A Lesson From Dublin
From Forward, 2 February 1914.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
Some time ago I reprinted in Forward an extract from an article I had contributed to the Irish Review defending and expounding the idea of the sympathetic strike. That was at the beginning of the Dublin struggle. Now, the members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union who have returned to work in Dublin have done so after signing an agreement to handle all classes of goods, that is to say, to renounce for the time the idea and practice of the sympathetic strike.
This, by the way, is the only agreement yet signed by members of that union. In those firms which still insist upon the former Employers’ Agreement banning the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union the strike or lock-out is still in active operation.
But the question arises: what reason is to be derived from our experience of the sympathetic strike in Dublin? What lesson can be learned from a cool and reasoned study of our struggle?
Let me repeat the essence of the article alluded to as an explanation of the nature of the sympathetic strike. It pointed out that we in Dublin had realised that the capitalist cannot be successfully fought upon the industrial field unless we recognise that all classes of workers should recognise their common interests, that such recognition implied that an employer engaged in a struggle with his workpeople should be made taboo or tainted, that no other workers should cooperate in helping to keep his business growing, that no goods coming from his works should be handled by organised workers, and no goods going to his works should be conveyed by organised workers. That he should, in effect, be put outside the pale of civilisation, and communication with him should be regarded as being as deadly a crime as correspondence with an enemy in war time. I tried to illustrate this by citing examples of social warfare conducted on similar lines in the past by various societies and classes.
It may then be asked: how far has the Dublin experience justified or failed to justify those who, like myself, contended for the practicability of this policy? We have been forced in Dublin to abandon the policy temporarily because other unions whose cooperation was necessary had not adopted a similar policy. It was not practicable to enforce the policy of tainted goods in Dublin whilst the goods so held up could be transported from other ports and handled across channel by other unions. The executives of other unions failing to sanction the cooperation of their members, the enforcement of this policy became an impossibility. Hence I submit that the main difficulty in the way of the success of this policy is in the multiplicity of unions and executives. Every union not immediately engaged in the conflict is a union whose material interests – looked at from a narrowly selfish point of view – are opposed to being drawn into the struggle. Therefore, every executive naturally aligns itself in opposition to the policy of a sympathetic strike, except when it is its own union that is immediately concerned. When it is one of the principals in the fight then each union becomes as enthusiastically in favour of the sympathetic strike as it formerly was against it. We have seen this exemplified recently in London in the cases of the Coalmen’s strike and the London Builders’ lock-out. In fact every union that nowadays becomes involved in a strike appeals to sympathetic action immediately, even after condemning its theory when at peace. It is no use pointing out the inconsistency of such action; it is merely a case of following the immediate material interests of their union, instead of the broader material and moral welfare of their class. But when we recognise this ugly fact, what lesson ought we to derive from it?
We ought, I think, to learn that the first duty of the militant worker today is to work for industrial unionism in some form. To work for the abolition or merging of all these unions that now divide our energies instead of concentrating them – and for the abolition of all those executives whose measure of success is the balance sheet of their union, instead of the power of their class. The doctrine of ‘tainted goods’ is vitally necessary for the salvation of labour upon the industrial field, but its enforcement is not possible as long as labour is split up by unions whose executives look upon fellow workers in conflict with dread as possible sources of depletion of their treasuries. Be it remembered that it is scarcely humanly possible that these executives should act otherwise if the consciousness of class solidarity has not entered into the minds and hearts of their membership; but if and when it has so entered, then a bigoted conservatism based upon old traditional methods of action becomes a crime against the progress of the species.
This is to my mind the lesson of Dublin. Industrial unionism, the amalgamation of all forces of labour into one union, capable of concentrating all forces upon any one issue or in any one fight, can alone fight industrially as the present development and organisation of capital requires that labour should fight. This will not be accomplished in a day, nor in a year, but should be definitely aimed at, no matter how long may be the period of its accomplishment.
The organisation of all workers in any one industry into a union covering that entire industry, and the linking up of all such unions under one head is a different thing from the mere amalgamation of certain unions. But whilst not necessarily antagonistic, it is certainly more in the line of industrial development, and more effective in the day of conflict.
The name also helps to retrieve the workers’ movement from the unnatural alliance with mere antipoliticalism so unfortunately and unnecessarily introduced as a fresh dividing issue at this juncture when all our minds ought to be set upon unity.
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