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Irish workers general strike in Dublin, 1913
The Dublin strike of 1913 occurred against a backdrop of deplorable living conditions for workers in the city, as well as widespread economic stagnation. The death rate was high at 27.6 per 1000, and there was a high infant mortality rate as well. Unemployment was at an all-time low, and unskilled, casual workers had a particularly hard time finding jobs and supporting their families. Poor union organization gave unskilled workers very few outlets for improving their situation. An added layer of division to that between rich and poor was the sectarian divide. A large Protestant community dominated the higher levels of society, and Catholic businessmen were looking to challenge their position of dominance, and harness more of the capital power potential.
James Larkin entered the picture as a union organizer for the National Union of Dock Laborers (NUDL), mobilizing the waterfront workers in 1907, and later on in other ports around Ireland. But internal disagreements led to Larkin’s dismissal from the union, and in 1909 Larkin went on to form the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). Based in Dublin as a union for unskilled and casual workers, its demands included improved working conditions and wages, the right to unionize, as well as an 8-hour working day, the provision of work for the unemployed, pensions for workers when they reached 60 years of age, and compulsory arbitration courts. The ITGWU had a wider framework for goals as well, focusing on adult suffrage, the nationalization of Ireland’s transport system, and the idea of the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland. These broader goals rose in response to the long-standing British presence in Ireland, and the impending political development of Home Rule (i.e. self-governance) of Ireland. Within this context, the 1913 strike was an important factor in negotiating the relationship between Irish workers’ situation, their state government and what it could provide for them, and British rule and influence within the country.
Larkin was an extremely talented and articulate orator and was quick to draw followers. Within its first years, the ITGWU membership swelled in numbers. Larkin’s public speeches and published documents ranged from discussions of the situation of the Irish worker and poverty, to capitalism and socialism. Under Larkin, the IGTWU spearheaded several successful strikes in the years before the 1913 campaign, including strikes of carters, dockers and waterfront workers, railwaymen, and tram workers. But his success in gaining the loyalty of much of Dublin’s working population also pitted him against the Dublin employers. In particular, prominent businessman William Martin Murphy saw him as a threat. Murphy, along with the group he founded, the Employers’ Federation, used the 1913 general strike to try and break the IGTWU by responding to it with a lockout of workers.
The strike began on August 26, 1913, on the day of the Dublin horse fair. Larkin chose this day to call for the strike because he wanted to maximize its impact. Tramworkers (who were consequently employees of Murphy’s Tramways Company) initiated the striking actions, bringing Dublin’s transport systems to a standstill. In efforts to stymie the union protest before it got underway, Larkin and several other strike leaders were arrested on charges of seditious intent and disrupting the public peace, but were released shortly thereafter. Larkin immediately organized a public meeting, and in front of a 10,000 workers, burned the official proclamation that prohibited the gathering. Larkin continued to organize public speeches and meetings in response to the city officials’ efforts to stop or arrest him. Marches, sometimes escalating into riots, also occurred around the city and James Nolan was the first of three casualties of the violence that ensued as a result of rioting. His funeral on September 2nd drew a crowd of thousands as fellow workers demonstrated their support, and a police issued an inquiry into the nature of his death.
William Murphy and many Dublin employers under his organization responded to the strike by implementing a lockout – they refused to employ any workers who were members of the union or involved in the striking activities. Murphy and the employers hoped to use the impasse to break the striking activity and undermine support for Larkin and the ITGWU. But the result was a stalemate: the employers refusing to make concessions to the workers, and the workers refusing to concede to their employers until their demands were met.
On September 3, Murphy and some 400 employers, now under the organizational heading of the Employers’ Federation, drew up a contract that they presented to their striking employees. It was an ultimatum stating that any worker who refused to sign an agreement giving up all affiliation with the IGTWU and its agenda would lose their employment. The workers responded with protests expressing their rejection of the move. However, the employers proceeded with the contract and many workers who refused to cooperate ended up losing their jobs permanently.
Not every union supported the ITGWU strike efforts. Several organizations like the Dublin Coal Merchants’ Association, the Dublin Building Trades Employers’ Federation, the Dublin Carriers’ Association and several Dublin farmers publicly opposed the strike and dismissed members who chose to participate. Workers employed the tactic of ‘blacking’ goods, by which they refused to handle products and materials from or used by employers who supported Murphy’s lockout. In conjunction with English members of Britain’s Trade Unions Council, Irish workers and employers participated in several conferences throughout the course of the strike, in efforts to come to some agreement that would end the stalemate. These discussions largely failed, however.
As a result of the strike, many unemployed families could not provide adequately for their children. Larkin and the other union leaders devised the “Kiddies Scheme” to send children of strikers to sympathetic homes in England for the duration of the strike. Larkin was enthusiastic about the plan. However, the Catholic Church (which, while formerly silent about its position on the strike was a general supporter of the Irish bourgeoisie) spoke out in fervent opposition to the move, calling it “un-Catholic.” Officials, like the Chief Secretary, also denied the need for sending children away in the first place, claiming it was unnecessary and that conditions in Dublin were not so bad as to warrant such a drastic occurrence. Eventually the plan was dropped. The British trade unions did try to support the strikers and their suffering families by sending food ships, the first of which contained enough food boxes to feed 60,000 families. They also set up food kitchens around Dublin, though both measures were far from enough to adequately provide for the strikers for the entire length of the strike and lockout.
Larkin was repeatedly arrested over the course of the strike, under various charges. In his absence, another prominent union leader, James Connolly, took over organization of the strike. On October 28, Larkin was arrested again, this time not released until November 13. He proceeded to go on a tour of England to try to raise support for the Irish workers among British sympathizers. Larkin was a proponent of the sympathy strike tactic, and hoped to expand the nature of the campaign so as to further its impact. While there were certainly sympathizers in Britain, the sympathy strike had very little success. With little expression of outside support and unable to sustain themselves on meager wages and food rations, many strikers had lost hope by the end of 1913 and early January 1914. From their considerably more comfortable position, the Dublin employers could better afford to sit out the strike. On January 18, 1914, the ITGWU leaders met and decided to end the strike. They encouraged workers to return to work, but not to sign Murphy’s document prohibiting involvement with the union. This proved difficult, however, as Murphy and the Employers’ Federation were eager to see a final end to the union. In February, 3,000 members of the Builders Laborer Union signed the agreement and returned to work. Other workers and trade unions followed suit and the strike ended in phases, with the employers proclaiming victory.
All in all, over 20,000 workers are estimated to have participated in the six month long strike. Many of them lost their jobs permanently as a result of their efforts, and the majority of workers suffered severely because of the lack of wages, food, and already bad living conditions. While the employers ultimately did manage to break the strike, there are several notable legacies of the ITGWU and workers’ efforts. First, the sheer power asymmetry demonstrated by the employers’ lockout of the striking workers revealed the need to restructure the worker-employer relationship in Dublin. While the workers were exhausted and defeated, they had also reached a point of no return in their relationship with the middle class who employed them. The proceeding period would represent a time for renegotiating that relationship. Second, the horrible living conditions of Dublin’s workers was revealed to an extent that it could no longer be denied by city and state government officials. Third, the brutality of police against the protesters had irrevocably redefined the power structure, and the amount of power allocated to police. The amount of violence that occurred was considered unacceptable, and this set a new precedent for citizen-police interaction.