The Dublin Labour War of 1913

Submitted by Matthew on 6 April, 2011 - 12:53


When Margaret Thatcher's Tories outlawed "secondary" or solidarity strikes, they knew what they were doing.

The solidarity strike had defeated the ruling class again and again throughout the 1960s and 70s.

When they come out in sympathetic strike, workers act on behalf of interests not directly or narrowly their own. This is class action far more advanced than mere sectional trade-union action. Implicitly, and sometimes openly, it challenges capitalist rule in society.

That is why the Tories, the Labour leaders and most trade union officials hate the idea of the sympathetic strike. They would like to banish both the idea and the memory of it to a museum of labour history.

British workers now face a many-pronged assault by the bosses and their Tory-Lib Dem government. A drive to radically reorganise wefare benefits, to privatise the NHS, cuts that drive workers out of employment, perhaps new anti-trade union legislation. If we don't fight back, we will be steam-rollered.

The trade unions must be prepared for a full-scale fightback. An irreplaceable part in this work is the spreading of knowledge of the experience of past struggles, knowledge of what the working class has been through and has done and what, if we mobilise and fight,we can hope to do now.

For these reasons in the next three issues of Solidarity we will publish articles by James Connolly. Connolly was one of the best ever propagandists for the solidarity strike, bringing to that work personal experience of labour struggles in Britain, the USA and Ireland.

More than that, these articles were written as part of the greatest working-class struggles in western Europe in the 20th century — the Dublin Labour War of 1913-14 in which Connolly was a central leader. The struggle impressed socialists all over the world, as the article by Lenin below indicates.

Connolly's brilliant articles following the strike were weapons in that struggle, explaining, rousing and heartening the workers and putting things in the perspective of a historic class struggle.

James Connolly was the chief lieutenant of Jim Larkin, the founder of the modern Irish labour movement, leader of the workers during 1913 and General Secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. That union became the Irish expression of the great wave of working-class militancy which struck the “UK” in the years before the First World War.

Jim Larkin set up the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1908 after the leaders of a British-based union (the anscestors of today’s Unite union) for which he was an organiser sold out the strike he was leading in Belfast.

In the next few years he organised the "unskilled" workers — the coal heavers, dockers, carters, drivers — of Dublin, thereby creating a new Irish labour movement based on “general”, “unskilled” workers.

Until then unions in Ireland had mainly been small, old-fashioned, skilled craft societies. Larkin was doing in Ireland what had been done in Britain at the time of the “matchgirls” strike and the great London dock strike of 1889, out of which had come Britain's general unions — a movement known as "New Unionism".

Using the solidarity strike ruthlessly, Larkin got the bosses on the run and created a new spirit of self-respect and self-reliance in the Dublin working class. No trade, no group of workers was left to fight alone. The weight of the whole union was brought into play on their behalf where necessary. Labour in Dublin was no longer a driven rabble but a movement conscious of itself as a class.

The bosses fought back. They organised a Federation that pledged to "destroy Larkin". They put money into a common war chest which an individual employer would forfeit if he made peace. Then they gave the workers an ultimatum: leave "Larkin's union"; have nothing to do with the ITGWU; pledge yourself never to join it. The alternative? You will be sacked.

But the workers had felt their strength: everywhere they chose to be locked out, facing starvation rather than surrender.

It was open war. In the course of the labour war, three workers were beaten to death by the police and one, a young woman, Alice Brady, was shot dead in the streets by an imported scab.
Sean Matgamna

Vladimir Lenin: September 1913

In Dublin, the capital of Ireland — a city of a not highly industrial type, with a population of half a million — the class struggle, which permeates the whole life of capitalist society everywhere, has become accentuated to the point of class war.

The police have positively gone wild; drunken policemen assault peaceful workers, break into houses, torment the aged, women and children. Hundreds of workers (over 400) have been injured and two killed — such are the casualties of this war. All prominent workers’ leaders have been arrested. People are thrown into prison for making the most peaceful speeches. The city is like an armed camp.

Ireland is something of a British Poland… National oppression and Catholic reaction have turned the proletarians of this unhappy country into paupers, the peasants into toilworn, ignorant and dull slaves of the priesthood, and the bourgeoisie into a phalanx, masked by nationalist phrases, of capitalists, of despots over the workers; finally, the administration has been turned into a gang accustomed to every kind of violence.

At the present moment the Irish nationalists (i.e., the Irish bourgeoisie) are the victors. They are buying up the lands of the English landlords; they are getting national self-government (the famous Home Rule for which such a long and stubborn struggle has been going on between Ireland and England); they will freely govern “their own” country jointly with “their own” Irish priests.

Well, this Irish nationalist bourgeoisie is celebrating its “national” victory, its maturity in “affairs of state” by declaring a war to the death on the Irish labour movement.

The unions have begun to develop magnificently. The Irish proletariat, awakening to class-consciousness, is pressing the Irish bourgeois scoundrels engaged in celebrating their “national” victory. It has found a talented leader in the person of Comrade Larkin, Secretary of the Irish Transport Workers’ Union. Larkin is a remarkable speaker, a man of seething Irish energy, who has performed miracles among the unskilled workers — that mass of the British proletariat which in Britain is so often cut off from the advanced workers by the cursed petty-bourgeois, liberal, aristocratic spirit of the British skilled worker.

A new spirit bas been aroused in the Irish workers’ unions. The unskilled workers have brought unparalleled animation into the trade unions. Even the women have begun to organise — a thing hitherto unknown in Catholic Ireland. So far as organisation of the workers is concerned Dublin looks like becoming one of the foremost towns in the whole of Great Britain. The country that used to be typified by the fat, well-fed Catholic priest and the poor, starving, ragged worker who wore his rags even on Sunday because he could not afford Sunday clothes, that country, though it bears a double and triple national yoke, has begun to turn into a country with an organised army of the proletariat.

Murphy [the bosses’ leader] proclaimed a crusade of the bourgeoisie against Larkin and “Larkinism”. To begin with, 200 tramwaymen were dismissed in order to provoke a strike during the exhibition and embitter the whole struggle. The Transport Workers’ Union declared a strike and demanded the reinstatement of the discharged men. Murphy engineered lock-outs. The workers retaliated by downing tools. War raged all along the line. Passions flared up.

Larkin [...] delivered fiery speeches at meetings. In these speeches he pointed out that the party of the English bourgeois enemies of Irish Home Rule was openly calling for resistance to the government, was threatening revolution, was organising armed resistance to Home Rule and with absolute impunity was flooding the country with revolutionary appeals.

[...] Larkin was arrested. A meeting called by the workers was banned.

Ireland, however, is not Russia. The attempt to suppress the right of assembly evoked a storm of indignation. Larkin had to be tried. At the trial Larkin became the accuser and, in effect, put Murphy in the dock. By cross-questioning witnesses Larkin proved that Murphy had had long conversations with the Lord-Lieutenant on the eve of his, Larkin’s, arrest. Larkin declared the police to be in Murphy’s pay, and no one dared gainsay him.

Larkin was released on bail (political liberty cannot be abolished at one stroke). Larkin declared that he would appear at a meeting no matter what happened. And indeed, he came to one disguised, and began to speak to the crowd. The police recognised him, seized him and beat him up. For two days the dictatorship of the police truncheon raged, crowds were clubbed, women and children were brutally treated. The police broke into workers’ homes. A worker named Nolan, a member of the Transport Workers’ Union, was beaten to death. Another died of injuries.

On Thursday 4 September Nolan’s funeral took place. The proletariat of Dublin followed in a procession 50,000 strong behind the body of their comrade. The police brutes lay low, not daring to annoy the crowd, and exemplary order prevailed...

The Dublin events mark a turning-point in the history of the labour movement and of socialism in Ireland. Murphy has threatened to destroy the Irish trade unions. He has succeeded only in destroying the last remnants of the influence of the Irish nationalist bourgeoisie over the Irish proletariat. He has helped to steel the independent revolutionary working-class movement in Ireland, which is free of nationalist prejudices.

On the eve of the lock-out
James Connolly

Perhaps before this issue of The Irish Worker is in the hands of its readers the issues now at stake in Dublin will be brought to a final determination. All the capitalist newspapers of Friday last join in urging, or giving favourable publicity to the views of others urging the employers of Dublin to join in a general lock-out of the members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

It is as well. Possibly some such act is necessary in order to make that portion of the working class which still halts undecided to understand dearly what it is that lies behind the tyrannical and brow-beating attitude of the proprietors of the Dublin tramway system.

The fault of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union! What is it? Let us tell it in plain language.

Its fault is this, that it found the labourers of Ireland on their knees, and has striven to raise them to the erect position of manhood; it found them with all the vices of slavery in their souls, and it strove to eradicate these vices and replace them with some of the virtues of free men; it found them with no other weapons of defence than the arts of the liar, the lickspittle, and the toady, and it combined them and taught them to abhor those arts and rely proudly on the defensive power of combination; it, in short, found a class in whom seven centuries of social outlawry had added fresh degradations upon the burden it bore as the members of a nation suffering from the cumulative effects of seven centuries of national bondage, and out of this class, the degraded slaves of slaves more degraded still — for what degradation is more abysmal than that of those who prostitute their manhood on the altar of profit-mongering?

Out of this class of slaves the labourers of Dublin, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union has created an army of intelligent self-reliant men, abhorring the old arts of the toady, the lickspittle, and the crawler and trusting alone to the disciplined use of their power to labour or to withdraw their labour to assert and maintain their right as men.

To put it in other words, but words as pregnant with truth and meaning: the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union found that before its advent the working class of Dublin had been taught by all the educational agencies of the country, by all the social influences of their masters, that this world was created for the special benefit of the various sections of the master class, that kings and lords and capitalists were of value; that even flunkeys, toadies, lickspittle and poodle dogs had an honoured place in the scheme of the universe, but that there was neither honour, credit, nor consideration to the man or woman who toils to maintain them all.

Against all this the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union has taught that they who toil are the only ones that do matter, that all others are but beggars upon the bounty of those who work with hand or brain, and that this superiority of social value can at any time be realised, be translated into actual fact, by the combination of the labouring class. Preaching, organising, and fighting upon this basis, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union has done what?

If the value of a city is to be found in the development of self-respect and high conception of social responsibilities among a people, then the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union found Dublin the poorest city in these countries by reason of its lack of these qualities.

And by imbuing the workers with them, it has made Dublin the richest city in Europe today, rich by all that counts for greatness in the history of nations. It is then upon this working class so enslaved, this working class so led and so enriched with moral purposes and high aims that the employers propose to make general war.

Shall we shrink from it; cower before their onset? A thousand times no! Shall we crawl back into our slums, abase our hearts, bow our knees, and crawl once more to lick the hand that would smite us? Shall we, who have been carving out for our children a brighter future, a cleaner city, a freer life, consent to betray them instead into the grasp of the blood-suckers from whom we have dreamt of escaping? No, no, and yet again no!

Let them declare their lock-out; it will only hasten the day when the working class will lock-out the capitalist class for good and all. If for taking the side of the Tram men we are threatened with suffering, why we have suffered before. But let them understand well that once they start that ball rolling no capitalist power on earth can prevent it continuing to roll, that every day will add to the impetus it will give to the working class purpose, to the thousands it will bring to the working class ranks and every added suffering inflicted upon the workers will be a fresh obstacle in the way of moderation when the day of final settlement arrives.

Yes, indeed, if it is going to be a wedding, let it be a wedding; and if it is going to be a wake, let it be a wake: we are ready for either.

From Irish Worker, August 30, 1913

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