Belfast workers in revolt
THIS YEAR the working class of Northern Ireland can celebrate one of the proudest moments in its history. One hundred years ago the city of Belfast was gripped by a revolt of the low paid and the exploited. For three months in the summer of 1907 the working class communities across the city stood firm and united in support of the historic strike by dockers and carters.
ALTHOUGH THE numbers directly involved in this dispute were not large – at the high point of the struggle in July just over 2,300 workers were on strike or had been locked out – the dispute galvanised the working class of the city, Catholic and Protestant, in active support. This was vividly demonstrated on 26 July when a massive 100,000 strong demonstration wove its way around the city, ending with a huge support rally at the City Hall.
The discontent which erupted in 1907 had been simmering for some time. Rapid industrialisation saw Belfast grow faster than any other city in Britain in the second half of the 19th century. By the turn of the century it was – by some way – the pre-dominant industrial centre in Ireland.
Growth of the shipyards, of heavy industry, of the linen mills and the huge expansion in trade created enormous wealth – but not for the army of unskilled and semi skilled workers who slaved to keep the looms and presses turning and who moved the raw materials and finished goods in and out of the city.
Trade unions at this time were overwhelmingly confined to skilled workers, those employed in the various trades, and were mostly organised along craft lines. Belfast had been affected by the wave of strikes in Britain in the 1880s and 1890s that led to the building of general unions for the unskilled and semi skilled, but not to the same extent as in other cities.
1907 marked the real birth of this "New Unionism" in Ireland. The Belfast strike and lock out prefaced the bitter struggle by the unskilled for union rights that culminated – in its first phase at least – in the 1913 Dublin lock out.
Two thirds of the city’s 3,000 dockers were hourly paid casual workers. The majority of the 1,500 carters worked either for a handful of shipping companies or else for small carting companies, mostly for pitiful wages.
Larkin’s arrival in Belfast at the start of 1907 as an organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) provided a catalyst allowing the anger at these conditions to surface. Very quickly he succeeded in recruiting Belfast dockers and setting up a local NUDL branch. The employers too were organised in their own bodies and were determined to resist unionisation and the disease that would become known as "Larkinism". Class lines were being clearly drawn.
At the end of April there was a dress rehearsal for the mightier battle to come when Samuel Kelly’s coal merchants locked out 400 workers declaring that "a union should not embrace such a class of employment." Although scabs were brought in from England, Larkin this time succeeded in resolving the dispute, winning reinstatement and union recognition.
The next dispute, which began just a few days later on 6 May, was not so easily resolved. 70 casual dockers working for the Belfast Steamship Company walked out, refusing to work with two non-union men. The Company Chairman, Thomas Gallagher, owner of Gallagher’s tobacco factory, sacked the strikers along with another 90 permanent dockers. Scabs were again brought in. The strike and lockout had begun in earnest.
Although most of the workers involved at this stage – and in the earlier Kelly’s dispute – were Protestants, Larkin’s leadership position was accepted without difficulty, despite the fact that he was a Catholic. His response to the lockout imposed by Thomas Gallagher was to go on the offensive, mobilising support for the workers and attempting to spread the dispute. On 16 May 1,000 women workers walked out of Gallagher’s Tobacco plant although the strike quickly crumbled and they went back to work after a day.
Meanwhile nightly meetings were held in the docks, mass pickets were organised and street collections held to raise funds to maintain the dispute. Thousands became involved in this support activity.
As the dispute dragged on through June, dockers working for other companies began to raise their own demands mainly on wages with their employers. Larkin seized the opportunity to broaden the dispute by demanding wage increases from all the cross channel shipping companies and threatening to bring the whole docks to a standstill if they didn’t comply.
The dispute escalated sharply from this point. On 26 June 300 dockers working for a number of cross channel companies, most of them owned by the big British railway magnates, came out. At the same time the employers, rather than cave in, met in the chamber of commerce to form an Employers’ Protection Association. More scabs were brought in, some from Dublin and other ports in Ireland.
The next day 129 carters in two local firms came out in sympathy, but also with their own demands. A meeting of almost 1,000 carters decided to black the Belfast Steamship Company and the cross channel companies whose dockers had walked out. Larkin went further – on 3 July he threatened a general strike in the port.
The response of the employers was to significantly up the ante – the following day the Master Carters Association joined the fray by locking out 800 carters. Then, on 15 July, there was a further escalation when coal firms locked out a further 880 carters.
In the first weeks of the dispute the strike meetings, pickets and other activity were mainly confined to the docks area. With the involvement of the carters the focus of the dispute changed abruptly. The scabs who had been brought in to replace the locked out carters had to drive through the city and immediately became a target for the strikers and their supporters.
What then developed was an early example of "flying pickets". Pickets went from area to area to try to physically block the vans. Confrontations took place all over the city. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, gathered to confront and physically block the scabs.
The state – which is a class society is never neutral but in the last analysis will come down on the side of the ruling class – intervened on the side of the employers. Police were used round the clock to escort the scab vans.
Larkin and other leaders such as Alex Boyd, head of the Municipal Workers’ Union and also a prominent member of the Independent Orange Order, understood the need to build on the support that existed in the working class communities. They organised nightly meetings in working class districts all over the city. Thousands turned out to show their support.
With class issues to the fore across the city, the old sectarian divisions that had kept working class people apart began to soften and diminish. On 12 July the strike meetings were "suspended for one day" to make way for the Orange Order annual celebrations.
A request that a collection for the strike fund be held during their parade was turned down by the bigwigs at the head of the Orange Order. The breakaway Independent Orange Order, which had started out as an even more hard line Protestant organisation, but which had a working class leadership some of whom were heavily involved in the strike, did, however, take up a collection. They also passed an unusual resolution for a 12 July parade condemning employers who did not recognise trade unions.
With the momentum of the dispute developing, pressure was really starting to mount on the employers. Ewarts mill had to lay off workers because they could not get grain. Coal supplies to industry began to dry up as the impact of the lockout of the coal carters began to bite. Linen bosses across the city were facing the prospect of a general closure. Meanwhile an unrelated dispute involving ironmongers was forcing mass layoffs in the huge Harland & Wolfe shipyard. The dispute was rapidly escalating towards an all out confrontation between the forces of Capital and Labour across the city.
Then, in one of the most dramatic and historically significant developments of the dispute, the infectious "contagion" of Larkinism spread to the police. At the time of the carters’ lock out Larkin had made an appeal to the police by referring to the long hours they were forced to work escorting scabs for "not a penny extra".
A few days later one RIC officer, Constable Barrett, refused to escort a scab carter. He was suspended but managed to call two meetings in Musgrave Street Barracks which around 800 of the 1,000 strong RIC force attended. Demands were drawn up on pay and pensions and presented as an ultimatum to the senior officers. But instead of coming out on strike immediately the potential mutineers gave the RIC chiefs a ultimatum – either meet their demands by 6 August or they would strike.
At this point an historic victory was in sight for the strikers. Much of industry in Belfast was about to grind to a halt, with an overstretched and now mutinous police force unable – or unwilling – to protect the scabs. With workers in Britain blacking goods from Belfast the ruling class faced the possibility that the turmoil in Belfast could spread.
Rotten role of national union leaders
What stood in the way of escalation and likely victory was the cautious role played by the national trade union leadership. Obviously concerned at the potentially revolutionary implications of what was happening in Belfast, NUDL leader James Sexton came over from Liverpool to intervene. He arrived on 19 July along with two leaders of the General Federation of Trade Unions. Their aim, as was recorded at a GFTU meeting, was to "promote industrial peace".
Sexton opened negotiations with the coal merchants over the head of Larkin and the local leaders. He reached a rotten deal whereby the locked out coal carters would be taken back but would have to work alongside non-union labour. There was opposition on the strike committee to this deal but, nonetheless, the coal carters went back to work on 26 July. The Ironmongers dispute was also settled with union leaders pressurising reluctant workers to return to work.
This was a turning point in the dispute. The relentless pressure that had been building on the employers was eased as coal supplies to the factories of the city were restored.
This return to work came just as the dispute had reached its high point. Ironically the coal carters went back to work just as the massive 100,000 strong support demonstration organised under the banner of the Trades Council was about to take place.
The weakening of the strike, courtesy of Sexton and the GFTU leaders, allowed the employers and the establishment to take the offensive. The heads of the RIC took pre-emptive action ahead of the strike deadline set by the police meetings to crush this mutiny. Barrett was kicked out of the force and a quarter of the Belfast RIC were transferred out of the city.
1,200 extra troops were brought in at the end of July to take their place bringing total troop numbers up to around 6,000 and a military clampdown was instituted across the city. Efforts were also made to whip up sectarian division. The Belfast Telegraph issued black propaganda claiming the strike committee was favouring Catholics, making it more difficult for Protestants to get strike pay – a charge that was answered by Larkin and the strike committee.
The heavy troop presence led to riots, mainly in Catholic areas. West Belfast was saturated with troops. In one incident on 12 August, troops opened fire indiscriminately on a crowd during extensive riots in the Falls Road area. Two people were shot dead. There was a danger incidents like this could provoke a sectarian backlash.
The strike leaders, rather than fold their arms in the face of the threat of sectarian division, took the offensive. The strike committee issued hand bills which appealed to workers to stand firm against sectarianism: "Not as Catholics or Protestants, as Nationalists or Unionists, but as Belfast men and workers stand together and don’t be misled by the employers’ game of dividing Catholic and Protestant."
By and large the intervention of the strike leaders prevented sectarian violence from developing and workers across the city stood together in condemning these killings.
However the momentum of the strike was clearly waning. An agreement reached with the Master Carters’ Association was accepted by a mass meeting of the locked out carters on 15 August. There was to be a wage increase but crucially the employers retained the right to employ non-union labour.
This left the original strikers, employed by Gallagher and the English railway magnates, isolated. Over the course of the next weeks they were starved back more or less on the employers’ terms. The strike was defeated but it left a never to be forgotten legacy of working class unity and of militant struggle. n