What became known as the Dublin Lock Out really began on 26th August 1913 when approximately 200 members of the Irish Transport & General workers Union (ITGWU) who were employed by the Dublin Tramways Company, abandoned their vehicles across the city in protest at the attempts by their employer, the owner of the company, William Martin Murphy, to force his workforce to sign a letter, in effect an affidavit, that if they were members of the ITGWU they would leave that union and if they were not members of the ITGWU they would refuse to join that union.
Murphy’s response to the walk out was swift and harsh. He immediately began to replace the workers involved and he used his contacts in the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin judiciary to have a warrant issued for the arrest of the ITGWU leader, Jim Larkin. Murphy’s actions were planned and co-ordinated. Prior to the events of August 1913, he had convened meetings of a Dublin Employers Association whose primary purpose was to plan the destruction of the ITGWU and its leadership. Larkin’s union had built up a reputation for effective militant industrial action, successfully forcing up wage rates in a series of disputes across Ireland, notably in Belfast, Wicklow and on the Dublin docks, where, as a consequence, wages had increased by as much as 25%.
If Murphy’s actions were planned, so to was Larkin’s response. Murphy had been issuing the offending letter for some weeks to workers in several other companies that he owned, notably to the despatch clerks in the Irish Independent newspaper group. Larkin held off from triggering action, targeting 26th August as on this day thousands of people were expected to arrive in Dublin for that weekend’s Dublin Horse Show, a major event in the social calendar of the period. Larkin, therefore, chose that day for the action to have maximum effect.
On the issuing of the warrant for his arrest, Larkin went into hiding. We know now that he took refuge in the home of Countess Markievicz, a leading Socialist feminist and comrade of Larkin’s deputy, James Connolly. From his hideaway, Larkin sent out messages for members of the ITGWU to gather on Sunday 31st August in Sackville Street, now known as O’Connell Street, the main thoroughfare of Dublin, where he promised to address the crowd. True to his word, Larkin appeared, dressed as a priest, on the balcony of the Imperial Hotel, to address the workers meeting. This in itself was a display of defiance by Larkin, given that the Imperial Hotel was also owned by William Martin Murphy. Larkin was immediately arrested, the RIC baton charged and Calvary charged the crowd and the historical estimates are that between 400 and 600 workers were injured. Two workers died on the day, with two more being killed in the days which followed, the homes of ITGWU activists were wrecked and hundreds were arrested, including James Connolly.
On the following day, the TUC met and, appalled by the events in Dublin, pledged to send aid to the Dublin workers.
On Wednesday 3rd September, the Dublin Lock Out proper began when Murphy convened a meeting of the Dublin Employers Association and they agreed to begin issuing the letters repudiating ITGWU membership to workers across Dublin. It was to be the commencement of a struggle for the basic right to join and be active in a trade union of your choice. It was to last for 8 months, involving poverty and starvation among many of the workers involved and sporadic outbreaks of violence. The fact that the campaign by the ITGWU to reject the so-called “yellow letter” could be maintained for such a period was in no small part due to the fact that the union received strong support from the community of Dublin. Dublin in 1913 was a city of deep and appalling poverty. 21,000 families of 5 people or more were living in one room, 20% of the population was unemployed, the rate of tuberculosis was 50% higher that it was elsewhere in the British Isles and the rate of infant mortality in Dublin ran at 15%, higher even that in the city of Calcutta. Therefore, the 8 month struggle involved two definable sides. On one side, William Martin Murphy, the other Dublin employers, the police & judiciary and the press (which Murphy also owned). On the other, the ITGWU, other trade unionists and the people of Dublin. In the words of James Connolly “This is more than a trade union fight. This is a class struggle and recognised as such by all sides”.
In the end, the workers were starved back to work when aid from the TUC dwindled. Most historical books and articles, therefore, record the Lock Out’s conclusion as a defeat for the union. Connolly however, took a different view, referring to the outcome as “a draw”, based on the fact that Murphy was unable to effectively enforce his letter, with many of those returning to work still refusing to sign it. Connolly’s assessment appears to be borne out by the fact that by 1920 the membership of the ITGWU had doubled. Certainly, the actions of the union provided hope and confidence and continue to inspire today.
What then of Keir Hardie’s involvement in these events? Connolly knew both Larkin and Connolly prior to the Dublin Lock Out. Larkin had attended the 1907 Labour Conference as a delegate and Connolly had been a member of the Scottish Labour Party, the first political party that Hardie formed. He had written extensively for Hardie’s paper, the Labour Leader and had established his own paper in Ireland, the Workers Republic” on the strength of a loan provided by Keir Hardie. This political involvement of Larkin & Connolly calls into question the historical assessment that they were syndicalist, at least in the traditional sense. Whilst the ITGWU was formed along syndicalist lines, perfecting the sympathy strike, organising the unskilled and promoting the case for “one big union” (citing the organisation of trade unions along craft and specialist lines as divisive) – Larkin and Connolly clearly did not embrace the anarcho-syndalicist notion that the workers, without the need for political activity and through a series of strikes and occupations, could take control of the economy and build “the new society in the shell of the old”, as promoted by many in the primary syndicalist organisation, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies. Indeed, whilst Connolly had been an organiser for the IWW in the US, he was also politically active and prominent in the American Socialist Labour Party. Similarly, on the conclusion of the Dublin Lock Out, Larkin also went to the US where he too became an organiser for the IWW and a member of the SLP, before his expulsion from the SLP over his strong support for the Bolsheviks. Larkin was jailed in America for his political as well as industrial activities, before he returned to Ireland and was elected to the Dail as a Labour representative.
From the outset of the events leading up to the Dublin Lock Out, Keir Hardie supported Larkin, Connolly and their union. He travelled to Dublin to visit Larkin and Connolly in jail and was told by them that if they were not in prison, they would have organised a march through Dublin with the funeral cortege of one of those killed in the police charge on 31st August, an ITGWU activist, James Nolan. Hardie immediately agreed to organise this and, on Wednesday 3rd September, the date which coincides with the Employers Association move to “lock out” those who refused to sign the letter renouncing membership of the union, Hardie took Larkin’s place, marching at the head of the funeral procession and providing the graveside testimony. In effect, albeit on a temporary basis, Hardie stepped into the leadership role in the campaign against the Lock Out at its very beginning. Following the funeral, Hardie called upon the union membership to gather in the evening outside the union’s headquarters, Liberty Hall, where he addressed the crowd. Beginning by describing James Nolan as a “martyr”, Hardie went on to express his support for Larkin and his tactics:
“The one man and the one movement which has shown how to get better pay for the down-trodden is Jim Larkin and his policy. My friends, they say they don’t like Larkin’s methods, very likely not. When you go to a dentist with a bad tooth, his methods are not very agreeable but you get the tooth out and then comes relief. Jim Larkin’s methods are not those of the rose leaf or the kid glove. He is a man with more heart than head as any good man the world has ever seen has been………better a thousand times to take sides with Jim Larkin in fighting for a cleaner city and a healthier and happier race of people than try to break down the most potent agency for elevating the working classes which Ireland has yet produced.”
Hardie concluded by pledging on-going support for the ITGWU: “The section of the movement with which I am most prominently identified, the Socialist movement, will stand by you firmly”.
True to his word, Hardie on returning from Dublin went immediately to the TUC to urge that they turn their commitment to providing aid to the Dublin workers into action. A cargo ship, known as “The Hare” was commandeered, loaded with food and clothing and sailed to Dublin with Keir Hardie on board to personally deliver the goods on the Dublin quayside. As the struggle intensified, Hardie travelled to Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool to urge dockers to take supportive strike action and in his own Merthyr constituency, he urged the railway workers to boycott goods from Dublin. In the end, Hardie failed to persuade the TUC to move to all-out strike action in support of the Dublin workers. The failure of the TUC to take such action is generally accepted as a decisive factor in the drift back to work which did not, however, take place until talks were exhausted at Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel between the TUC and the employers in an effort to settle the dispute. Keir Hardie insisted that he was part of the TUC’s delegation at these talks and he appears to have been instrumental in convincing the British Government to establish a Parliamentary Enquiry into the circumstances of the Dublin Lock Out, the outcome of which, a call for the Dublin employers to recognise the ITGWU, was ignored by William Martin Murphy and the other employers.
To some historians, it is remarkable that Hardie should have shown such a commitment to the workers actions throughout the Dublin Lock Out, given the “syndicalist” nature of the campaign. Hardie was not a syndicalist. He was also a pacifist and many historians, therefore, question his support for the ITGWU and its “methods” (as he declared in his Liberty Hall speech) given that the union was not averse to organising a violent response to attempts by the authorities to break up picket lines and protests. Furthermore, some of Hardie’s Labour colleagues were particularly opposed to syndicalism, such as Philip Snowden, who went as far as to suggest that strikes were outdated, arguing that the rising political fortunes of the Labour Party meant that political action should replace industrial action and that strikes were damaging to the Party’s reputation. Hardie, however, took a very different view. He had supported previous “syndicalist” actions (notably the 1910 Tonypandy miners led by Tom Mann and strikes by railway workers in his Merthyr constituency) and, in the House of Commons, he argued that “syndicalism is the direct outcome of the apathy and indifference of this House towards working class questions…. I rejoice at the growth of syndicalism”. In the pages of the Labour Leader, in direct response to Snowden’s assertion that strikes were damaging to the Labour Party and detracted from political activity, Hardie wrote that “experience gained by strikes filters into working class consciousness and makes political action a reality”.
Hardie’s position on the strike question and his firm support for Larkin and the ITGWU during the Dublin Lock Out, hold lessons relevant to us today. His position and actions contrast with the position of some of today’s Labour leaders who at best tend to adopt a “neutral” standpoint in industrial disputes or, at worst, make remarks condemning the unions or distancing themselves from trade union actions. He would also be appalled, given his championing of the cause of working class representation, that unions are being challenged over attempts to recruit to the Labour Party and secure more working class and trade union candidates, given that only 4% of the House of Commons now come from traditional working class blue collar backgrounds and only 9% of Labour MPs can justifiably claim such roots.
Writing in the Irish Socialist Press at the time of Hardie’s death, James Connolly praised Hardie’s role in the Dublin Lock Out, writing “when the vultures of capital descended upon Dublin and resolved to make Dublin the grave of new unionism, Hardie was the first to take his stand in the gap of danger, by our sides”.
Being on the side of workers in struggle is where Labour leaders should be, as Keir Hardie so clearly and admirably demonstrated.
Speech to Keir Hardie Society
28th August 2013