The Red Hand Badge: Commemorating the Lock-Out

The SIPTU logo of a stylized hand echoes the red hand badge – which was adopted as a symbol of the former ITGWU and subsequently by the Workers’ Union of Ireland. The badge has its origins in the 1913 Lock-Out as labour historian, Francis Devine, explains.

Trade union badges first became commonplace with the rise of the ‘New Unionism’ of the 1890s among the previously unorganised dockers, carters and general workers in Britain and Ireland. Faced with the problem of gaining preferential treatment for the union members at the dock gate, the National Union of Dock Labourers overcame the difficulties of administering contributions receipts by using the union badge to show that a member was ‘in benefit.’ The NUDL issued a badge to each member for a fixed period and then withdrew it in exchange for a different badge but only to those who cleared their contribution cards.   

The most famous ITGWU badge was the red hand with the letters ITWU and the date of 1913. This was the emblem of resistance in the Lock-Out and was adopted as a cap badge by the Irish Citizen Army in later years. Like all badges, membership cards and letterheads until 1919, the Union was simply referred to as the ITWU, although registered with the Registrar of Friendly Societies as ITGWU.   

At the time of the Lock-Out, the four provincial emblems were being used in rotation: the red hand of Ulster in 1913; the three crowns of Munster in 1915; the Connacht arms within a blue circle in 1917; and the harp of Leinster in 1918.   

In 1919 the ITGWU Executive decided to revert the badge of 1913 – the red hand of O’Neill – which was still the right way round, that is a right hand not, as subsequently in the ITGWU, a left hand.   

Following the split in the ITGWU, the Workers’ Union of Ireland also adopted the red hand badge – but maintaining the original right hand version.   

Union members have always worn the badge in defiance of the challenge to the right to organise. It was a symbol of the legend of 1913 – a hallmark of the integrity and courage of the bearer. Even the right to wear the humble badge had to be fought for and won.