“… to organise the workers of Ireland for the attainment of full economic freedom.”
So reads a section of the rules submitted to the Registrar of Friendly Societies on 15th July 1924 by Peter Larkin for the creation of a new union, the Workers Union of Ireland. The trades and occupations organised by the WUI were listed as ‘dockers, coal carters, builders, bakeries, public services, distributive and productive and miscellaneous.’
The Union was in part a product of a very public falling out between the leadership of the ITGWU, (in particular General Secretary William O’Brien) and Jim Larkin on his return from the United States, where he served three years of a five to ten year sentence meted out in the midst of the first ‘Red Scare.’ Larkin’s return was well heralded, and there was an assumption on his part that he would walk back into a leadership role in the union, something which was not forthcoming. His stubbornness to adapt his anarchic oratory style and organisational methods did not endear himself to the leadership of the ITGWU, though in a short time many of that Union’s members would abandon en-masse to join the new Union, swayed by the personality cult around Larkin. Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain said of him around the time
Jim Larkin and his most immediate associates can think of nothing else but Jim Larkin. It is difficult to argue or venture any opinion that does not coincide with his own, and yet the man is undoubtedly a leader.
A bitter pay dispute between the Shipping Federation and the ITGWU added to the conflict, with the latter sensing (correctly) Larkin’s influence on a number of workers unwilling to accept a compromise won by the ITGWU on their behalf. A third factor was a dispute between the Union and one of it’s members who on being promoted, refused to give up their ITGWU membership. Strike action was approved at branch level in support of their case, but William O’Brien refused to sanction Strike Pay. Larkin was (again correctly) assumed the instigator, putting the final nail in the coffin. This incident led to an occupation of Liberty Hall by a group of men including Larkin. The occupation ended after Liberty Hall was surrounded by the new Free State army with truck mounted guns, and the men arrested and charged with trespass.
Following on from this incident, and with Larkin having left Dublin on 27th May 1924 to attend the meeting of the Comintern in Russia, his brother Peter announced the foundation of the new union- arguably despite instructions to the opposite. Regardless, Jim would join the Union as General Secretary on his return from Moscow on 25th August 1924. As previously mentioned, membership of the ITGWU temporarily hemorrhaged with upwards of 40, 000 workers deflecting to the new WUI, the latter now known now colloquially as ‘Larkin’s Union,’ and its members proudly identifying as ‘Larkin’s Men.’
There was to be nothing but acrimony between the two unions whose members would not work peacefully alongside each other as comments in this letter from William Smith O’Brien to Thomas Johnson show-
Things have gone fairly smoothly with us here, especially in the coal dispute where we are getting stronger every day that passes. We have now a very large number of men engaged and are putting on extra men practically every day. There have been a considerable number of attacks on our men, but the position is not as bad as we expected. A bomb was thrown last Saturday into the Custom’s House docks where a number of our men are housed, but no damage was done.
The dispute above occurred in July 1925, when the Coal Merchant’s Association, fed up of the constant conflict between members of the two Unions, temporarily locked both sets of workers out and refused to re-admit them until men employed in the coal yards could work amicably together. The ITGWU would break, with scabbing members returning to work under no little intimidation from WUI members- newspaper reports tell of ITGWU men and their families suffering harassment at the hands of their WUI counterparts, with fights a regular occurrence, and a near riot breaking out at Alexandra Basin where coal was being unloaded.
The feud culminated in a Mill’s bomb (a type of hand grenade) being thrown into an ITGWU manned dockyard near Connolly station. Though without much damage or destruction, the incident could have been a lot worse. The blast, which rang out across the north inner city occurred near a shed in which the Union men, all but permanently stationed at the site were resting. An Irish Times article sub headed ‘Supposed Attempt at Intimidation’ reported
The eight coal workers were in their hut, just thirty yards from the office and close to the high wall and the ‘up’ platform of the station. It appears that only one piece of the bomb struck the hut. It pierced the iron side and buried itself in the bed of one of the men, who was on the point of falling asleep at the time. He had a wonderful escape, for the hole made by the bomb splinter was about two inches from his head. (IT, 28/9/1925)
The report also spoke of the ‘professionalism’ of the attack- the distance and accuracy of the throw suggesting that the bomb was thrown by someone who knew what they were doing; unsurprising given the country wasn’t long out of the horrors of the Civil War.
In an attempt to gain the upper hand in the feud, Larkin struck a deal with a Welsh pit owner, and imported hundreds of tonnes of coal which he sold to WUI members and Dublin’s poor at cost price, killing two birds with one stone- providing affordable fuel which was dubbed ‘Unity Coal’ to Dublin’s needy, and part funding his strike in the process. Larkin would claim that provision of affordable coal to the poor of Dublin ‘taught the employers of Dublin the old spirit of militant unionism is not dead in this country.’ With Larkin’s Union owing £12, 000 to the pit-owner, supply was threatened- in return, Larkin argued that if the strike should fall, then there would be no money to pay for the coal; an argument he would win, though its highly probable no payment passed hands. The Lockout was not to end amicably- the workers returned to the yards but a bitterness between the two Unions was to remain for decades.
Many thanks to Aileen O’C and Donal for their help with this article.