Big Jim in Belfast
'BIG JIM' LARKIN's statue in O'Connell Street, Dublin, and below, warning against strikebreaking.
TRADE unionists and socialists in Belfast celebrated May Day this weekend with a special dedication to commemorating events 100 years ago when a strike by dockers spread to involve the carters,
then other workers, paralysing the city.
What had begun as a battle with one employer, the tobacco baron Thomas Gallaher, owner of the Belfast Steamship Company, escalated into an all-out dock strike, affecting the railway ferries from Heysham, Fleetwood and Barrow in Furness. A separate strike by seafarers on coastal vessels won a pay rise.
Gallaher locked out the union members, and imported blacklegs, further angering the workers. The scabs had to work behind lines of police, and were billeted on board a ship, the SS Caloric, at night. After strikers hired boats and mounted a seaborn assault on the Caloric it had to be moored out in the middle of Belfast Lough each night for safety.
Gallaher sacked seven girls from his tobacco factory for attending a lunchtime meeting where dockers' leader Jim Larkin spoke. He also threatened to move his production to England. A 1,000 women walked out and marched to a city centre meeting. When the crowds did not disperse, and police failed to clear them from the centre, the mayor panicked and called out troops. The soldiers were not needed, but it was not the last time they would be used against the workers.
Even the Royal Irish Constabulary(RIC) was affected by the mood of unrest in the city. Policemen discontented with their own pay and conditions decided they did not owe a duty to keep protecting the employers and blacklegs. The police mutiny spread to the West of Ireland, and raised an issue of political power that was clear to the authorities if not to the strikers.
Women played a highly active part in the struggle in Belfast. A Mrs.Moore was driving a van, in breach of the carters' strike, and passed by the girls leaving York Street Mill at the end of their day. "They threw her off the van, and tore all the clothes off her. There used to be puddles there - we called them ink bottles -well they just rolled her in that."
Most important, the Belfast strike united workers across the city, from the docks to the big shipbuilding yards, and from the Catholic Falls Road to Protestant Sandy Row and Shankill. Even the Independent Orange Order supported the strikers.
Not that the labour movement was all it should be in 1907. The Belfast Trades Council did not back the strike as enthusiastically as it should have done, and nor was there the action from Engish rail unions that Larkin hoped for. This May Day, too, was not all celebration. Along the route of the parade stood protestors challenging the union leaders over their record in airport workers' and dockers' disputes.
Workers had to face troops with bayonets back in 1907. The strike did not win, and the unity did not last. That it was achieved at all, in the face of such hostile employers and press, owed much to Jim Larkin's vision and inspiration. It was this ability to unite working people for a better future that Belfast's trade unionists and socialists can celebrate, and from which they derive hope.
City in Revolt, by John Gray, The Blackstaff Press (1985)
James Larkin: Irish labour leader, 1876–1947, by Emmet Larkin. (London 1965).