Ireland has a history of organised labour. Workers began to form permanent combinations and to wage strikes to protect and improve their conditions of employment. Trade unions were decriminalised in June 1824 when the Combination Acts which had made trade unionism illegal were abolished. Initially, British trade unions played an important role with many Irish workers involved in British based trade unions. The Dublin United Trades Association was established in 1863 and it joined the British Trade Union Congress in 1868. The late 1800s witnessed numerous strikes in Ireland although there were also reverses for the labour movement. In 1890, Michael Davitt, the social radical and anti-landlord activist, launched the Irish Democratic Trade and Labour Federation; Eleanor Marx inspected conditions in shirt factories in Derry and addressed a gas-workers’ demonstration in Dublin in 1891 and the Irish Trade Union Congress was established in 1894 amid complaints of neglect of Irish concerns by the British TUC. At this stage there were some 93 trade unions in Ireland. The development of organised labour was reflected in trade union numbers, the inauguration of May Day parades and the growth of trade councils in towns across Ireland. In 1897 Belfast trades council had 56 affiliates and 17,500 members.
At this time a number of organisations which proclaimed themselves socialist were set up – branches of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League in 1885, the Independent Labour Party in 1892, James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896, the latter affiliating to the Second International and sending three delegates to the Paris Congress of 1900.
James Connolly left Ireland for the USA in 1903. When Connolly returned to Europe from America it was once again a Europe with revolutionary prospect in the air. The 1906 Linen Strike in Belfast in which women workers mobilised and took to the streets in vast numbers and the Belfast Dockers’ and Carters’ strike of 1907 was the culmination of a period of industrial conflict and was a significant and militant development in the history of the pre-war labour movement in Ireland. In 1910 there were strikes by British workers - cotton workers, boiler makers and Welsh miners. In July and August 1911 there were huge strikes of dockers, carters and seamen and a four-day railway strike that paralysed most of industrial England. The economic decline of the UK; the growing inequality; the steady fall in the real value of wages; the growth of trade unionism and militant political ideas were significant factors in these developments.
The Irish Transport and General Workers Union which had been established by James Larkin in 1909 was a militant force for labour. In August 1913, the employers, led by William Martin Murphy, decided to crush the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Murphy told workers from his newspaper company that they must resign from the union or be sacked. Workers were also asked to sign a written assurance that they would not strike. When the union responded, Murphy locked out all employees of the despatch department who were union members. When 700 tram workers walked off their trams, the Employers’ Federation locked out their employees. By 22nd September 1913, some 25,000 Dublin workers were affected and around 27 unions were locked out. In an open act of class war the employers’ organisations were attempting the total destruction of the trade union movement. A warrant was issued for Larkin’s arrest on a charge of “seditious conspiracy” and he was subsequently arrested and dragged from the balcony of the Imperial Hotel where he was attempting to address a meeting on O’Connell Street which was then attacked mercilessly and indiscriminately by police.
Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, a passionate advocate of women’s suffrage, wrote: “The general lock-out had developed into a mass resistance to the employers’ onslaught on trade unionism and personal liberty and throughout the world Dublin and Liberty hall had become the symbol and the standard bearer of trade unionism in a battle for its very existence.”
James Connolly too was arrested and imprisoned. The actions of Connolly and Larkin and the resistance of the workers incurred the anger of the capitalist class. Although the battle was lost, as Connolly wrote “the working class has lost none of its aggressiveness, none of its confidence, none of its hope in the ultimate triumph …” A militant working class had emerged aware of its exploitation and the need to organise. In March 1914 Larkin and Connolly reconstituted the Irish Citizen Army and the new constitution declared “That the first and last principle of the Irish Citizen Army is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland”.
The Socialist Party of Ireland, of which Connolly was then national organiser, stated in its Manifesto: “The Socialist Party of Ireland seeks to organise the workers of this country, irrespective of creed or race, into one great Party of Labour. It believes that the dependence of the working class upon the owners of capitalist property, and the desire of these capitalists and landowners to keep the vast mass of the people so subject and dependent, is the great and abiding cause of all our modern social and political evils – of nearly all modern crime, mental degradation, religious strife, and political tyranny. Recognising this, it counsels the Irish working class to follow the example of the workers in every civilised country in the world, whether subject or free, and organise itself industrially and politically with the end in view of gaining control and mastery of the entire resources of the country. Such is our aim: such is Socialism.”
In recent years there has been a decline in trade union density – the proportion of employees who are union members – in Ireland although there was an increase in membership at the outset of the 2008 capitalist crisis. This decline in union membership may be due to a number of factors, including, the role of multi-national corporations hostile to trade union recognition and the high levels of workers engaged in precarious work. In contemporary Ireland, working within the confines of a capitalist economy, trade unions have limited themselves to a protective function, attempting to defend, and where possible, expand workers’ rights, in essence bargaining for better pay and conditions and a “more equitable” system of distribution within the context of capitalist power rather than attempting its overthrow.
There is only one union confederation, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) formed in 1959 by the merger of the Irish Trade Union Congress and the Congress of Irish Unions (founded in 1945). ICTU represents around 832,000 workers affiliated through 64 trade unions in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The affiliated unions include 21 British based unions. There is only a small number of trade unions outside the ICTU. In Ireland, as in Britain, multi-employer bargaining at sectoral level has virtually disappeared and unions generally have to win recognition company by company.