Women in the Dublin Lock-Out

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[Speech by Nicki Jameson of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! to the Dublin Lock-Out Centenary Conference in London on 24 August 2013]

The Dublin Lock-Out took place during a time of struggle on many fronts. In Ireland, as in other British colonies across the world, popular movements for national liberation from imperialist rule were growing in strength. At the same time, workers were taking action to gain labour rights and the right to self-organisation. And women were stepping up the fight for equal suffrage.

The poverty of Dublin and the every-day struggle for survival

In 1911 Dublin’s death rate was the same as that of Calcutta, a city also ruled by British imperialism, which was at the time rife with cholera and other diseases. 41.2% of deaths in Dublin took place in workhouses to which the destitute poor were consigned. The infant mortality rate was 142 per 100,000, far higher than any city in England

20,000 families lived in one room. Tenement accommodation was virtually unliveable in, with 1,500 tenement buildings being officially condemned. In September 1913 two tenements collapsed, killing seven people.

This was the environment in which women strove to hold their families together, to feed, clothe and nurture them.

Women workers on strike and locked out

Women also performed a vast amount of badly paid wage labour, in particular in factories and sweatshops and also at home as pieceworkers. Conditions were terrible: 15-year-old girls employed in a linen factory worked 12 days in a row for 10d; embroideresses were paid 2d for nine hours’ work or embroidered 12 cushions for 2¾d.

The Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU) within the ITGWU was founded in 1911 by James Larkin and his sister Delia. The union’s formation was announced by an article by Delia in the Irish Worker. She wrote about housing and social conditions and women’s campaign for the vote, and described the struggle of the new union as one for: ‘shorter hours, better pay than the scandalous limit now existing and conditions of labour befitting a human being’.

In September 1913 the Dublin dispute which we are discussing today in all its aspects spread to the Jacob's biscuit factory. Women workers were locked out of the factory for wearing the badge of the IWWU. On 6 September the Irish Citizen paper wrote that: ‘A conflict which suddenly throws out of employment over 600 girls cannot fail to be of deep concern to all who are interested in women’s conditions of work’.

Embroideresses, who took strike action against the management threat to reduce the measly 2¾ d per cushion still further to 2¼d were also locked out.

Women were the backbone of the lock-out

Whilst a significant number of women workers were directly engaged in the dispute by striking or being locked out, as many or more others worked tirelessly to feed, clothe and support the strikers and the families of all those involved. At Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the ITGWU, teams of women organised by Delia Larkin, Constance Markiewicz and others prepared daily breakfast for 3,000 children and hot meals for families, repaired and distributed clothing and organised material aid collections, outings for children and solidarity activities.

Anyone who was active in the miners’ strike of the 1980s in England or Scotland will recognise this picture of a community pooling its resources and making sure that no-one falls by the way side as it battles against adversity. We need to be clear that this type of activity, of feeding, clothing and materially assisting workers and their families driven into struggle by bosses who would starve them out, is a million miles away from the philanthropic work carried out either then or now by soup kitchens and foodbanks. The work done at Liberty Hall in the Lock Out did not simply prevent starvation and destitution but actively contributed to the resistance. It’s spirit was far more akin to that of the breakfast programme of the Black Panthers or the revolutionary social work of the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution in Cuba than to any non-political acts of charitable provision.

The cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland, is the cause of women

The nationalist, women’s and workers’ movements all had both progressive wings which saw all the fights as integral to one another and reactionary ones which saw only their own fight as of relevance – and indeed, which often took a very limited view of even their own aspect of the struggle.

Amongst the leaders of the British trade union movement, a reactionary stance towards the Dublin workers prevailed amongst the leaders in England. Larkin castigated them as ‘serpents’ raising ‘their foul heads and spit[ting] out their poison’, and appealed directly to rank and file workers in England to break with their treacherous leadership and unite directly with the Dublin workers.

As revolutionary socialist Sylvia Pankhurst commented:

‘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.’

It is not within the remit of this speech to deal at length with this aspect of the Lock Out; however I would strongly recommend reading the article on the Dublin Lock-Out in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! which deals with it in depth. *

As far as the relationship between the struggles for national liberation and women’s equality is concerned, the reformist Irish Parliamentary Party told women they must ‘Wait for Home Rule’, a message which could be loosely translated as ‘Home Rule for Men’. In June 1912 a huge meeting attended by suffragettes, nationalists and trade unionists, and addressed by Delia Larkin and Constance Markiewicz passed a unanimous resolution calling on the government to amend the Home Rule Bill to extend the vote to women. It was ignored. The Irish Women’s Franchise League then began a campaign of militant direct action.

Similarly, sections of the suffragette movement thought that they could win women’s suffrage without fighting, or even by betraying, the national liberation struggle. The Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Christabel Pankhurst supported the Ulster Unionist council which promised that the provisional government would grant votes for women under the Ulster Parliament – a promise which was not honoured.

Christabel’s sister, the revolutionary suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, denounced this stance. Sylvia spoke at the Albert Hall in London on 1 November 1913, at a packed meeting in solidarity with the Lock Out, and calling for the release from prison of James Larkin. Sylvia herself was dodging arrest under the ‘cat and mouse’ laws which saw hunger-striking suffragettes released from prison until they were healthy and then re-imprisoned, but managed to make her speech and then slip away in the crowd.

For all the true revolutionaries engaged in the struggle at the time, the three aspects were indistinguishable. Just as Connolly said: 'We cannot conceive of a free Ireland with a subject working class: we cannot conceive of a subject Ireland with a free working class,' women activists such as Constance Markiewicz maintained that neither the working class nor women – and certainly not working class women – would have their demands met while Ireland remained tied to Britain.

Lessons for today

Any struggle for trade union representation and workers’ rights which challenges the power of capital and the ruling class, will always have to be organised not just at the point of production, but on the streets and inside the working class communities of the strikers. To withstand the onslaught, industrial struggles must also be social, community struggles. Women are always at the heart of such struggles.

For us here, in England in 2013 looking back at the Dublin Lock-Out must be not just a commemorative action but one which gives us lessons for the struggles we are now engaged in. The national struggle for Irish self-determination remains incomplete. In England, Scotland and Wales, since the 1980s the working class has been systematically hammered into submission. Today across Britain and Ireland jobs and services are under attack.

Every battle which we now face – to save the NHS, to defeat the bedroom tax, to defend families in social housing against evictions and to fight the social cleansing of our cities – if these are to succeed they will need to confront both the same type of overt enemies and the same type of opportunist false friends, and to build the same type of dedicated, daily community, grassroots organisation as that of the women of the Dublin Lock-Out.

* The Dublin Lock-out

 

Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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