Lockout Series: The divine mission of discontent
The Lockout of 1913, lasted from August 26th, 1913 to January 18th, 1914, and is generally viewed as the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Irish history.
Central to the dispute was the workers’ right to organise in a general trade union.
Employer William Martin Murphy banned his workers from being members of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). Employers had been growing concerned about the growth of trade unionism and in particular the ITGWU and its charismatic leader, Jim Larkin, who had been organising Dublin’s low-paid workers, many of whom lived in slums.
On the eve of the 106th anniversary of the tram worker strike that signalled the beginning of the Lockout, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady looks at what we can learn from the Lockout, especially in building solidarity among workers and grasping the promise of a better future for all.
Fear and cynicism has always been the Right’s best weapon against working people.
How often have you heard it said that unions used to do a good job but have no chance in a modern world dominated by multinational corporations, forever on the scrounge for the cheapest labour and lowest tax regime?
When backs are up against the wall, isn’t it easier to blame the poor, the unemployed or migrants for falling living standards rather than big business or bankers’ greed?
And, as for politicians, why bother placing faith in them when the real decisions are taken in Brussels or Berlin, and few seem ready to stand up for ordinary families’ rights?
But the great Dublin Lockout of 1913 reminds us that organised labour can cut through the pessimism, build cross border solidarity and offer the promise of a better future.
The genius of both Larkin and Connolly was not just in organising workers, but in politicising and mobilising them.
They convinced working people in their hundreds of thousands that organisation in its broadest sense – both industrial and political – was the route to a better life.
And that organisation will always be the best chance workers have of receiving a fair share of power and the wealth we create.
Big Jim Larkin knew there would always be setbacks along the way. But he didn’t throw in the towel because one battle was lost.
The great convulsions that began in Dublin in the summer of 1913 took a long time to bear fruit.
Larkin knew that solidarity was the difference between subjugation and liberation – an insight that helped drive the emergence of a vibrant labour movement here in Ireland.
However, arguably the most important lesson from the Dublin Lockout a century ago is that unions need to be at the heart of a popular social movement – something the Lockout leaders knew instinctively.
It’s an approach that needs reimagining for a new century.
We cannot afford to retreat into our comfort zone of committees, composite motions and conferences.
Instead we must rediscover that ‘divine mission of discontent.’
After all, work unites us all, from the high-tech professional to the factory worker, and the Deliveroo driver to the hard-pressed home care worker.
Unions can bind new communities together, both real and virtual, to build a new movement that promotes our enduring values of equality, dignity and justice.
These are profoundly tough times for working people everywhere. We are up against a system of global capitalism that fails the great majority and favours the rich few, that is not only attacking our living standards but is also destroying our planet.
But from Dublin to Delhi, ordinary women and men can demand something better, something different, a global economy that genuinely puts people before profits.
If we build a new broad popular movement and pull together for a common cause, then we can lay the foundations for a union renaissance.
A century ago, working people in Dublin sacrificed everything for what they believed in – the right to work, the right to a decent standard of living, and the right to be in a union.
Building that same spirit of hope, optimism and gritty determination is within our grasp today. And then the modern day William Murphy’s will be quaking in their boots.