The Dublin Lock-out

One hundred years ago, 25,000 Irish workers and their families in Dublin were reduced to starvation by the bosses who locked them out of their jobs. They were simply fighting for basic trade union rights and better working conditions when they were told to leave the union or starve. This was the Dublin Lock-out. It is timely to remember this battle waged by the working class in Ireland, ruled then as a colony of British imperialism. The 1913 struggle provides many lessons, not least about how the opportunists in the Labour and trade union movement betray the working class. The workers in Dublin were defeated because of the cowardly betrayal of the leadership of the British trade union movement.

On these pages we reprint the section dealing with the Dublin Lock-out from Ireland the key to the British revolution by David Reed.* This book was published just before the beginning of the miners’ strike in 1984/85 which, once again, demonstrated the perfidy of both the British ruling class and the Labour and trade union movement that ensured the defeat of the strike. Working class communities in Britain are still paying the price for that defeat.

Today we face the most serious attempt to drive down the standard of living of the working class even further and to destroy state welfare. Hundreds of thousands of working class families are already on the breadline, and the ruling class has made them the target for more cuts and more austerity. Today we hear the call from union leaders, most recently at the People’s Assembly in London, to organise against capitalist austerity. As the story of the Dublin workers shows, rhetoric will achieve nothing. Victory will only come from implacable opposition to the ruling class in practice. The 1913 struggle will have been tragically in vain unless we can mine from it knowledge of who the false friends of the working class are and how they can be combated. In 1913 the British trade union leaders conspired to starve the masses of Dublin into accepting the bosses’ terms with tragic consequences. Within months those trade union leaders led the British working class into the slaughter of the First World War. In the 21st century, at long last, we must rid the working class movement of these traitors.

Michael Macgregor

* David Reed, Ireland the key to the British Revolution, published by Larkin Publications, 1984. It is now out of print, but we hope to make it available on the RCG website in the near future.

Irish labour confronts British imperialism

The end of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the new Unions of unskilled workers. They had been founded and promoted by Socialists in conditions when faith in the capitalist system was being severely shaken. They began to challenge the domination over the labour movement of the Liberal–Labour leadership of the old aristocratic unions. The next 20 years would see this struggle take place. The Irish question decisively influenced its outcome.

At the Paris Congress of the Second International (1900) Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party (founded in 1896) achieved separate representation for Ireland in the face of opposition from the British delegates. The latter argued that Ireland was not an independent country, but part of Great Britain. At the Congress the Irish delegation gave the British a further lesson in revolutionary socialism by being one of the two delegations totally opposed to socialists entering bourgeois governments. Connolly, unable to attend the Congress, fully supported the Irish delegation’s stand.1 The ISRP unfortunately had little influence at that time in Ireland but it began the struggle to unite the cause of Irish Labour with national independence.

The Irish TUC (1894) was formed at a time when British unions were still predominant in organising Irish workers and British parties like the Independent Labour Party and the Fabians had a few branches in Ireland, especially in Dublin and Belfast. However, from 1907 onwards the process of Irish workers joining the British amalgamated unions began to receive a succession of major jolts as ‘New Unionism’ raised its head in Ireland. James Larkin was at the centre of this process.2

Larkin was born in Liverpool of Irish parents in 1876. He had to earn his living at the age of 11. By 16 he was a member of the Independent Labour Party and a socialist. During the Boer War he was arrested and fined several times for his street-corner denunciations of the War as a ‘jingo-imperialist venture’. In 1901 he joined the National Union of Dock Workers and soon after leading a strike in 1905 he was elected to be the Union’s general organiser. It was in that capacity that Larkin first went to Ireland in 1907 on an organisation drive for his Union.

Larkin very soon after arriving in Ireland set about organising the dock workers in Belfast (1907), Dublin (1908) and Cork (1909) in the Union. In Belfast in 1907 he led a bitter and violent strike when 50 English dockers imported through the Shipping Federation to Belfast were being used to smash the Union. During the strike troops fired on workers in the Catholic Falls Road area killing three and injuring many others. The employers and the authorities tried to sow divisions between the Catholic and Protestant workers, using the fact that Larkin was a Catholic, but due to Larkin’s efforts, they did not succeed. The strike eventually went to arbitration with the dockers, although organised, having to go back on not very satisfactory terms. Nevertheless in managing to unite Protestant and Catholic workers in organising the docks in Belfast, Larkin’s achievement, while not to be durable in the long run, was remarkable.

John Maclean, the Scottish revolutionary socialist, who on the invitation of Larkin had been in Belfast for a few days during the strike, on his return to Scotland, wrote articles defending the strikers and accusing the Liberal government of murder. He was attacked by Philip Snowden, that vile reactionary Labour MP who had defended the Government’s ‘employment of the military to quell disorder’.3 The Socialist, the paper of the Socialist Labour Party – a left-wing split from the Social Democratic Federation – also took up the defence of the strikers, and in particular attacked the Labour MPs in parliament. ‘Beyond asking a couple of questions, they did nothing … From Shackleton to Will Thorne they have become accomplices of capitalist murder’.4 […] Already the divide in the British labour movement on Ireland was becoming clear.

Larkin now concentrated his energies in organising the dockers in Dublin. In 1908 he was involved in another series of bitter strikes, with the employers again attempting to smash the Union. During this period Larkin increasingly clashed with Union Headquarters. On one occasion, the Union leadership in England settled a dispute over his head. Sexton, General Secretary of the Union, was bitterly opposed to Larkin’s activities and, particularly, the sympathetic strike. The dispute soon came to a head. In 1908 Larkin appealed for assistance. Sexton sent a postcard saying ‘Stew in your own juice’.5 When Larkin warned the Executive who were intent on holding his work back that ‘there was a movement on foot for organising the whole of unskilled labour in Ireland’,6 Sexton’s reply was to notify Larkin and all the Union branches of his suspension from the Union on 7 December 1908. Larkin’s reply was to form the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) decisively separating from the reactionary leadership of Sexton and Co.

The ITGWU, in its rule book, announced an end to the ‘policy of grafting ourselves on the English Trade Union Movement’. The Union was unique in many respects. It embodied a political programme which included nationalisation of all means of transport, the legal eight hours-day, provision of work for all unemployed and ‘the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland’.7 It declared its dedication to the organisation into one union of all workers – skilled and unskilled – in an industry. It argued for the use of boycotts and sympathetic strike action (a revolutionary position for trade-unions) to achieve its ends. In 1911 James Connolly, having returned from America, became the Belfast Secretary of the ITGWU. So an Irish union, having broken with the English trade-union traditions, born out of bitter struggles against the capitalist class in Ireland was now led by two revolutionary socialists – James Larkin and James Connolly.

The revolutionary potential of the British trade union and labour movement was now to be gauged by its attitude and support for the ITGWU.

The Dublin Lock-out

By 1911, the ITGWU had established such an organisation amongst unskilled workers in Dublin that the employers had set up their own federation to combat it. In August 1913, William Martin Murphy, owner of the Dublin United Tramways Company and the Irish Independent Group of Newspapers, took the initiative in the effort of the Dublin employers to smash the ITGWU. He told the workers in the dispatch department of his newspaper company that they must resign from the Union and sign an assurance they would not strike or they would be dismissed from the company. The Union put pickets on retailers selling Murphy’s paper the Irish Independent. The ITGWU members were locked out on 26 August. 700 workers from Murphy’s Tramways Company walked off their trams leaving them wherever they happened to be. Murphy called a meeting of the Dublin Employers Federation and on 3 September 400 employers agreed to lock out all their workers. By 22 September 25,000 workers had been locked out, involving, with their families, one third of the population of Dublin. If the same proportion of workers were locked out in London today, there would be about three quarters of a million locked out.

A meeting in support of the locked out men and the strikers was called for Sunday 31 August in O’Connell Street. It was to be addressed by Larkin. Rumours suggested that the meeting would be banned. On the Thursday, 28 August, Larkin and other ITGWU officials were arrested for seditious libel and seditious conspiracy. They were released on bail on the understanding they would not break the law while awaiting trial. On the Friday the meeting was banned by proclamation. That evening Larkin burnt the ‘Proclamation of the King’ in front of a crowd of 10,000 people at Beresford Place. Announcing that ‘People make Kings and people can unmake them’ he said that ‘we will meet in O’Connell Street, and if the police and soldiers stop the meeting let them take the responsibility’.8 Another warrant was put out for Larkin’s arrest. Larkin, however, turned up in disguise on the balcony of a hotel (owned by Murphy) in O’Connell Street at the time of the meeting. After he started to speak to the crowd he was immediately arrested. Soon after, the police indiscriminately baton charged the crowd and the result was yet another Bloody Sunday in Ireland’s history. Two men were killed over the weekend of Bloody Sunday and hundreds were injured.

Connolly was also arrested with Larkin. Connolly refused to recognise the court and was sentenced to three months. He was released after a week’s hunger strike. Larkin was released on bail on 12 September and decided to leave for England and Scotland to appeal for support.

The support of the British trade union movement for the strike was to be critical. At its 1 September Congress the British TUC could not avoid discussing the Dublin events. In the debate James Sexton called for support, ‘black as James Larkin might be, and James Connolly too.’9 Very useful! The Congress did not vote support for the strike. It simply condemned the conduct of the Dublin police and decided to send a delegation to investigate the situation there. A motion demanding the release of Larkin and Connolly and calling for finance for the strikers was not put to the vote. ‘Revolutionary speeches’ were made by Ben Tillett and Robert Smillie, but this couldn’t help the strikers.

While the TUC delegation was in Dublin it spent a great part of its time trying to patch up a dirty compromise with the employers. But the employers refused to comply, no doubt confident in the knowledge that if the TUC hadn’t acted at the beginning of the strike they had little to fear. In contrast, the strength of the Dublin workers was demonstrated on 3 September when 50,000 workers marched behind the coffin of James Nolan, one of the workers murdered by the police. The funeral procession was guarded by ITGWU squads bearing makeshift arms – an embryo of the Irish Citizen Army formed the following month as an armed workers’ defence force against the attacks of police and scab workers. The Dublin police kept out of sight.

Soon the number of workers on strike or locked out grew. The British TUC began to send money and foodstuffs to Dublin. The Miners Federation voted to give £1,000 a week and various Labour newspapers opened subscription lists. But the bulk of this aid did not come until late September. Although the money and foodships were vital to workers whom the employers were trying to starve back to work, they could not take the place of solidarity action.

While the British TUC was as afraid of the ITGWU as the Dublin employers, the rank and file responded quickly to the example of the Dublin workers. The Liverpool railwaymen went out on strike on 9 September and began real solidarity action, which the Executive of the National Union of Railwaymen and the British TUC did their best to destroy. 3,000 in Liverpool came out one day, followed by 4,000 in Birmingham the next day. Transport strikes took place in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester. NUR officials led by JH Thomas were trying everything they could to get the workers back. (Eventually, they did succeed.) The strike spread to other parts of the country. The rank and file wanted a national strike. The British TUC responded by announcing a fund and the first of the foodships for the strikers. The revolutionary socialist Sylvia Pankhurst’s comments were well placed when she said:

‘In the long-drawn misery of the Dublin lock-out its victims pleaded vainly for sympathetic action by British transport workers, and received instead a “food ship” from the Trade Union Congress – a mere handful of crumbs in the vast desert of their need’.10

When, at the end of October, the Dublin Strike Committee appealed for direct financial aid, the British TUC sent £2,000 to be distributed only to affiliated unions. As the ITGWU was not affiliated to the British TUC it was not able to have any of this money.11

On 27 October, Larkin’s trial was held and he was sentenced to seven months in prison. On the following Sunday a gigantic meeting took place in the Albert Hall in London to protest against Larkin’s sentence. Sylvia Pankhurst defied arrest to speak at this meeting in support of Larkin. Connolly called on everyone to work and vote against the Liberal Government until Larkin was free. Public opinion and the by-election results soon had the desired effect as the Liberals lost votes. Larkin was freed after only 17 days in gaol.

Larkin then launched his ‘fiery cross’ campaign of public meetings in England, Scotland and Wales. 5,000 heard him speak in the Manchester Free Trade Hall with 20,000 waiting, outside. The workers called for national strike action. A few days later, mid-November, the British TUC decided to call a special Congress on the Dublin lock out for 9 December in order to head off the pressure of the rank-and-file workers for national strike action. Larkin addressed a massive meeting in the Albert Hall the next evening: 10,000 inside and 15,000 waiting outside. George Lansbury, Editor of the Daily Herald, and other socialists denounced the Labour Party and the reactionary trade union officials for their inaction.

A few days later Larkin decided to go over the heads of the trade union leaders and appeal to the rank-and-file. He told them through a manifesto printed in the Daily Herald to tell their leaders ‘for the future they must stand for Trade Unionism’ and ‘that they are not there as apologists for the shortcomings of the capitalist system’.12 Larkin had issued a revolutionary appeal to the British workers to split from their treacherous leaders and unite with the Dublin workers. Attacks on Larkin now began. JH Wilson, head of the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, issued a manifesto denouncing Larkin and the methods of the Transport Union in Dublin. Larkin was soon to reply. He told a massive meeting in London in referring to JH Wilson and Philip Snowden that ‘I am not going to allow these serpents to raise their foul heads and spit out their poison any longer’. He denounced the union leaders and the Labour Party for failing to support the strike. JH Thomas was particularly singled out for forcing rank-and-file railwaymen back to work.

The 9 December British TUC Congress took place. Connolly presented the Irish case for holding out. Then, to everyone’s amazement, Ben Tillett moved a resolution condemning Larkin’s unfair attacks on British trade union officials. He was then considered one of the most militant trade unionists in Britain and had, only a few weeks earlier, stood on platforms with Larkin calling for armed worker squads. He went on to ask the Congress to affirm its confidence in the ability of these officials to negotiate an honourable settlement. Armed squads were one thing. Attacking the leadership of the trade union movement quite another. Larkin confronted Tillett with a choice: stand with the masses, with Larkin and against his fellow trade union leaders, or desert the workers and go over to the other side. Tillett went over. When the First Imperialist War broke out nine months later Tillett became a recruiting sergeant for imperialism.

Speaker after speaker got up and condemned Larkin. He was finally called on to reply. He began, ‘Mr Chairman and human beings’, and amidst continual uproar he denounced those leaders who had betrayed the strike. He told them the Dublin workers would struggle on to the end. The Congress offered nothing. After all it had only been called to stave off the pressure of the rank-and-file.13

The strike was eventually lost. Without British TUC support it could not be won. It revealed, as events in Britain were later to show and Ben Tillett’s sell-out conclusively proved, that the revolutionary trends in the British working class were not strong enough to defeat the opportunist leadership of the British labour movement. Opportunism had triumphed.

The opportunist leaders of the British labour movement and the employers of Dublin certainly were in agreement on one vital thing. As William Martin Murphy so clearly said about his stand:

‘It is not a question of an attack on trade unionism at all. I have been in business for nearly fifty years, and I have never before known anything like Larkinism. It is not trade unionism in the ordinary sense at all.’14

The Secretary of the Engineering Employers’ Federation made the same point.

‘A victory for the syndicalist leaders there would be disastrous for the employers not only in Dublin, but throughout the United Kingdom.’15

The revolutionary unionism of the Dublin working class had shown the way. Larkin instinctively followed what Lenin was later to call ‘the essence of Marxist tactics’.16 He went deeper and lower into the masses. The ITGWU represented the organisation of the unskilled Irish workers and exposed to the world their revolutionary strength and courage. The democracy of the ITGWU was firmly based on the masses, its organising principle proletarian solidarity. It created the first armed workers’ militia – the Irish Citizen Army. It later opposed the imperialist war. It spurned ‘respectability’, ‘compromise’ and ‘moderation’. The ITGWU had only one measure for its actions: the needs of the working masses. Little wonder that British imperialism, the Dublin employers and the British trade union leaders hated it.

In the years just before the lock-out the British working class had demonstrated its ability to fight in a series of bitter strikes – the transport strikes of 1911 and 1912, and the miners’ strikes of 1912. But in 1913 it could not rise to the challenge of Dublin’s revolutionary lead. The British working class had proved unable to prevent its leaders selling out the revolutionary Irish. As a result those same leaders were able to draw the British working class into support for the imperialist war and so lead it to political defeat. The same leaders were to betray the struggles of the British working class right up to the defeat of the General Strike [in 1926].

The defeat of the Dublin workers had established one essential point. The Irish working class could only free itself as part of a revolutionary national struggle to separate Ireland from Britain. Behind the Dublin capitalists lay British imperialism and its agents in the British working class.


1. See Challinor R, The Origins of British Bolshevism London 1977 pp.9-13. Also Kendall W, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-1921 London 1971 pp.14-15.

2. Material on Larkin, the Irish Trade Union movement, the Dublin Lock Out and the response in Britain is based on the following major sources: Larkin E, James Larkin London 1965; Mitchell A, Labour in Irish Politics 1890-1930 Dublin 1974; Clarkson J D, Labour and Nationalism in Ireland New York 1925; and the following newspapers: Manchester Guardian, The Socialist, Labour Leader, Daily Herald and Justice.

3. Challinor R, op cit p.51. See also Milton N, John Maclean London 1973 p.35.

4. The Socialist September 1907.

5. Clarkson J D, op cit p.221 fn. 1.

6. Larkin E, op cit p.62.

7. ibid p.63.

8. ibid p.123.

9. Manchester Guardian 2 September 1913.

10. Pankhurst S, The Suffragette Movement London 1977 p.501.

11. Moran B, ‘1913, Jim Larkin and the British Labour Movement’ in Saothar 4 Dublin nd p.41.

12. Manchester Guardian 22 November 1913

13. Larkin E, op cit pp.147-155.

14. Manchester Guardian 6 September 1913.

15. See Holton B, British Syndicalism 1900-1914 London 1976 p.135.

16. Lenin, ‘Imperialism and the Split in Socialism’ LCW Volume 23 p.120.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013

 

Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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