James Larkin: Changing the Landscape of Unskilled Labor in Ireland

Working conditions in Ireland were rough at the turn of the twentieth century. Labor unions existed for skilled and educated workers, but unskilled workers, which made up three fourths of the workforce, were underpaid and working in unsafe conditions without any kind of organization to promote change. Nationalist movements swept through the land, focusing on political change and ignoring the plight of the working class.

Meanwhile, James Larkin, a young dock worker in Liverpool born to Irish emigrant parents, participated in his first strike in 1905 and became enthralled with socialism, equal rights and better working conditions for all laborers. Jim became the full-time organizer for the National Union of Dock Laborers (NUDL) in 1906 and made his way to Ireland the following year.

Larkin tried to organize the unskilled labor force when he first arrived in Belfast, but NUDL officials settled with business owners without him. Rather than continue to have his efforts thwarted, Larkin established his own union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). Gaining success rapidly, the ITGWU became the largest union in Ireland within three years.

James Larkin had organized most of the laborers of the Ireland under the ITGWU, but was resisted by William Martin Murphy, a conservative nationalist and owner of the Dublin United Tramway Company (DUTC). In 1913, Murphy told all DUTC workers to either renounce the ITGWU or be fired.

As a result, on August 26th, Larkin mobilized ITGWU-member workers to strike, but rather than conceding to workers’ demands, the DUTC locked the ITGWU out and attempted to replace them with new workers.

The 1913 Dublin lockout went on for a month before violent clashes between workers and police became the norm. By January 1914, ITGWU members lacked resources to continue their strike and gradually rejoined the workforce. Read more: Jim Larkin – Biography

Though Larkin had technically failed to cause the massive social change he wanted, he had successfully mobilized Dublin’s unskilled labor force, which made employers fear retaliation of workers in the future. Larkin had succeeded in improving working conditions in Ireland.

James Larkin left for the United States in 1914, but was imprisoned for three years during the Red Scare. He was deported in 1923 and died in 1946 without ever regaining the power he once held in European labor unions.

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