8 January 2009 Edition
One Big Union - the revolutionary years
1909-2009: Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union Centenary
THE Irish Transport and General Workers Union was founded in 1909 and within a few years became the leading organisation of Irish workers. Its growth reflected the resurgence of Irish identity and the desire for national independence as well as the worldwide rise of workers’ unions that sought to unite the working class across all industries and services.
Trade unionism was not new to Ireland when the ITGWU was founded. The skilled trades had been organised for decades and were involved in struggles for better pay and conditions. But these trades tended to be elitist and general workers like labourers, carters and dockers were either not organised at all or poorly organised. A special problem for Irish workers was the fact that such unions as existed were based in Britain and took little account of the conditions unique to Ireland.
In 1907 a Liverpool Irishman, James Larkin, came to Ireland as General Organiser for the British-based National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). With his fiery personality Larkin blazed a trail among Irish workers. The year he arrived he led a strike of dockers in Belfast. The British Army and Royal Irish Constabulary were used against the strikers and two young workers, Maggie Lennon and Charles McMullan, were shot dead.
Larkin set up a branch of the NUDL among the unorganised dockers in Dublin and in 1908 they went on strike. Larkin continued spreading the union to Cork and Waterford and in November the carters in Dublin and coal workers in Cork went on strike.
The Executive of the NUDL in Liverpool were unhappy with Larkin’s militancy and attempted to rein him in. He was suspended from his position as NUDL organiser. On 30 November he told a meeting in Dublin that “he understood there was to be a great movement set on foot to create a Labour Union for all Ireland. That could mean that Ireland would eventually get into touch with the Labour movement all over the world”. Meanwhile the strikers in Dublin and Cork won significant concessions, thus strengthening Larkin’s hand.
On 28 December 1908 the Irish Executive of the NUDL met in the Trades Hall in Capel Street, Dublin. This body was brought together by Larkin and had one purpose – to form an Irish union. The meeting decided to break with the NUDL and establish the new union. The birth was recorded by William O’Brien in his diary on 4 January 1909: “Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union founded officially from this date.”
Cork was also active and the ITGWU branch took part in the first May Day parade in the city on 16 May 1909. This was followed by a strike of over 100 workers and a declaration of war from the Cork Employers’ Federation which set up a fighting fund to break the union. Strike-breaking workers (‘blacklegs’) were imported from Britain and the RIC and British Army were put on stand-by. The action of the Cork bosses broke the strike but it failed to crush the new branch of the ITGWU. This struggle was significant as the Cork employers gave a foretaste of what the Dublin employers would attempt on a much larger scale four years later.
In the preamble to the new ITGWU rules Larkin posed the question: “Are we going to continue the policy of grafting ourselves on the English Trades Union movement, losing our own identity as a nation in the great world of organised labour? We say emphatically, No.”
This was a position long articulated by that other giant of the era – James Connolly. He founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896 and urged Irish workers to organise politically and industrially towards the achievement of a Workers’ Republic. Connolly had been a socialist organiser in the United States since 1903 and was active in the Industrial Workers of the World. This was a general union which embraced syndicalism – the belief that the revolution would be achieved through the workers organising in every branch of industry in one union which would take over the means of production, distribution and exchange. Syndicalism encouraged more militant trade unionism and it was an important influence on the development of the ITGWU. This was reflected in the slogan ‘One Big Union’.
The firebrand Larkin inspired workers with his confrontational energy. But it was the ideas of Connolly that had the most lasting influence on the ITGWU and the wider labour movement. More clearly than anyone then or since Connolly articulated the ideal of real Irish freedom – not only separation from Britain but social and economic equality as well. He emphasised repeatedly from 1896 to his death in 1916 that the struggle for national independence and the struggle for social justice were two sides of the one coin.
“Only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland,” wrote Connolly. He described the working class as “the only secure foundation on which a free nation can be reared”. And he declared famously: “The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil.”
Determined to put this principle into effect Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910 and was soon working closely with the ITGWU. Connolly moved to Belfast in March 1911 and became Secretary of the Belfast Branch and Ulster Organiser of the union. He led Belfast dockers in industrial action that summer, securing improved wages.
In 1911 the ITGWU moved into a block of derelict buildings at the corner of Eden Quay and Beresford Place in Dublin. It was the old Northumberland Hotel which in its day had hosted meetings of the Young Irelanders in 1848 and the Land League in the 1880s. Now the ITGWU named it Liberty Hall. The union established a weekly newspaper The Irish Worker which had a large circulation and featured the writings of Connolly and Larkin.
Another major landmark in 1911 was the founding of the Irish Women Workers’ Union by Delia Larkin after a strike by 3,000 women workers in Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. This sister union of the ITGWU was to play a significant role in the years to come.
In Belfast Connolly organised the women textile workers in a branch of the ITGWU. He highlighted the appalling conditions in which women worked in the mills of the city. In Wexford the workers in the Pierce iron foundry joined the ITGWU and a bitter dispute for recognition began. Blacklegs were imported to break the strike and the RIC frequently attacked the workers, one of whom, Michael Leary, was batoned to death. The lockout continued into 1912 when Connolly was called in. He negotiated a settlement which won union recognition for the workers. Comparing the struggle to the 1798 Rising, Connolly said it was “a rising of the manhood and womanhood of Wexford to the recognition of their power and dignity”.
In Belfast Connolly experienced at first hand the difficulty in organising a union where workers were divided along sectarian lines. He pointed out the role of the Orange Order in league with the employers and Unionist politicians in preventing Protestant workers from making common cause with their Catholic fellow workers. The rise of militant loyalism under Edward Carson and James Craig worsened this situation as Connolly had warned when he wrote of “sweatshops under the Orange flag”. In 1913 the mainly Protestant workforce in a Larne factory struck for a reduction in hours. They had been forced to work for 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Connolly reported to the ITGWU’s William O’Brien that the Protestant clergy were drafted in and persuaded the men to give up the strike and return to work, branding the union ‘Fenian’ and ‘Papist’. Connolly contrasted this with Wexford where the Catholic clergy had made similar efforts but were told by the workers to mind their own business.
Cork, Wexford and Larne had all given a foretaste of the struggle to come in Dublin, the supreme test of the ITGWU, the Great Lockout of 1913.
Dublin in 1913 was a city of dire poverty where infant mortality was higher than in Calcutta and Moscow. Over 40% of deaths in Dublin occurred in workhouses and other such institutions compared to 22% in similar conditions in England. Over a third of the families in Dublin lived in single rooms in crumbling tenement houses.
When the ITGWU succeeded in recruiting the workers in the Dublin United Tramways, the Company proceeded to dismiss all known union members. The union called a strike for 10am on 26 August 1913 – the Monday of Horse Show Week when the wealthy of Dublin travelled to the RDS in Ballsbridge to attend the prestigious event. All trams came to a halt and the epic struggle began.
The Dublin bosses demanded that each employee sign a pledge never to join or associate with the ITGWU. In a remarkable display of solidarity workers refused to sign and were dismissed as places of work closed one after another. Over 20,000 workers were dismissed and locked out of their jobs.
The employers had the backing of the British authorities in Dublin Castle and the Dublin Metropolitan Police. The police and workers fought running battles and early in the strike two workers, James Byrne and James Nolan were killed by police. On 31 August the Castle banned a mass meeting in O’Connell Street and police savagely attacked the thousands who defied the ban on Dublin’s first Bloody Sunday. The Lockout continued through the autumn and winter of 1913.
Five years to the day after its founding, the ITGWU organised the funeral of Alice Brady, a 16-year-old girl who died after she was shot by a blackleg. The end of the Lockout in early 1914 was inconclusive but the result was not. Far from breaking the ITGWU the Lockout saw it consolidate its strength and when it recovered its membership grew hugely.
In November 1913 the Irish Citizen Army was formed as a defence force for the locked out workers and their families. After Larkin’s departure for America in October 1914, Connolly became acting General Secretary of the ITGWU, Commandant General of the Irish Citizen Army and editor of the Irish Worker.
From Liberty Hall Connolly steered a revolutionary course for the Irish labour movement. When the Irish Worker was suppressed by the British authorities, Connolly put a printing press in the basement of Liberty Hall and began publication of The Workers Republic under Citizen Army guard. The banner ‘We serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland’ was raised on the building. In 1915 the participation of the Citizen Army at the funeral of veteran Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa signalled the closer co-operation between Connolly and the most advanced elements of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers.
The Military Council of the IRB which planned the Rising co-opted Connolly as a member in January 1916. Liberty Hall became the hub of activity; it was there that the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was printed, the Military Council held its final meetings on the eve of the Rising and from there the main body of insurgents marched under Connolly’s command to occupy the GPO on Easter Monday.
Without the fighting spirit of the Dublin workers forged in the 1913 Lockout led by the ITGWU, without the Citizen Army and certainly without Connolly there would have been no Rising in 1916. James Connolly and Michael Mallin, leaders of the Citizen Army, were among the 16 executed after the Rising. Constance Markievicz was sentenced to death and among the participants interned in the aftermath were ITGWU activists Helena Moloney, Winifred Carney and William Partridge who died in 1917 after harsh imprisonment. Senior union officials Thomas Foran and William O’Brien were also interned.
For the second time it seemed that the ITGWU had been lost in the flames. But for the second time the phoenix rose from the ashes. The revival of the union was a key element in the national resurgence which followed the Rising. In 1916 the ITGWU had 5,000 members. By the end of 1918 it had 68,000 in 210 branches. That year ITGWU members formed the backbone of the General Strike against Conscription which shut down the country on 23 April and ensured the defeat of the British government’s plan to coerce Irishmen into the British Army.
At its inaugural meeting on 21 January 1919 the First Dáil Éireann adopted the Democratic Programme which reflected the progressive legacy of Connolly. Constance Markievicz became Minister for Labour. Rank and file union militancy intensified across Ireland. There was another national shut-down on May Day 1919 for improved wages and conditions. General strikes took place in 1920 and 1921 in support of hunger striking republican prisoners and against British executions.
The rank and file took the lead. One evening in May 1920 a Dublin docker and ITGWU member Michael Donnelly, who had fought with the Citizen Army in 1916, spotted a ship bringing supplies to the British Army. He reported to Liberty Hall that he would refuse to handle the military supplies and the result was the national strike of dockers and railway workers against handling ‘Munitions of War’. This lasted for over six months and was a major blow against the British military regime.
Militancy in the independence struggle was mirrored in the struggle for workers’ rights and land rights. There were factory occupations, cattle drives and numerous strikes with union membership growing all the time. In Limerick the workers effectively took over the city in protest at British military tyranny, the most prominent of the ‘soviets’, as they were named, after the workers’ committees in Russia.
ITGWU premises, including Liberty Hall, were frequently raided by Auxiliaries and Black and Tans and officials and members arrested. Many ITGWU members were in the IRA, including Councillor Tadhg Barry, Secretary of the union’s Cork Branch. He was shot dead by the British Army in Ballykinlar Internment Camp in County Down in November 1921. By then, though, the revolutionary years of the ITGWU were drawing to a close. Different struggles lay ahead but workers would look for inspiration to Connolly who wrote after the Great Lockout:
“The flag of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union still flies proudly in the van of the Irish working class, and that working class still marches proudly and defiantly at the head of the gathering hosts who stand for a regenerated nation, resting upon a people industrially free.”