James Connolly on the yellow unions in Ireland

Submitted by AWL on 16 November, 2021 - 8:13 Author: James Connolly
Irish labour leader, 1914

James Connolly, Jim Larkin and the rest of the executive of the Irish TUC and Labour Party, 1914


Slightly more than half the original text is missing from the version of this article in circulation, in the Cork Workers’ Club pamphlet Ireland Upon the Dissecting Table and on the web — the first part, detailing an attempt to set up a “yellow” union in Catholic Ireland. It contains a valuable portrayal of the use by a Home Rule politician of pseudo-nationalist cant.

Sean Matgamna


Our readers who have read in the Socialist press of the doings of the “Yellow Unions” of the Continent know that the said unions are organisations of workers under the control of the Catholic Church, as distinct from the ordinary non-sectarian unions which the experience of the workers everywhere have proven to be the only safe and effective form of industrial combinations. If they are conversant also with the industrial history of these yellow unions, our readers will also know that they for the most part have acted the part of blacklegs or strike-breakers in every great conflict, and that under the cover of protecting religion, they have ever been the first to betray the cause of Labour.

Ancient Order of Hibernians

There have been several attempts in Ireland to introduce this evil spirit of religious discussion into the Labour movement, all happily unsuccessful. On two occasions the Ancient Order of Hibernians was the moving force in the dirty work. An attempt was made to establish a railway servants’ union under the aegis of the A.O.H., but although supported eagerly by the Home Rule press, and endorsed by several Members of Parliament, the effort was a complete failure. At the beginning of the tram strike last year, the Hibernians were again at their fell work organising a Tram Men’s Union with one of their head office clerks as General Secretary, but apart from helping to disorganise the strike in its inception and so prevent the necessary complete tie-up, it also failed, or at least has since sank into its well-deserved oblivion.

Priests

Now another attempt is being made, this time not directly by the Hibernians, but directly under the control of the priests. We reprint from the Dublin Evening Telegraph, passages in a report of the meeting held in Kingstown to establish this Yellow Union under the title of the “Kingstown and South County Dublin General Workers’ Union”:—

Rev. Father Flavin, C.C., Kingstown, presided at a most enthusiastic meeting of labourers held in the St. Mary’s Hall, Kingstown, in connection with the establishing of the Kingstown and South County Dublin General Workers’ Union, Bands from Cabinteely, Newtown Park, and Kingstown attended, and many men were unable to gain admission. Amongst those on the platform were: — Rev. Father Lockhart, C.C. [Catholic Curate], Rev. Father Healy, C.C., Rev. Father Sladen, C.C., Rev. Father Hogan, C.C., Rev, Father Sheehan, C.C., Messrs. J. J. Kennedy, Chairman, Kingstown Council, J. Walter, U.D.C., James Smyth, C. J. Reddy, solicitor, etc.

Letters of apology were received from Mr. Field, M.P., Mr. M. F. O’Brien, U.D.C., Rev. Father Ryan, C.C., Westland Row, and Mr. M. J. M’Allister, Co. C.

The Rev. Chairman said that there were one or two things that he wished to say at the beginning, before he dealt with the Union proper. As they were aware, a provisional committee had been formed to take charge of the destiny of this Union until January, when a general meeting would be held, and each one would have an opportunity of voting for the committee, who would continue the work which they had begun that evening. In making this provisional committee and committee of management, he guaranteed that in the name of the priests of the locality that he would be responsible for the initial expenses. Very honourably at first, the men declined the offer, but on the second occasion he persuaded them to allow him to be responsible in the name of the priests for the initial expenses, and so he was in the position to command £10 — (applause). Of that amount he got £2 from Canon Murphy, Kingstown; £2, Canon Murray, Glasthule; £1 each, Father Hogan, Father Sladen, Father Ryan, Westland Row; Father Lockhart, Glasthule; Father M’Geogh, Father Healy, Dalkey; and Father Dwyer, Dalkey.

The Union shall be governed by an hon. president, a chairman, treasurer, secretary and a committee of management. It shall have at least four trustees. The entrance fee for the first six months shall be 6d., and their contribution would be 4½d. per week (½d. being to the burial fund), and 2d. per quarter to the contingent fund. The conditions of entrance, after the first six months, shall be: First, that you be men of good conduct, character, and health. Second, you must not belong to any other Trades Union without the sanction of the Committee of Management. They were not going to have backsliders in that Union. Every man must be a man, because if they allowed backsliding, it simply meant that men who were in as good a position as they were put their hands down into their pockets. They were not going to allow that. Members in arrears shall be suspended from benefits as follows: — 8 weeks in arrears, suspended from sick and accident benefit for 2 weeks; 13 weeks in arrears, excluded from all benefit. The sick benefits would be 7/ per week for the first week, and every additional week up to twelve, 4/. On the death of a member the sum of £8 would be paid, and on the death of the wife £3 would be paid; if a child under three years, £1 10/, and over three but under twelve years, £2 10/.

Strikes and Lockouts

Strikes and lock-outs: — A strike may be declared only when all other means of redress had failed, and when, by a ballot of a specially convened meeting of all the members, and two-thirds of those present declare for it. The society shall always be willing to submit their case to arbitration, and shall abide by the award. The union is an exclusively Irish organisation. It may open branches in any part of Ireland, but not outside of it, and it shall not be associated with, nor affiliated to, an union of an irreligious or Socialistic character”. (Applause.) He was glad they had applauded that, as he was sure they had been taught a wise lesson in recent times.

Mr. James J. Kennedy, Chairman of the Kingstown Urban Council, proposed — “That the Kingstown and South County Dublin General Labourers’ Union deserves the sympathy and support of all honest Irishmen, and that this meeting pledges itself to carry it triumphantly to success”. The band outside, he said, had played “A Nation Once Again”, and by the grace of God and the votes of the Irish Parliamentary Party, their nation was a nation once again — (applause) — but to preserve it and make it a lasting and creditable nation that would be respected, every man was required to do his duty. How could they make their nation successful and prosperous, or make their own homes comfortable and happy? By joining together as brothers, and by being honest Irishmen. (Applause.) This was going to be an organisation of their own. Did they not think that Irishmen were well able to mind their own business and carry an organisation of their own to success? Where was the use of sending their money across the Channel to be distributed for them? Didn’t they know, looking back over the century that had passed, that their truest friends and best advisers were their priests? (Applause.) Their fathers in dark days, they stood behind the people. Were they going to be wise — were they going to pin their fate to somebody they knew nothing about, and send their money away, while their priests were by their side, and wanted them to do the right thing for Faith and: Fatherland. (Applause.) They knew their chairman. He had nothing to gain, and he was going to give them the best advice that he possibly could give to the undertaking. He had done so in the past. It lay with the workers of Kingstown, fathers of families and young men, who wanted to be respected and hold their heads high, to render the organisation a success, and make their country what it should be, a nation. (Applause) It rested with them, and the best advice he could give them, as chairman of the district in which they lived, was “Follow the lead of their priests.” (Applause.)

Religious bigotry

How well the enemies of the advanced Labour movement know how to utilise the spirit of religious bigotry against the hopes of those who wish to unite Labour is well exemplified in the foregoing report. Never did the priests of Kingstown attempt to organise the labourers of Kingstown in all the weary years of the past when the Capitalist class ground them to the dust, when the landlord robbed them, and every agency in the country conspired to make the labourers’ life a hell. It was only when the Irish Transport Workers’ Union had taught them the value of organisation, had raised them from the dust of self-abasement; taught them to rely upon their own efforts, and had put heart and hope into their lives that the clergy came along to endeavour to disrupt and destroy, the organisation which found the labourers of Ireland slaves, and made them men and women fit for great deeds.

How little difference there is at bottom between such priests and the Ulster Orangemen in their hatred of Labour may be judged from the following report of part of the proceedings of the Irish Trades Congress. I extract this from the chief Orange organ in this City — the Belfast Evening Telegraph -

Before the Irish Trades’ Congress concluded, Mr. James Connolly called attention to a circular which, he said, had been issued to their employees by the firm of Messrs. Davidson & Co. Ltd., Belfast, who were Government contractors. It was much on the same lines as that which had been issued to their employees by the employers of Dublin, and which had caused so much trouble in the city last year.

The employees were asked by Messrs. Davidson to sign a declaration that they were not members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, or any similar unskilled Union, and that they should not become members of any such Union while in their employment.

That Congress Mr. Connolly contended, could not adjourn without taking action upon this matter. In the firm of Davidson & Co. they had contractors carrying out Government contracts; the circular was in direct contravention of the spirit under which Government contracts were given out.

This circular had been issued by a man who had been displaying great zeal in recent times for civil and religious liberty. For the last few days they had been discussing the question of Home Rule there, and when it was being considered it was well to remember that in the yards of this firm of Messrs. Davidson & Co., drilling for the defence of civil and religious liberty was going on every night; but here they had in this circular the conception of this firm of civil and religious liberty, and could better proof be afforded to them of the littleness of their action?

He moved — That this Congress condemns the attempt of Belfast employers to introduce a ban upon the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and all other Unions of unskilled labourers, calls upon trade unionists everywhere to take action against all employers taking such action against their fellow members, and demands that all firms taking this course against trade unions should at once, be struck off the list of contractors for public bodies.

Mr. Johnson (Belfast) said this circular was no new thing with this firm, and on that ground it was sought to be excused. He held in his hand a copy of a similar form dated 29th April, 1906. Perhaps Mr. Davidson was the most virulent and unrelenting antagonist of Home Rule in Belfast. Deputations of trades unionists coming from England and Scotland were got hold of and brought to his works, and there introduced to his anti-Home Rule workers, and he sent abroad to trades unionists and others the statement of the industrial case against Home Rule in Ireland. That was the man who had issued that circular to his workers in Belfast in 1906, and repeated it in 1913 and 1914.

The motion was put and carried unanimously.

A reporter from the Telegraph called upon Mr. S.C. Davidson, of the Sirocco Works, in reference to the statements by Mr. Connolly and Mr. Johnson, published above.

Resolution

Mr. Davidson said he thought Mr. Connolly could not have had before him a copy of the resolution passed by the House of Commons, on 10th March, 1909, which applied to contractors for the Government. If he had he would have seen that this resolution was applicable, not to the class of labour that Government contractors employ, but only to the rates of wages which workers engaged upon Government work shall receive.

The question, he said, was raised by one of the Labour Members of Parliament some years ago when a representative of the Government was sent over to Belfast and fully investigated the matter at the Sirocco Works. The result of this report was that the Government were entirely satisfied that everything was perfectly in order and in accord with their requirements.

Mr. Davidson informed our representative that the firm has always, and at present, employs a very large number of trade unionists in different departments of the works, but while strictly recognising all real trade unionist societies and rules, the firm do not recognise a society which would foist on to them, as trade unionists, men who have acquired no knowledge of any trade whatever.

Here is an exact copy of the declaration above alluded to as being enforced upon the labourers employed by this firm:

Declaration: — “I, the undersigned, hereby state that I am not a member of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, or any similar Unskilled Labourers’ Society or Union; and that so long as I am employed by the firm of Davidson & Co. Ltd., I will not join or become a member of any such Unskilled Labourers’ Society or Union.”.

Date ........

Signed ........

Here you see the Catholic priest and the Orange employer meeting upon common ground, brothers in the hatred of our Union. And to complete the picture, I need only mention that the recent annual national conference of the National Transport Workers’ Federation at Hull, when I sought permission to appear before the delegates and explain that their affiliated Unions — the Seamen and Firemen’s Unions, and the Ardrossan branch of the Scottish Union of Dock Labourers — were still working the boats of the Head Line which is victimising our members in Belfast and Dublin, I was refused permission to state our case, or to appear before the delegates at all.

What a mix-up of a world!

Forward, 20 June 1914. Subheads here are Solidarity’s. The previous reprint had only the last part of this article, from “How little difference there is at bottom between such priests...”

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