1913 Lockout: Looking back to move forward

Nineteen-thirteen was the year of the Dublin lockout and the courageous if unsuccessful struggle of Jim Larkin and the ITGWU against William Martin Murphy and the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. In this centenary year we are confronted with a different form of national lockout through high levels of unemployment, emigration and poverty. Niall Crowley examines if 1913 has anything to say to our current predicament. 


A hundred years seems too big a gap in time to allow for 1913 to be relevant  today. It was a period of unprecedented hardship beyond anything we experience today. Poverty, malnutrition, overcrowding, and unemployment were rampant.

Larkin and the ITGWU not only challenged poor pay and conditions, they also promoted a society where wealth was redistributed, poverty diminished and equality for women promoted.

Huge transfers of public resources are now being made to pay for failed private banks. Austerity policies devastate our public services. Policy underpins a model of society based on inequality, high levels of unemployment and hardship for one growing section of our society. Our need for an alternative could not be more obvious. Yet the constant mantra is that there is no alternative. The relevance of 1913 for today lies in the challenge to develop convincing alternative models of society that break with the vision and policies that currently dominate. We need a vision for a new and different society, a vision capable of mobilising popular support and of advancing change.

The context for both organised labour and civil society generally is different, the resource base altered, and the starting points changed. 1913 was the culmination of signicant change in strategy and tactics by the trade union movement. Before then, trade unions were the preserve of skilled and well-paid workers. Larkin and the ITGWU targetted the unskilled and low paid and brought a whole range of new tactics to bear on trade union militancy. This had already won significant gains for workers before the Dublin lockout.

Civil-society organisations concerned with social justice have now expanded far beyond the trade union which nevertheless remains by far the largest component.  There is a community sector, a cultural sector, a global-justice sector, and an environmental sector, all with track records in this field. Despite this expansion, civil society lacks visibility, creativity and effectiveness in responding to and advancing alternatives to policies that are creating this more unequal society. The 1913 centenary should therefore be a call to action rather than a moment for nostalgia. This centenary must be the moment for a new depth to the alternatives that civil society organisations bring forward and for a new creativity in organisation, tactics, strategies and communication – to convince people of these alternatives.



The current context of precarious employment, unemployment and emigration has to be challenged and changed through the promotion of social justice and increased equality. David Begg, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions examines whether our trade union movement is currently fit for this purpose

In Padraig Yeates’ excellent book about the 1913 Lockout there is a poignant story about a number of ITGWU men, who, unable to win reinstatement on the docks because of their activities in Larkin’s union, joined the Dublin Fusiliers to fight in the First World War. On the 24th April 1915, a number of them took part in an attack on the village of Saint-Julien, near Ypres in Belgium. Yeates explained what happened to them:

“They advanced in faultless order to within a hundred yards of the village, then their line was swept away by machine-gun fire.  The handful who crawled back gave “three cheers for Jim Larkin”, just as if they were once more outside Liberty Hall”.

The period between 1911 and 1913 was one of intense industrial and political activity, beginning with the Wexford Foundry Strike and culminating in the Lockout.  In 1912 in Clonmel, at the nineteenth Irish Trade Union Congress, James Connolly, supported by William O’Brien and James Larkin, proposed the motion to establish the Labour Party. Experience of the limitations of industrial agitation had impressed upon the unions that workers have needs that sometimes need political representation.  However, the immediate catalyst for founding the party was the expectation of an Irish Parliament arising from passage of the third Home Rule Bill in April 1912 and the practical problem that Ireland had been excluded from the British insurance act thus depriving workers of medical benefits.

By 1916 the trade-union movement was in the thick of the Rising with Liberty Hall the centre of preparations and Connolly leading the Citizen Army invasion of the GPO.  But within weeks it had all turned to dust.  Connolly was dead and Larkin was in America, not to return until 1924.

Larkin’s eventual return precipitated a long period of division which did not end until the Irish Congress of Trade Unions was formed in 1959.  The early years of the newly-independent State were bleak. The economic policies of the Cumann Na nGaedheal Government were orthodox conservative and concerned only with advancing agriculture, not industry.  By 1930 membership of the ITGWU was down to 15,000 and it was decided to separate the industrial and political wings of the labour movement lest the low level of trade-union organisation should hold the Labour Party back.

As it happened that is not the way events unfolded. Labour never achieved the electoral success its founders had hoped for. Competing forms of nationalism in the Republic resulted in every issue being conceptualised in terms of independence rather than of class interest.  Social democracy never took hold in the same way as it did in the other small open economics of Europe. The experience of those small open economies is that cross-class coalitions facilitate consensus-building and economic progress but that real social progress is possible only where there is a combination of social democrats in Government working with a united and strong trade union centre.

In fact, the trade-union movement after 1959 developed into a reasonably cohesive force. As a trade-union centre, Congress was unique in Europe, managing to unite workers in two jurisdictions even during the worst years of the civil strife in Northern Ireland.  Its steadfast campaign against sectarianism and for peace became a touchstone for progressiveness on both parts of the island.

In the Republic, Congress opposed Ireland joining the EEC in 1973 out of a concern for jobs in traditional industries.  These fears were well founded as there was a high level of job destruction in the early years of membership.  But a signal victory in an appeal to the European Commission against a Government decision not to implement equal pay began a thaw in attitudes.  The advent of Jacques Delors and his concept of Social Europe secured an even greater level of trade-union support.

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the negotiation of two centralised pay agreements known as ‘National Understandings’.  These were not particularly successful and employers more or less opted out of the process.  Deteriorating economic conditions in the mid-1980s, however, brought centralised bargaining back on the agenda, and so began the era of Social Partnership.

The different actors have their separate reasons why they entered Social Partnership but a strong influence on the trade-union side was to try to create a kind of social market economy redolent of Scandinavia. In a way, it was an attempt to create social democracy without the politics. And, of course, it was in sync with the Delors-inspired model of social dialogue introduced in 1986 as a balance to the liberalism inherent in the European integration project and in the single market in particular.

The collapse of Social Partnership in 2009 instigated a period of reflection about how an institutionalised approach to social and economic policy, which was inclusive and wide-ranging, could have such shallow roots.  While the speed and shock of the onset of recession were undoubtedly factors, Ireland’s experience does seem to bear out the conclusions in the Varieties of Capitalism literature that state that real societal change is only possible through a combination of social democratic involvement in Government and a strong trade union centre. This is the only way institutions of Social Partnership can be embedded as they are in the other small open economies of Northern Europe.

The process of reflection has also prompted the establishment of a Trade Union Commission under the Chairmanship of Philip Jennings, a global union leader based in Geneva. An early initiative was the Nevin Economic Research Institute which, with four economists at PhD level, is already making a big input into public discourse through its Quarterly Economic Observer and other publications. This initiative is based on the realisation that Keynes’ dictum about the dangerous nature of ideas is true and that the biggest challenge of all for the labour movement is to win the contest of ideas.

That, of course, is not the only challenge.  At its most basic the mission of the movement is to promote social justice and increased equality using its collective power as a market actor.  Left to their own devices of ‘creative destruction,’ markets create both wealth and inequality. Collective bargaining is an antidote to that.  The key to a reasonably successful discharge of this mission is to recruit more workers into unions. As things stand, 38 per cent of workers are in unions – good by international standards but not good enough.

The truth is that our movement is not fit for the purpose just described.  There are as many unions in Ireland, which has a population (North and South) of 5.5 million as there are in Britain with a population of 60 million. This is a lamentable duplication of resources and significant reorganisation is, frankly, an imperative.

Despite the glitz of modernity many people today are in precarious employment. They are forced to accept wages and conditions which are not adequate for a decent livelihood.  Many are unemployed, and every day families are broken up through emigration.  This must change.

Our history between 1911 and 1913 was, in one way or another, about the right of workers to bargain collectively for their employment conditions.  This basic human right has not been achieved to this day.  Our hope must be that Labour in Government will be able to legislate for a legal right to collective bargaining in this Centenary year.

David Begg is head of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions


Organising Trade Unionism values equality, fairness, coalitions and grassroots campaigning, over merely servicing union members, writes Ethel Buckley

Workers, their families and communities across Ireland are enduring the ravages of a political-economy model which elevates the individual greed of a small number of people over the common good of the majority. Every gain achieved by workers, acting collectively through their unions, is under attack. The Ireland which emerges from the current crisis will be a very different one to that which has gone before. The degree to which it is better or worse for working people will turn on the power of trade union organisation.

In SIPTU, the union of which I am a member, we are determined to meet this challenge.  We are engaged in a massive transformation programme. We are adopting the organising model of trade unionism, the strategy being to enhance the capacity of the union to grow in membership, organisation and power. We are having an open and, at times, deeply challenging debate within our organisation. What has emerged is the articulation of a vision about the kind of union we want to be.

Organising trade unionism challenges the prevailing ‘servicing model’ by urging a return to first principles.  Somewhere along the way, unions de-valued grassroots organising in favour of a move to providing services to workers.  The servicing model of trade unionism had its heyday in Ireland during the ‘partnership’ years.

Organising trade unionism places value on forging coalitions of interest with non-traditional allies such as NGOs and community groups. Organising unions harness the collective political power of their members.  We have yet to see this take hold in any meaningful way here but, if it does, it could be a game changer in Irish politics.

We are starting to see the green shoots of a renewal. We take heart from the success of our contract-cleaner members whose worker-led ‘Don’t Bin Our ERO’ (Employment Regulation Order) campaign secured a new legally-binding agreement on decent pay and conditions for their industry. Our ‘Better Healthcare, Better Jobs’ campaign is fighting cuts and privatisation in the health service. Thousands of low-paid home-help workers, the majority of whom are women, are joining the union and mobilising in opposition to cutbacks. In the hotels industry we are deploying new strategies, including adapting some of the tactics of ethical consumption, to support quality jobs. Our ‘Fair Hotels’ campaign, which encourages people to use hotels that recognise the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining, is securing better jobs for hotel workers.

We are forging new relationships with non-union organisations who share a vision for a progressive society. Sometimes this poses challenges for us (them too, I imagine) as we try to understand and accommodate each other’s cultural norms.  We are re-connecting with the communities in which we work and live.

Those that want to fashion the future to the benefit of a small few are hell bent on characterising Irish trade unions – that collectively represent over 800,000 workers – as irrelevant.  They do this to undermine union power and to condition the public to oppose unions. The sad fact is that many working people fall for this propaganda even if it is deeply damaging to their own interests.

A 2011 study by professors at Harvard and the University of Washington found that the decline in the number of union members in the US since the 1970s accounted for much of the rise in income inequality there. “For generations, unions were the core institution advocating for more equitable wage distribution”, said the authors. ‘Today, when unions – at least in the private sector – have largely disappeared, that means that this voice for equity has faded dramatically”.

Unions are the means by which workers come together and demand to be listened to. Our purpose is to express collective power through organising for fairness at work and justice in society.  We should not be thought of as an insurance company where a customer takes out a policy in case something goes wrong or as a business set up to sell services.  Our core values of equality, fairness, solidarity and an injury to one being the concern of all are fixed.

The centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout is providing us with an opportunity to reflect on the past and draw parallels with the present.  We will pay homage this year to our proud history and culture.  However, 2013 will mostly be spent building an organising union sufficient to counter-balance the hegemony of neo-liberalism and the disastrous whirlwind its adherents have unleashed on the  lives and well-being of the Irish people.

Ethel Buckley is National Campaigns and Equality Organiser for SIPTU, the  Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union



Unions should sponsor research as to their impact on the equality measure, the gini co-efficient; or risk being seen as a force, sometimes, for the already relatively privilegedMichael Smith

A recent, abrasive argument about Ireland’s relative inequality, as indicated by the gini co-efficient, on Vincent Browne’s TV3 programme between him and the Irish Times’ Dan O’Brien failed to evoke the central fact that Ireland’s equality weirdly increased during the boom but got drastically worse after the downturn in 2009. And it’s deteriorating still. A study by Merrill Lynch in 2010 found that the number of those with more than $1m (€814,640) to spend increased by almost 2,000 by the end of 2009, having decreased drastically in 2008.

Resolving the causes of ascendant inequality must be one of the State’s public policy priorities. It undermines society and, it is  increasingly accepted, the economy.

But what of the role of unions? Unions were at their strongest when equality peaked and, as they have waned, equality has slumped.  Are Unions a force for equality, still?

There are many reasons for economic inequality within societies. According to the head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Angel Gurria in 2011, “the single most important driver has been greater inequality in wages and salaries… People with skills in high demand – in information and communication technologies or specific to the financial sector, for instance – have enjoyed significant earnings and income gains, while workers with low or no skills have been left behind. The increase of top incomes is also the result of companies operating in a global market for talent, as well as of a spectacular rise in bankers’ and top executives’ pay, and of the emergence of a ‘winner-takes-all’ culture in many countries”.

Government policy through taxation policies that do not penalise high pay is also key. Of course in Ireland taxation is something the unions had influence over,  through social partnership.

Union membership in OECD countries is now at historic lows. In egalitarian France – always the least unionised country in the developed world – only one in 12 employees still pay their dues. In the early 1980s, 60 per cent of Irish workers were in a trade union; last year this was down to 32 per cent, at least according to the CSO: ICTU claims the figure omits non-ICTU members and others who don’t declare themselves to the CSO and that it has verified 41%.

Union penetration is skewed by a density approaching 80% in the public sector but only around 20% in the larger private sector. This is often said to reflect the replacement   of unions by legislation as the primary protection for workers’ rights. According to the Central Statistics Office in 2007, union members are now most likely to be over 45, married with children, Irish-born with third-level qualifications and working in semi-professional occupations, especially in the health, education or public administration sectors, rather than the traditional image of being lower-paid vulnerable, low-skill workers. In 2007 just over 79% of employees in the public administration and defence sector were union members  in sharp contrast to the levels recorded in the hotels and restaurants and agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors where membership levels were approximately 8%. Part-time employees are far less likely to be union members than their full-time counterparts. In 2007, 34.6% of full-time employees stated that they were members of a trade union, compared to just under 19% of part-time employees. Employees who usually work 30-34 hours per week were almost 10 times more likely to be members of a trade union than those working 1-9 hours per week.

All this shows that union members are not representative of society.

Pay in large firms in Ireland averages 1824 weekly whereas in small firms which tend to be non-unionised it averages 1547. Paul Sweeney, chief economist of ICTU, claims that this is evidence that unions are pro-egalitarian. But in fact it is merely tentative evidence that unions are effective for their members.  For example if they continue to lobby for the unionised they will become ever wealthier than the non-unionised. The evidence may suggest that if the non-unionised join the union their incomes will increase, but the evidence does not necessarily suggest, assuming they decide not to join, that the unions are a positive force for the betterment of their non-unionised confreres, or indeed of any other workers, non-workers or unemployed – all of whom must be registered in the equality calculus.

If the unions represent 41% of workers but are excluded from, or unrepresentative in whole sectors – many of which are below-averagely  paid, then clearly there is a danger unions are not a force that tends to promote equality. It is possible that ironically, in view of their history, they have become a force for the privileged in certain lucky sectors, that in 2013 it is the non-unionised private-sector worker and unemployed who are locked out.

Margaret Thatcher’s doctrinaire guru, Milton Friedman, believed that unions have “made the incomes of the working class more unequal by reducing the opportunities available to the most disadvantaged workers”. Corroborating this, 1970s research by Albert Rees showed  that unions narrowed the gap between the best-paid manual workers and the very rich and widened the gap between these workers and the very poor. This effect cannot be completely described by calling it either an increase or a decrease in the equality  of income distribution though it seems closer to the latter.

Unions also tend to elevate wages to the detriment of employment and the unemployed – who are less wealthy than union members. The OECD’s Gurria claims that “the most promising way of tackling inequality is, more than ever, to foster the employment of under-represented groups”. In Ireland the ‘working poor’, dependent on Family Income Supplement, highlighted by the Vincentians, also find themselves without a voice.

The Irish Times’ right-of-centre Economics Editor, Dan O’Brien recently stated that the key question for unions is whether they “work for the core membership – now in the public sector – but become increasingly vulnerable to the accusation that they are a conservative force merely protecting insiders who enjoy privileges the majority do not have; or do they subject all positions to the test of universalism and only fight battles for rights that all workers can enjoy? Steadfast opposition to allowing involuntary redundancies in the public sector, while not campaigning for an end to the same sort of lay-offs in the private sector, would appear to provide the answer to that question”.

A 2008 discussion paper by Louis Barraro for the International Labour Organisation, ‘Are Trade Unions Still Redistributive?’ looked at union influence across the world.  It  found that while trade-union density (the proportion of workers in a position to join a union, that do so) has been declining in almost all countries since the late 1980s at the same time as inequality has been increasing, the former does not seem causally associated to the latter, with the exception of Central and Eastern European countries, where the sudden collapse of state-controlled trade unionism seems to have been one of the determinants of growing inequality. However, a historically higher proportion of wage and salaried workers organized by trade unions and a more centralised or coordinated collective bargaining structure leaves a robust legacy of societies that are on average more equal than others. A more in-depth analysis by Barraro of advanced countries, conducted over a longer timeframe, suggests that, beginning with the 1990s, labour ‘institutions’ like trade union density, collective bargaining coverage, and particularly centralized collective bargaining, have become less effective in reducing inequality than they once were.

On the other hand, a major 2011 study from Harvard sociology professor Bruce Western suggests that the decline of unions explains a full third of the growth in income inequality for male workers. Western looked at the period between 1973 and 2007, when inequality in hourly wages spiked by 40 percent. During that time, union membership for private-sector male workers fell from 34 percent to 8 percent (female workers were never as unionised as their male counterparts). He concludes that deunionisation’s biggest effects on inequality were indirect:  it undermined the ‘threat’ of unionisation which had caused non-unionised employers to raise wages, it undermined the moral case for equality which had been almost uniquely championed by Unions, and it made it easier for Government to implement neo-Conservative policies.

The effect of union on income inequality through their influence in collective bargaining is not clearcut. Not coincidentally there is little Irish-oriented, recent research and the international literature tends to focus on the narrow effect of unions on wages in unionised sectors, rather than on their effects on equality in society.

Clearly it is necessary to conduct research to ascertain the effects of union membership on equality and its indicator, the gini co-efficient. We need to look at the effect of unions’ involvement in collective bargaining on equality of income, generally. Unions need to extend their ambitions outward.  We will know the unions have started addressing general equality issues when they start campaigning for  ‘maximum pay’ levels as does the high-profile High Pay Commission in the UK, which has some union membership.

So what of the unions’ effect on equality through Social Partnership?

As regards government policy on equality, in general, the unions primarily representing the public sector have not been vociferous enough in their criticism of government policy because of the now-dead Social Partnership and the Croke Park deal, which have in part bought their silence.

For example, IMPACT sent out a circular to its members last year not to participate in the austerity protest in the run up to the budget.  On the other hand Mandate and Unite reflect the egalitarian agenda a little better perhaps because their members are primarily made of low-paid (private-sector) workers.

Christian-democratic corporatism traditionally dominated Ireland’s Social Partnership.

In the early years of Social Partnership – from 1987 to the early 1990s – ICTU traded wage moderation for tax concessions. But that policy ceased in the mid 90s, as the economy picked up. Instead, unions sought improvements in the ‘social wage’: communal public services, education, health, public transport, schools etc. Government extracted from unions a commitment to greater productivity in exchange for benchmarked pay increases. The benchmarking was essentially abortive and Bertie Ahern was too unfocused to do anything that might upset anyone, especially a strong vested interest. Whether the initial tax reductions and later wage increases were to the benefit of equality appears never to have been researched, though recent widespread anger at the public-sector unions, much of it drummed up by  Independent Newspapers, certainly has propelled a new direction to ‘social dialogue’ and the Government into a fit of public concession-extraction. It is in the interests of policy-makers and society generally – probably of the unions too –  that such research be prioritised.

Since economic collapse ICTU leaders have belatedly pushed for a social-democratic arrangement modelled on some Nordic states’ welfare systems. Indeed a push for quality of life over GDP growth should be a central agenda for ICTU.Unions are not a good in themselves, despite their distinguished history.  They are worthy only insofar as they promote equality, which is best measured analytically through the gini-co-efficient – and for challenging conservative institutions. The days when promoting the interests of union-members was self-evidently egalitarian are over.  To justify their role in society, to the sceptical but well-disposed, of whom there are many, as well as organising and building alliances, Irish unions need to promote more research on their overall influence on equality, across society, and then to optimise that influence