Friday 9 December 2016

Rolling back the years: decades of marches, sit-ins... and chaos

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

On the march: The four-month postal strike in 1979 draws to an end in June.
On the march: The four-month postal strike in 1979 draws to an end in June.

The Irish Free State was only a few months old when it faced its first major bout of industrial unrest. The Postal Strike of 1922 caused widespread disruption as post office workers sought better pay and conditions. The country's first government didn't hesitate to employ the army to try to break up pickets.

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"It was a time of great labour relations unrest," says University of Ulster lecturer Dr Emmet O'Connor, "and, of course, the Civil War was going on at the same time. In 1923, there was the dockers' strike which happened when there was an attempt to cut wages. There was also a farm strike in Waterford that year that was quite militant."

O'Connor, author of A Labour History of Ireland 1824 to 2000, says there was a relative period of calm for the rest of the 1920s, but workers again felt compelled to strike in 1932 shortly after Fianna Fáil, under Éamon de Valera, had come to power. "There was a great deal of house construction in the 1930s and builders went on strike. One of the problems for the government was the multiplicity of overlapping trade unions, some of which were Irish, some British."

The Emergency - from 1939 until 1946 - saw strike action made illegal, and times were especially difficult for workers in that period: wages fell by a third, in real terms, during the duration of World War II.

Emmet O'Connor says the establishment of the Labour Court in 1946, coupled with the first national pay round, went some way towards improving relations between employers and their staff. "But rising inflation became a chronic problem after 1945, and together with Keynesian economics, prices were going up all the time. From the 60s on, especially, workers were chasing wage increases as a result of that inflation."

Centralised bargaining came into the lexicon in the 1970s, but it was an era that was pockmarked by strike action. Eamonn Sweeney, author of a social history book on the era, Down, Down Deeper and Down, says Irish workers were regarded as among the most militant in the then EEC.

"There were a huge number of strikes in the 70s and sit-in protests in the 80s," he says. "Guinness workers went on strike for the first time in 215 years in 1974, and in 1976, 1,800 employees at RTÉ went on strike in support of 30 painters and carpenters there. There was a blackout in programming for two weeks. There was a very strong sense of solidarity then that I don't think you'd find today."

Commuters might be put out by the day-long or two-day strike action undertaken by Luas drivers this year, but their protests are in the ha'penny place compared to the Dublin Bus strike of 1974. There was no service for nine weeks that year.

"The postal strike of 1979 had a huge impact too," Sweeney says. "It ran from February 18 to June 25 and had a huge impact on all sorts of sectors. It really hit the tourist industry - these were the days before computers, of course. You had hotels taking out ads in the New York Times to let people know about the postal strike and to simply turn up at their doors and they would be accommodated."

1979 may be remembered now for the papal visit, but it was also the year that 1.47 million working days were lost due to industrial action - the highest amount since 1937.

1980 would see collective unrest, when 700,000 PAYE workers took to the streets to highlight the unfairness in the tax system. It was, Emmet O'Connor says, the state's largest single protest.

"When the Greek crisis happened a few years ago," Eamonn Sweeney says, "you had commentators talking about why the Irish wouldn't go out on the streets, all this nonsense about it being a throwback to the famine and colonialism," he says, "but in the 1970s and early 80s, people really did go on strike - in huge numbers."

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