Lessons from history: Larkin's labour war 1913-14

Submitted by AWL on 29 November, 2002 - 6:17

When the TUC betrayed Dublin workers

In last week's issue of Solidarity, we printed articles by the Irish socialist James Connolly about the struggle of workers in Dublin to unionise and fight for better pay in the years before the First World War. Led by Jim Larkin, they built the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, using the solidarity strike as their weapon.

No group of workers was left to fight in isolation. The full strength of the organised working class backed every single section. Wages were pushed up, conditions improved; working-class self-respect and assertiveness rose so high that the whole ruling class decided on all-out war against "Larkinism".

The bosses locked out the workers, relying on the weapon of starvation to break the ITGWU and gangs of police thugs to break working-class heads. The workers, T&G members and members of other unions alike, stood by "Larkin". The war dragged on for months.

Where Dublin asked for industrial action in solidarity, the British labour movement sent money and goods. As this article by James Connolly, says the rank and file were ready to give more than who financial help. The rail workers in the North West took action but were sold out by the leaders of their union, the NUR (now RMT). Rank and file militants in Britain called for a general strike to back Dublin. In December 1913 - after ITGWU members were arrested and jailed - an appeal was made for solidarity strike action. A special TUC conference rejected that call. Dublin was isolated:

'There are times in history when we realise that it is easier to convert a multitude than it ordinarily is to convert an individual; when indeed ideas seem to seize upon the masses as contra-distinguished by ordinary times when individuals slowly seize ideas. The propagandist toils on for decades in seeming failure and ignominy, when suddenly some great event takes place in accord with the principles he has been advocating, and immediately he finds that the seed he has been sowing is springing up in plants that are covering the earth. To the idea of working-class unity, to the seed of industrial solidarity, Dublin was the great event that enabled it to seize the minds of the masses, the germinating force that gave power to the seed to fructify and cover these islands.

I say in all solemnity and seriousness that in its attitude towards Dublin the working class movement of Great Britain reached its highest point of moral grandeur - attained for a moment to a realisation of that sublime unity towards which the best in us must continually aspire.

Could that feeling but have been crystallised into organic expression, could we but have had real statesmen amongst us who, recognising the wonderful leap forward of our class, would have hastened to burn behind us the boats that might make easy a retreat to the old ground of isolation and division, could we have found labour leaders capable enough to declare that now that the working class had found its collective soul it should hasten to express itself as befitted that soul and not be fettered by the rules, regulations and codes of organisations conceived in the olden outworn spirit of sectional jealousies; could these things have but been vouchsafed to us, what a new world could now be opening delightfully upon the vision of labour?

Consider what Dublin meant to you all! It meant that the whole force of organised labour should stand behind each unit of organisation in each and all of its battles, that no company, battalion or brigade should henceforth be allowed to face the enemy alone, and that the capitalist would be taught that when he fought a union anywhere he must be prepared to fight all unions everywhere.

For the first days and weeks of the struggle, the working classes of Great Britain attained to the height of moral grandeur expressed in that idea, all labour stood behind Dublin, and Dublin rejoiced. Dublin suffered and agonised, but rejoiced that even in its suffering it was the medium for the apostolate of a rejuvenating idea. How often have I heard the responsive cheers to the question whether they would be prepared to stand by others as these others had stood by them!

And now? Dublin is isolated. We asked our friends of the transport trade unions to isolate the capitalist class of Dublin, and we asked the other unions to back them up. But no, they said we would rather help you by giving you funds.

We argued that a strike is an attempt to stop the capitalist from carrying on his business, that the success or failure of the strike depends entirely upon the success or non-success of the capitalist to do without the strikers. If the capitalist is able to carry on his business without the strikers, then the strike is lost, even if the strikers receive more in strike pay than they formerly did in wages.

We said that if scabs are working a ship and union men discharge in another port the boat so loaded, then those union men are strike breakers, since they help the capitalist in question to carry on his business. That if union seamen man a boat discharged by scabs, these union seamen or firemen are by the same reason strike-breakers, as also are the railwaymen or carters who assist in transporting the goods handled by the scabs for the capitalist who is fighting his men or women. In other words, we appealed to the collective soul of the workers against the collective hatred of the capitalist.

We asked for no more than the logical development of that idea of working class unity, that the working class of Britain should help us to prevent the Dublin capitalists carrying on their business without us. We asked for the isolation of the capitalists of Dublin, and for answer the leaders of the British labour movement proceeded calmly to isolate the working class of Dublin. As an answer to those who supported our request for the isolation of Dublin we were told that a much better plan would be to increase the subsidies to enable us to increase strike pay. As soon as this argument had served its purpose, the subsidies fell off, and the "Dublin Fund" grew smaller and smaller as if by a prearranged plan.

We had rejected the last terms offered by the employers on the strength of this talk of increased supplies, and as soon as that last attempt at settlement thus fell through, the supplies gradually froze up instead of being increased as we had been promised.

In addition to this the National Union of Railwaymen, while in attendance at the Special Conference in London on 9 December, had actually in their pockets the arrangements for the re-starting of work on the London and North-Western boat at the North Wall of Dublin, and in the train returning to Dublin the day after the Conference, we read of the line being reopened. No vote was taken of the men on strike; they were simply ordered back to work by their officials and told that if they did not return, their strike pay would be stopped. The Seamen's and Firemen's Union men in Dublin were next ordered to man the boats of the Head Line of steamers, then being discharged by free labourers supplied by the Shipping Federation.

In both Dublin and Belfast the members refused, and they were then informed that union men would be brought from Great Britain to take their places. Union men to be brought from Britain to take the place of members of the same union who refused to desert their brothers of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union. We were attempting to hold up Guinness's porter. A consignment was sent to Sligo for shipment there. The local Irish Transport and General Workers' Union official wired me for instructions.

I wired to hold it up; his men obeyed, and it was removed from Sligo, railed to Derry, and there put on board by members of Mr. James Sexton's National Union of Dockers on ships manned by members of Mr. Havelock Wilson's National Union of Seamen and discharged in Liverpool by members of Mr. James Sexton's Union. Whilst the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company was still insisting upon carrying the goods of our worst enemy, Jacob's, the members of the Seamen and Firemen's Union were ordered to sign on in their boats, although our men were still on strike.

We were informed by Mr Joe Houghton of the Scottish Dockers that his union would not hold up any boat for us unless joint action was taken by the National Transport Workers' Federation. As on a previous occasion, his members at Ayr had worked coal boats belonging to a Belfast firm that was making war upon the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, we do not blame Joe very much. He had been disobeyed at Ayr - perhaps he was coerced in Glasgow.

But why go on? Sufficient to say that the working-class unity of the first days of the Dublin fight was sacrificed in the interests of sectional officialism. The officials failed to grasp the opportunity offered to them to make a permanent reality of the union of working class forces brought into being by the spectacle of rebellion, martyrdom and misery exhibited by the workers of Dublin. All England and Scotland rose to it; working-class officialdom and working-class rank and file alike responded to the call of inspiration; it would have raised us all upward and onward towards our common emancipation.
But sectionalism, intrigues and old time jealousies damned us in the hour of victory, and officialdom was the first to fall to the tempter.

And so we Irish workers must go down into Hell, bow our backs to the lash of the slave driver, let our hearts be seared by the iron of his hatred, and instead of the sacramental wafer of brotherhood and common sacrifice, eat the dust of defeat and betrayal.'

Jim Larkin was a Liverpool Irishman, a foreman on the docks there until he sided with his men on strike and was sacked. He became an organiser for the National Dock Labourers Union (which grew into today's GMB) in Belfast. There, in 1902, he succeeded for a while in uniting Catholic and Protestant workers in a carriers trade union struggle. There was a spectacular strike, during which even the Belfast police walked out!

Union leader James Sexton, who become a Labour MP, sold out the Belfast workers. Strike pay was stopped and a demoralising deal made over Larkin's head. Larkin broke away from Sexton's union and started the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Last week in Solidarity we published James Connolly's descriptions of what the ITGWU did.

In 1914, Larkin went to the USA where eventually he was jailed in the anti-red witch hunt, returning to Ireland in 1923 and joining the Communist International. He fought the bureaucracy of the Irish labour movement. In the Stalinist ultra-left period he drifted away from the "Communist" movement but never repudiated the communism of the Russian Revolution. When he died in 1947 many tens of thousands of Dublin workers came to his funeral.

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