Friday 31 October 2014

What our history really has to teach us about Big Jim Larkin

Published 21/02/2013 | 04:00

KEVIN Myers makes a very selective cull of Jim Larkin's long and stormy career to character-assassinate him and present a picture that is as unjustified as the 'union cult of Larkin' he seeks more legitimately to question.

As an equally selective quote from my speech at the commemoration to mark Larkin's death on January 30, 1947, is recruited to Mr Myers's task, I would like to respond to his virulent caricature of Larkin and the 1913 Lockout, which is one of the first major commemorative events of the current Decade of Centenaries.

Firstly, the full sentence from my speech, which Mr Myers quotes, reads: "If we are to be honestly true to the legacy of Jim Larkin, it behoves us to abandon our sectarian comfort zones and to devise the best strategy we can to protect and advance the cause of working people."

It is the latter point that I was seeking to emphasise and that is what Larkin sought to achieve throughout his life, not always wisely but certainly selflessly. In the process he brought the 'new unionism' to Ireland, enabling unskilled and semi-skilled workers to seek representation and collective bargaining in the workplace. This was something denied by Dublin employers, although conceded across much of the UK.

The most serious of several inaccurate claims by Mr Myers is that: "Larkin was certainly not a peaceful pioneer of collective bargaining . . . but a syndicalist who ruthlessly used the strike as a weapon to wreck private enterprise."

Larkin certainly was a syndicalist, a variation on socialism by which trade unionists sought to extend the collective power of workers to not alone secure better pay and conditions but the long-term social, economic and political interests of workers.

Larkin certainly advocated replacing capitalism with a workers' commonwealth and he did use violent language on occasion. However, the rhetoric of violence was commonplace in the political discourse, not alone of socialists but constitutional nationalists and Ulster unionists.

But Larkin never resorted to violence. He knew it would play into the hands of the anti-union companies. Larkin knew he could not build a mass trade union by wrecking the firms where his members worked.

Indeed one of his less well-remembered slogans is: "A fair day's work for a fair day's pay'. It was the employers who took the offensive against the workers that year. Far from advocating recklessly wrecking private enterprises, Larkin – along with the majority of the Dublin Trades Council – agreed to the establishment of a conciliation scheme for the city.

It was due to be established in September of that year when William Martin Murphy and his Dublin Chamber of Commerce allies unleashed starvation as a weapon to break the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, securing the services of the Royal Irish Constabulary, Dublin Metropolitan Police and British army to assist.

Given that 100,000 people were adversely affected by the starvation tactics of the employers, a remarkable aspect of the dispute was the relative absence of violence.

Where breakdowns occurred in discipline they were mainly by the police, not alone on Bloody Sunday but on picket lines and raids on workers' homes. It was also the employers, as Justices of the Peace, who routinely issued firearms licences and revolvers to the strike breakers they employed. Every person shot in the Lockout was shot by a strike breaker.

Repeatedly during the dispute, Larkin and the other union leaders sought to end it through negotiation and accepted the recommendations of the Government's own inquiry aimed at settling it. It was the employers who rejected those recommendations.

It is true that the 'Irish Worker', the best radical newspaper since the days of the 'United Irishmen', did publish the names of strike breakers, but then the Irish Independent published the names and addresses of men and women who attempted to send their children out of the city to be cared for in foster homes in Belfast and Britain.

It is not surprising that Larkin and other trade union leaders frequently clashed over how best to save the nascent Irish trade union movement. One of the lessons of the Lockout is the importance of solidarity and unity between workers' organisations when confronting an employers' offensive as ferocious as that of 1913.

The vast majority of the media was against them and much of the coverage jaundiced and inaccurate. Some things do not change.

Jack O'Connor is the General President of SIPTU

Irish Independent

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