, they have experienced all the horrors of starvation, but with grim resolve they have tightened their belts and presented an unyielding front to the enemy.
It is a pleasure to me to recall that I was a member of their Union before I went to America, and that they twice ran me as their candidate for Dublin City Council before the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union was dreamed of.
What is true of that union is also true of most of the tradesmen. All are showing wonderful loyalty to their class. Coachbuilders, sawyers, engineers, bricklayers, each trade that is served by general labourers, walks out along with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union boys; refuses to even promise to work with any one who signs the employers’ agreement, and, cheering, lines up along with their class.
Or think of the heroic women and girls. Did they care to evade the issue, they might have remained at work, for the first part of the agreement asks them to merely repudiate the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and as women they are members of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, not of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.
But the second part pledges them to refuse to “help” the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union — and in every shop, factory and sweating hell-hole in Dublin, as the agreement is presented, they march out with pinched faces, threadbare clothes, and miserable footgear, but with high hopes, undaunted spirit, and glorious resolve shining out of their eyes. Happy the men who will secure such wives; thrice blessed the nation which has such girls as the future mothers of the race! Ah, comrades, it is good to have lived in Dublin in these days!
And then our friends write deprecatingly to the British press of the “dislocation of trade” involved in sympathetic strikes, of the “perpetual conflicts” in which they would involve great trade unions. To those arguments, if we can call them such, our answer is sufficient. It is this: If the capitalist class knew that any outrages upon a worker, any attack upon labour, would result in a prompt dislocation of trade, perhaps national in its extent; that the unions were prepared to spend their last copper if necessary rather than permit a brother or sister to be injured, then the knowledge would not only ensure a long cessation from industrial skirmishing such as the unions are harassed by today, it would not only ensure peace to the unions, but what is of vastly more importance, it would ensure to the individual worker a peace from slave-driving and harassing at his work such as the largest unions are apparently unable to guarantee under present methods.
Mark, when I say “prepared to spend their last copper if necessary,” I am not employing merely a rhetorical flourish, I am using the words literally. As we believe that in the socialist society of the future the entire resources of the nation must stand behind every individual, guaranteeing him against want, so today our unions must be prepared to fight with all their resources to safeguard the rights of every individual member.
The adoption of such a principle, followed by a few years of fighting on such lines to convince the world of our earnestness, would not only transform the industrial arena, but would revolutionise politics. Each side would necessarily seek to grasp the power of the state to reinforce its position, and politics would thus become what they ought to be, a reflex of the industrial battle, and lose the power to masquerade as a neutral power detached from economic passions or motives.
At present I regret to say labour politicians seem to be losing all reality as effective aids to our struggles on the industrial battlefield, are becoming more and more absorbed in questions of administration, or taxation, and only occasionally, as in the miners’ national strike, really rise to a realisation of their true role of parliamentary outposts of the industrial army.
The parliamentary tail in Britain still persist in wagging the British industrial dog. Once the dog really begins to assert his true position, we will be troubled no more by carping critics of labour politics, nor yet with labour politicians’ confessions of their own impotence in such great crises as that of the railway strike or the Johannesburg massacres.
Nor yet would we see that awful spectacle we have seen lately of labour politicians writing to the capitalist press to denounce the methods of a union which, with 20,000 men and women locked out in one city, is facing an attempt of 400 employers to starve its members back into slavery.
And thou, Brutus, that you should play the enemy’s game at such a crisis! Every drop of ink you spilled in such an act stopped a loaf of bread on its way to some starving family.
From Forward, 4 October 1913
What is the truth about the Dublin dispute? What was the origin of the Dublin dispute? These are at present the most discussed questions in the labour world of these islands, and I have been invited by the editor of the Daily Herald to try and shed a little light upon them for the benefit of its readers. I will try and be brief and to the point, whilst striving to be also clear.
In the year 1911 the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, as a last desperate expedient to avoid extinction, resolved upon calling a general strike in all the home ports. At that time the said Union as the lawyers would say, was, more or less, an Ishmael among trade unions. It was not registered, in most places it was not even affiliated to the local Trades Union Councils, and its national officials had always been hostile to the advanced labour movement. They believed, seemingly, in playing a lone hand.
Perhaps the general discredit into which it had been brought by the curiously inconsistent action of its leaders in closely identifying themselves with one of the orthodox political parties, and at the same time calling for the aid in industrial conflicts of the labour men whom they fought and slandered in political contests, had something to do with the general weakness and impending bankruptcy of the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, at the time it issued its call in 1911.
At all events the call was in danger of falling upon deaf ears, and was, in fact, but little heeded until the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union began to take a hand in the game. As ships came into the Port of Dublin, after the issue of the call, each ship was held up by the dockers under the orders of James Larkin until its crew joined the union, and signed on under union conditions and rates of pay.
Naturally, this did not please the shipowners and merchants of Dublin. But the delegates of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union up and down the docks preached most energetically the doctrine of the sympathetic strike, and the doctrine was readily assimilated by the dockers and carters. It brought the union into a long and bitter struggle along the quays, a struggle which cost it thousands of pounds, imperilled its very existence, and earned for it the bitterest hatred of every employer and sweater in the city, every one of whom swore they would wait their chance to “get even with Larkin and his crew.”
The sympathetic strike having worked so well for the seamen and firemen, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union began to apply it ruthlessly in every labour dispute. A record of the victories it has won for other trade unions would surprise a good many of its critics. A few cases will indicate what, in the hands of Larkin and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, it has won for some of the skilled trades.
When the coachmakers went on strike the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union took over all the labourers, paid them strike pay, and kept them out until the coachmakers won. The latter body are now repaying us by doing scab work while we are out.
The mill-sawyers existed for 20 years in Dublin without recognition. The sympathetic strike by our union won them recognition and an increase of pay.
The stationary engine drivers, the cabinetmakers, the sheet metal workers, the carpenters, and, following them all the building trades got an increase through our control of the carting industry. As did also the girls and men employed in Jacob’s biscuit factory.
In addition to this work for others, we won for our own members the following increases within the last two years: cross channel dockers got, since the strike in the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, an increase of wages of 3s. per week. In the case of the British and Irish Company the increase, levelling it up with the other firms, meant a rise of 6s. per week. For men working for the Merchants’ Warehousing Company 3s. per week, general carriers 2s. to 3s., coal fillers halfpenny per ton, grain bushellers 1d. per ton, men and boys in the bottle-blowing works from 2s. to 10s. per week of an increase, mineral water operatives 4s. to 6s. per week, and a long list of warehouses in which girls were exploited were compelled to give some slight modification of the inhuman conditions under which their employees were labouring.
As Mr Havelock Wilson, General Secretary, National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, has mentioned the strike on the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company as an instance of our erratic methods, it may be worth while to note that as a result of that strike some of his sailors got an increase of 5s. 6d. per week.
In addition to the cases enumerated I might also mention that the labourers on the Dublin and South-Eastern Railway got increases of 6s. per week, and those in the Kingstown Gas Works got increases varying from 3s. to 10s. per week per man.
All of these increases were the result of the sympathetic strike policy, first popularised by its success in winning the battle for the Seamen and Firemen — who are now asked to repudiate it.
These things well understood explain the next act in the unfolding of the drama. Desiring to make secure what had been gained, Mr. Larkin formulated a scheme for a Conciliation Board.
This was adopted by the Trades Council, at least in essence, and eventually came before the Employers’ Executive, or whatever the governing committee of that body is named. After a hot discussion it was put to the vote. Eighteen employers voted to accept a Conciliation Board, three voted against.
Of that three, William Martin Murphy was one. On finding himself in the minority he rose and vowed that in spite of them he would “smash the Conciliation Board.”
Within three days he kept his word by discharging two hundred of his tramway traffic employees for being members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and thus forced on the strike of the tramway men. Immediately he appealed to all the Dublin employers who had been forced into a semblance of decency by Larkin and his colleagues, called to their memory the increases of wages they were compelled to pay, and lured them on to a desperate effort to combine and destroy the one labour force they feared.
The employers, mad with hatred of the power that had wrested from them the improved conditions, a few of which I have named, rallied round Murphy, and from being one in a minority of three he became the leader and organising spirit of a band of four hundred.
I have always told our friends in Great Britain that our fight in Ireland was neither inspired nor swayed by theories nor theorists. It grew and was hammered out of the hard necessities of our situation.
Here, in this brief synopsis, you can trace its growth for yourselves. First a fierce desire to save our brothers of the sea, a desire leading to us risking our own existence in their cause. Developing from that an extension of the principle of sympathetic action until we took the fierce beast of capital by the throat all over Dublin, and loosened its hold on the vitals of thousands of our class.
Then a rally of the forces of capital to recover their hold, and eventually a titanic struggle, in which the forces of labour in Britain openly, and the forces of capital secretly, became participants.
That is where we stand to-day. The struggle forming our theories and shaping the policy, not only for us, but for our class. To those who criticise us we can only reply: we fight as conditions dictate; we meet new conditions with new policies. Those who choose may keep old policies to meet new conditions. We cannot and will not try.
First published in the Daily Herald, December 6, 1913
Transcribed for the Internet by the Workers’ Web ASCII Pamphlet project, September 1997
Between 1911 and 1913: By use of sympathy strikes, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), led by Jim Larkin and James Connolly, wins improved conditions and organisation for Dublin workers.
From 15 August 1913: William Martin Murphy sacks more than 200 workers from the Dublin trams, which he owns, for being ITGWU members.
26 August: The ITGWU responds by a strike on the trams and other sympathy action, for example a boycott of the distribution of the Irish Independent newspaper, also owned by Murphy.
30 August: Police issue a warrant for Larkin’s arrest on charges of “seditious language”.
31 August: Police baton-charge a workers’ rally in Dublin city centre banned by the government, injuring more than 400. Larkin appears at a city-centre balcony to speak to the workers, and is then arrested.
3 September: William Martin Murphy organises a meeting of 400 employers who pledge to lock out all workers who continue to be members of the ITGWU. Thousands of workers attend the funeral of James Nolan, a worker killed by police batons in protests on 30 August.
Early September: British TUC meets, hears pleas for solidarity from Dublin, but responds only by organising food aid for the locked-out workers.
26 September: British government appoints George Askwith to head an inquiry into the dispute.
27 September: A ship arrives in Dublin, bringing 40 tons of food that was raised by British trade unionists to feed the locked-out workers and their families.
6 October: Askwith’s inquiry reports, recommending a Conciliation Committee be set up to resolve the dispute without lock-outs or strikes. Bosses reject the report.
17 October: Dora Montefiore and other British socialists and trade unionists arrive in Dublin with plans to help the workers by having their children looked after by British trade unionists’ families during the lock-out. The Catholic Church and the bosses raise a hue and cry against this as a threat to the faith and morals of “Catholic children”.
From 13 November: Larkin, released from jail, tours Britain calling for workers’ solidarity.
November: The union launches the Irish Citizen Army, a workers’ militia, to counter further police violence like that on 31 August.
18 January 1914: ITGWU concedes defeat and advises workers to seek reinstatement. Murphy claims that he has “smashed Larkinism”, but in fact the ITGWU survives and grows in the following years.