A Titanic Struggle
From The Daily Herald, 6 December 1913.
Transcribed by The Workers’ Web ASCII Pamphlet Project in 1997.
Proofread by Chris Clayton, August 2007.
What is the truth about the Dublin dispute? What was the origin of the Dublin dispute? These are at present the most discussed questions in the labour world of these islands, and I have been invited by the editor of the Daily Herald to try and shed a little light upon them for the benefit of its readers. I will try and be brief and to the point, whilst striving to be also clear.
In the year 1911 the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, as a last desperate expedient to avoid extinction, resolved upon calling a general strike in all the home ports. At that time the said Union as the lawyers would say, was, more or less, an ishmael among trade unions. It was not registered, in most places it was not even affiliated to the local Trades Union Councils, and its national officials had always been hostile to the advanced labour movement. They believed, seemingly, in playing a lone land. Perhaps the general discredit into which it had been brought by the curiously inconsistent action of its leaders in closely identifying themselves with one of the orthodox political parties, and at the same time calling for the aid in industrial conflicts of the labour men when they fought and slendered in political contests, had something to do with the general weakness and impending bankruptcy of the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, at the time it issued its call in 1911.
At all events the call was in danger of falling upon deaf ears, and was, in fact, but little headed until the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union began to take a hand in the game. As ships came into the Port of Dublin, after the issue of the call, each ship was held up by the dockers under the orders of James Larkin until its crew joined the union, and signed on under union conditions and rates of pay. Naturally, this did not please the shipowners and merchants of Dublin. But the delegates of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union up and down the docks preached most energetically the doctrine of the sympathetic strike, and the doctrine was readily assimilated by the dockers and carters. It brought the union into a long and bitter struggle along the quays, a struggle which cost it thousands of pounds, imperilled its very existence, and earned for it the bitterest hatred of every employer and sweater in the city, every one of whom swore they would wait their chance to “get even with Larkin and his crew.”
The sympathetic strike having worked so well for the seamen and firemen, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union began to apply it ruthlessly in every labour dispute. A record of the victories it has won for other trade unions would surprise a good many of its critics. A few cases will indicate what, in the hands of Larkin and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, it has won for some of the skilled trades.
When the coachmakers went on strike the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union took over all the labourers, paid them strike pay, and kept them out until the coachmakers won. The latter body are now repaying us by doing scab work while we are out.
The mill-sawyers existed for twenty years in Dublin without recognition. The sympathetic strike by our union won them recognition and an increase of pay.
The stationary engine drivers, the cabinetmakers, the sheet metal workers, the carpenters, and, following them all the building trades got an increase through our control of the carting industry. As did also the girls and men employed in Jacob’s biscuit factory. In addition to this work for others we won for our own members the following increases within the last two years: cross channel dockers got, since the strike in the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, an increase of wages of 3s. per week. In the case of the British and Irish Company the increase, levelling it up with the other firms meant a rise of 6s. per week. For men working for the Merchants’ Warehousing Company 3s. per week, general carriers 2s. to 3s., coal fillers halfpenny per ton, grain bushellers 1d. per ton, men and boys in the bottle-blowing works from 2s. to 10s. per week of an increase, mineral water operatives 4s. to 6s. per week, and a long list of warehouses in which girls were exploited were compelled to give some slight modification of the inhuman conditions under which their employees were labouring.
As Mr. Havelock Wilson, General Secretary, National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, has mentioned the strike on the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company as an instance of our erratic methods, it may be worth while to note that as a result of that strike some of his sailors got an increase of 5s. 6d. per week.
In addition to the cases enumerated I might also mention that the labourers on the Dublin and South-Eastern Railway got increases of 6s. per week, and those in the Kingstown Gas Works got increases varying from 3s. to 10s. per week per man.
All of these increases were the result of the sympathetic strike policy, first popularised by its success in winning the battle for the Seamen and Firemen – who are now asked to repudiate it.
These things well understood explain the next act in the unfolding of the drama. Desiring to make secure what had been gained, Mr. Larkin formulated a scheme for a Conciliation Board. This was adopted by the Trades Council, at least in essence, and eventually came before the Employers’ Executive, or whatever the governing committee of that body is named. After a hot discussion it was put to the vote. Eighteen employers voted to accept a Conciliation Board, three voted against. Of that three, William Martin Murphy was one. On finding himself in the minority he rose and vowed that in spite of them he would “smash the Conciliation Board.” Within three days he kept his word by discharging two hundred of his tramway traffic employees for being members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and thus forced on the strike of the tramway men. Immediately he appealed to all the Dublin employers who had been forced into a semblance of decency by Larkin and his colleagues, called to their memory the increases of wages they were compelled to pay, and lured them on to a desperate effort to combine and destroy the one labour force they feared.
The employers, mad with hatred of the power that had wrested from them the improved conditions, a few of which I have named, rallied round Murphy, and from being one in a minority of three he became the leader and organising spirit of a band of four hundred.
I have always told our friends in Great Britain that our fight in Ireland was neither inspired nor swayed by theories nor theorists. It grew and was hammered out of the hard necessities of our situation. Here, in this brief synopsis, you can trace its growth for yourselves. First a fierce desire to save our brothers of the sea, a desire leading to us risking our own existence in their cause. Developing from that an extension of the principle of sympathetic action until we took the fierce beast of capital by the throat all over Dublin, and loosened its hold on the vitals of thousands of our class. Then a rally of the forces of capital to recover their hold, and eventually a titanic struggle, in which the forces of labour in Britain openly, and the forces of capital secretly, became participants.
That is where we stand to-day. The struggle forming our theories and shaping the policy, not only for us, but for our class. To those who criticise us we can only reply: we fight as conditions dictate; we meet new conditions with new policies. Those who choose may keep old policies to meet new conditions. We cannot and will not try.
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Last updated on 19.8.2007