In 1913 Dublin lacked a real industrial base and work was generally of a casual nature with poor union organisation and slave wages. A third of the city’s teeming population inhabited the centre city tenement slums. The overcrowding, squalor and inadequate sanitation combined with poor diet to give Dublin one of the highest infant death rates in Europe.
High levels of violence and prostitution offered further evidence of the demoralised state of many of the population. It was in many ways an unlikely seed-bed for trade unionism. The social system was typified by insecurity of employment, personal daily struggles for survival and the frequent indifference of the longer established - but conservative - craft trade unions.
The New Unionism, marked by its organisation of the unskilled and socialist zeal, had briefly flourished in Dublin in the 1890s. But the odds were heavily stacked against permanent success: many union organizations had become moribund. With James Larkin’s arrival in Ireland as Organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), the waterfront workers rose again, firstly in Belfast in 1907 and subsequently in other Irish ports.
Disagreement with the NUDL’s Liverpool Executive led to Larkin’s suspension and the launch in 1909 of a Dublin-based union for unskilled workers - the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. From the beginning the new union enunciated in its rule book a wide programme of industrial and political agitation to change society in the interests of the Irish working class. But the employers would not be silent observers.
Under the calculating leadership of William Martin Murphy, owner of the Irish Independent and controller of the Dublin Tramways Company, over 400 employers combined in the Dublin Employers’ Federation to deny the same rights of combination to the city’s underprivileged. Their aim was to remove the threat of the ITGWU and its message of discontent so marvelously articulated by Larkin's street oratory.
The crunch came on 15th August, 1913 when Murphy offered the workers in the Independent’s dispatch department the choice of Union or job. When their loyalty to the Union resulted in dismissal, prompt solidarity action saw the dispute escalate with further dismissals in Eason’s and on the trams.
The now confident employers issued the infamous ‘document’, locking out any worker that refused to sign a pledge to disown the ITGWU. By the end of September over 20,000 were locked out.
On Sunday, 31 August, the police attacked a crowd gathered to hear Larkin address them in O’Connell Street. The meeting had been banned by the authorities. Scores were injured in the baton charge and British public opinion was shocked at the scenes. As a result of injuries recived in the baton charge and subsequent violence James Nolan, James Byrne and Alice Brady paid for their loyalty to the workers’ cause with their lives.
Questions were raised in the House of Commons and the issue was debated at the British Trades Union Congress.
Support soon came on foot of the distress but Larkin’s ‘Fiery Cross’ crusade in Britain, where he preached the ‘Divine Mission of Discontent,’ generated rank-and-file rather than official reaction. Assistance was limited to food and material support rather than sympathetic industrial action.
James Connolly, now co-ordinating industrial matters, drew the port of Dublin shut as ‘tight as a drum’ and both sides settled for a long attritional war through the winter with the bosses relying on starvation and the workers on the simple message of ‘each for all and all for each.’
The TUC Dublin Food Fund and other support marshalled by the Dublin Trades Council sustained the workers and there can have been few occasions as emotive as the landing of the food ships on the quays. The workers also began to defend themselves through the formation of the Irish Citizen Army. Intellectuals and many middle-class sympathisers rallied to the workers’ side shocked at the awful conditions and horrified at the pig-headedness of the employers. The Church was less sympathetic and positively hostile to the notion of Dublin’s starved youngsters going to the ‘godless’ homes of English sympathisers for the duration. Connolly wondered why souls were of greater concern than bellies.
In the face of uneven odds the Lock-Out began to crumble in January 1914 as the Building Labourers’ Union returned – as many others were to do – without signing the offending document.
Some stuck it out until May, but in the end the employers could and did claim victory as resistance collapsed. But they lacked the strength to enforce their victory, as the ITGWU survived.
In defeat, the ITGWU had gained many adherents and, more significantly, had laid the foundations that led Connolly to conclude:
“From the effects of this drawn battle both sides are still bearing heavy scars. How deep those scars are, none will ever reveal. But the working class has lost none of its aggressiveness, none of its confidence, none of the hope in the ultimate triumph. No traitor amongst the ranks of that class has permanently gained, even materially, by his or her treachery. The flag of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union still flies proudly in the van of the Irish working class, and that working class still marches proudly and defiantly at the head of the gathering hosts who stand for a regenerated nation, resting upon a people industrially free."
1913 was, in fact, a victory drawn from the jaws of defeat. The trade union and labour movement was soon to become an essential and important part of the new southern Irish State but the battle was not won in 1913, and progress since has been uneven.
Despite tremendous growth in numerical terms in the size of the trade union movement in the 1970s, working class organisation has not been reflected in political gains.
In terms of a social audit of Ireland today as compared to 1913 can we really claim to be in credit? Certainly extreme poverty has gone but things are relative to the times. We still have acute housing problems, attacks on hard-won health, education and social services and new problems of urban decay, drug abuse, vandalism and crime in the alienation of our youth. Regrettably there is now a gathering attack on trade unionism and the essential collective value that it represents and to which the whole of Irish society owes many of its freedoms.
The new’ documents’ are the beliefs in privatisation, deregulation, public spending cuts and increasing appeals to individualism. Trade union values are being dismissed as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘belonging to the nineteenth century’ but in fact they were never more necessary if we are to win the struggle for control of our destinies and management of our own economic, social and political affairs.
We must learn from 1913’s solidarity between different trade unions, national and international. The trade union movement fought for the whole of the working class not just the organised sectors.
Larkin’s newspaper the Irish Worker through its mass readership countered the employers’ message from the bosses’ servant press. The trade unions provided social and cultural activities for its members as well as industrial and political leadership.
The Lock-Out tried to outlaw a culture counter to capitalism. It failed partly because it was so crude and ham-fisted. Today’s attack is more subtle and all the more dangerous because of it.
To honour the memory of 1913 we must begin, on an individual basis, to commit ourselves to trade union activity not just trade union membership. We must once again set out the task of regenerating a nation on "the shoulders of a people industrially free."
Members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police launch an unprovoked attack on both passers-by and Union supporters who had turned up for a public meeting in Dublin's O'Connell Street.