Jim Larkin

Jim Larkin
Jim Larkin, c.1913. The text reads
I can't draw him – he's more like your El Greco man and 6ft 4" high.

Jim Larkin — Irish socialist, trades unionist; known to his followers as "Big Jim" – the nickname earned as much by his large and outgoing personality as by his tallness of stature. He was born in Liverpool in 1876 of Irish parents, raised by his grandparents in Ireland until the age of 9, when he returned to England to start working. By the age of 18 he had risen to be a foreman at Liverpool docks – a position he sacrificed when he went on strike with the boys under him, rather than betray their interests.

Larkin was "the nearest thing to a revolutionary leader that the modern trade union movement has thrown up" – Oxford Dictionary of British History.

Irish labour had been slow to organize. What unions existed tended to cater for skilled craftsmen – boilermakers, plumbers, bricklayers – which were formed as sedate offshoots of British mainland societies. The nationalist movement had concentrated on political change and land reform: the conditions of the urban working class were ignored. In Dublin particularly these conditions were deplorable. Dublin Poor

Dublin, unlike Belfast to the north and the regional centres in Britain, lacked an industrial base. The only significant industries were Guinness's brewery and Jacob's biscuit factory. Unskilled labour accounted for "around half of the workforce" (by comparison, the proportion in Britain in 1911 was 10 per cent).

Dublin Docks
River Liffey and the Dublin Docks

A preponderance of this work centred round the Dublin docks. Dock work was low-paid, bit-rate, dangerous and casual. And there was never enough of it: a labour surplus kept wages down, so that a Dublin labourer was paid 18 shillings for a 70 hour week, two-thirds the average in Britain. At the time, 22 shillings per week was considered the barest minimum to maintain "merely physical efficiency".

High rates of unemployment and under-employment rendered workers "extremely vulnerable to victimization by employers". The playwright Sean O'Casey, a labourer at age 14, records being fined 2 shillings of his 7 shillings and sixpence wages for "impudence and disobedience"; at a later job he was sacked on the spot for not removing his cap while being paid.

"Dublin has little of the bustle which should mark so large a city, and as a matter of fact Belfast is said to transact a greater general trade. There is, too, a spirit of foolish pride which seeks to disown trade; and the tendency to be poor and genteel in the civil service, at the bar, in the constabulary, in the army, in professional life, rather than prosperous in business, is one of the most unfortunate and strongly marked characteristics of Dublin society. That this is attributable to the lingering yet potent influence of an unhappy past is held by some; while others attribute the weakness to the viceregal office and the effects of a sham court." – Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1902 edition.
Guinness brewery Dublin, ca 1910
View across the rooftops of Guinness's St. James's Gate brewery, Dublin, ca. 1910
"Some workers enjoyed unique privileges but only when they worked for unusual masters. The Guinness brewing firm was one such employer. In addition to trade-union rates of pay, there was a daily allowance of two pints of beer per man or exchangeable 'scrip' for use at the company's cooperative store. Pensions up to two-thirds of working wages were payable to retirees at 60. All employees and their families were entitled to free medical service (including the services of a midwife) either at the company's dispensary or on visit by the medical officer. There were liberal sick allowances. And the company also gave annual grants-in-aid to the tradesmen's benefit societies and maintained a savings bank, library, and cafeteria. Nor did benefits end there. There were also excursion allowances in summer, Christmas 'boxes' (though for foremen only), and free breakfasts for draymen and office cleaners. Work hours ranged from 48 to 58 per week. It need hardly be added that trade disputes were practically unknown at Arthur Guinness, Son and Company, Ltd." – O'Brien, Dear Dirty Dublin, 1982.

Jacob's, famous still for its "cream crackers", employed 3,000 girls in its Dublin factory (the female staff at Jacob's were invariably referred to as "girls": the actual teenage girls were known as "mice"). Jobs at Jacob's were coveted by women workers. The alternatives in Dublin were long hours and low pay as a shop girl (than whom "no adult worker could have been more abused") and domestic servitude (house servants represented 40 per cent of female workers in Dublin in 1901).

In August 1911, in one of the lead-up disputes to the Lock-out, the baker's assistants (boys) at Jacob's struck for higher wages and better conditions. "On that occasion occurred one of the most remarkable instances of workers' solidarity in the history of the city when 2,000 girls of Messrs. Jacob came out in sympathy." These Jacob's "mice" were also "out" in the Lock-out of 1913.

Dony MacManus, Linesman
Dony MacManus, "The Linesman", 1999, on City Quay, Dublin – statue commemorating the Dublin dockers.
"Of all occupations, dock labor was one to which in the general opinion something of a stigma was attached. Although many a bona-fide skilled dock worker in regular employment could earn higher wages than the general laborer, dock labor was of such a nature that a surplus labor pool needed to be on hand at all times and this attracted an army of unskilled 'casuals' with a reputation for thriftlessness and intemperance who because of their precarious existence seemed destined sooner or later for the workhouse. Many of these so-called dockers were lucky to earn as little as 5s. a week." – O'Brien, Dear Dirty Dublin, 1982.
Badge of the ITGWU

Larkin's response was to form in 1908 the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union – "the Church militant here on earth of the Irish workers" as Sean O'Casey, an early member, described it.

In theory this was to be the "one big union", advancing the cause of all workers alike, from labourers to craftsmen. But in practice it organized Dublin's unskilled.

Liberty Hall
Union headquarters "Liberty Hall", c.1913

Larkinism was Larkin's own personal blend of socialism, syndicalism, republicanism and modern militant trades unionism. His tactics were the sympathetic strike (calling out uninvolved workers to encourage employers as a class to settle disputes) and "blacking" goods (boycotting and refusing to handle the products of unsympathetic firms, just as these firms themselves "blacklisted" workers whom they regarded as "agitators").

These were inflammatory notions at the time: they speedily lost him any support from the British Trade Union Congress. In Ireland, they were revolutionary. What next? – parlour maids unionised? the barefoot newsboys in the street? (In fact the Dublin newsboys did enrol in the Union and Larkin reached out to Dublin's teeming female servantry.) His every victory seemed a step towards social collapse. He was becoming too powerful, too successful and far too popular.

Jim Larkin speaking
Iconic photograph, c.1923, of Larkin addressing his followers

Larkin's energy and magnetism, his gifted oratory, endeared him to the Dublin poor who flocked in their thousands to join. His headquarters at Liberty Hall was a venue for song and dance as much as speeches and exhortation, giving "a welcome and twenty to all who came to fight for a life something higher than the toiling oxen and the bleating sheep":

Liberty Hall
A Larkin rally, c.1913
"He talked to the workers, spoke as only Jim Larkin could speak, not for an assignation with peace, dark obedience, or placid resignation; but trumpet-tongued of resistance to wrong, discontent with leering poverty, and defiance of any power strutting out to stand in the way of their march onward. His was a handsome tense face ... the voice deep, dark, and husky, carrying to the extreme corners of the square, and reaching, Sean thought, to the uttermost ends of the earth." – O'Casey, Drums under the Window, 1945.

In the streets the children sang:

Bring your own bread and butter,
Bring your own tea and sugar,
And join Jim Larkin's Union.
Irish Women Workers Union

He organised a temperance campaign, and he ended the practice of casual labourers being paid their wages in public houses (the publican was usually a crony of the foreman, and a worker who hadn't spent sufficient on alcohol would find himself unemployed the following week). He founded, with his sister Delia Larkin, the Irish Women Workers' Union, the "first, and only long-lived Irish all-women's trade union".

To the Dublin working class he was a hero.

The alarm of the Dublin employers led them in turn to organize. In August 1913 they announced that no one – man, woman or child – might work in Dublin unless first he pledged to repudiate Larkin's union. Thus began the great Dublin Lock-out. Six months later, their families starving, the Dublin workers surrendered.

"He was a man of amazing personality, who exercised a compelling influence over the workers. He shook them out of their deadly stupor, lectured them in a manner that they were not accustomed to, brow-beat them and, though he made them suffer in body over the weary months of the strike, he infused a spirit into them they had not known before. He made the world ring with the shame of Dublin's slums and he did much to make men of those who were little better than dumb-driven animals. He united the Capitalists of Ireland against him in a powerful organisation, and though they broke his strike they did not break the spirit that was behind it." – Sheehan, Ireland Since Parnell, 1921.

Larkinism, like so many Irish endeavours, ended in failure, and like so many Irish failures it proved the basis of future betterment. Larkin had mobilised the Dublin workers for the first time and employers afterwards dared not treat their employees with quite the same "casual brutality and indifference" as in the past.

Larkin statue, Dublin
Larkin Statue, O'Connell St, Dublin — Oisín Kelly, 1977

In October 1914 Larkin, "worn out and frustrated", left Ireland for the United States. Whilst there he joined the Socialist Party of America, and was involved in organizing the Industrial Workers of the World or "Wobblies" as they're better known. He was arrested in 1919 during the "Red Scare", and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment at Sing Sing, New York. In 1923 he was granted a free pardon.

He returned to Dublin to a triumphant welcome, but he never regained his position as head of an Irish labour movement. He was a TD (member of the Irish parliament) on and off till his death in 1947. At his funeral Sean O'Casey told how Larkin had brought to the labour movement "not only the loaf of bread but the flask of wine". His statue in O'Connell Street, Dublin, proclaims in English, French and Irish the slogan of the French Revolution: "The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise."