On this day one hundred years ago, 31 August, 1913 it is five days on from the audacious action of tram drivers and conductors with the Dublin United Tramways Company who simultaneously stopped and abandoned their vehicles mid morning on the streets of Dublin causing chaos on the tramlines.
As dramatic and determined a start to an industrial struggle has scarcely been recorded before or since. Before this day is out there will be ferocious clashes between the working class of Dublin and the Metropolitan Police drafted in huge numbers to back the bosses in the strike, labourer James Nolan will be beaten to death by the police and trade union organiser, James Connolly will be arrested. Larkin is in hiding, biding his time until the morrow when he will try to address a banned rally in O’Connell St.
This is only the beginning of what will be an epic struggle waged by the workers of Dublin for a measure of justice in the workplace and more humane living conditions. The storm clouds had been gathering for quite some time signalling the approach of a day of reckoning when the forces of capital and the sweated labour they exploited would clash over the fruits of that labour. In Ireland there is a regime of super exploitation in workers’ wages and working conditions and appalling squalor in their living conditions. It is the unskilled workers, general labourers and farm labourers who are in the most downtrodden conditions.
While these factors were the raw materials from which a mighty struggle might erupt, it was a very identifiable human catalyst that harnessed the pent up anger of the working class into a disciplined fighting force and sent shockwaves through the bastions of exploitation and privilege. Jim Larkin was by all contemporary accounts a human dynamo, articulating his burning rage and indignation at the squalor and exploitation but crucially willing to harness the aspirations of the suffering masses into effective organisation and action to force a change on recalcitrant capitalists. From his arrival in Ireland in 1907 he built a growing force in the newly launched Irish Transport Workers Union leading bold strikes in Belfast and elsewhere and winning stunning concessions by militant action and particularly the use of the ‘sympathetic strike.’
A second key force to emerge was James Connolly. Returning from the United States in July 1910 this veteran organiser became a pivotal figure in Belfast in the organisation of the exploited working class. With great courage and determination but also great imagination he brought together in struggle against the common evils that afflicted them, Protestant and Catholic workers, assisting them to make serious advances. When Larkin was arrested only two days after the launch of the tram strike Connolly is sent for and arrives from Belfast in haste. He will become a lynchpin in the leadership of the Herculean struggle that lies head.
Critical to their launching of industrial movements of workers for better wages and working conditions and key to the fearless leadership which both Connolly and Larkin will provide during the long months of what will become known as the Great Lockout is that both, and many of the men and women around them in the movement, had a very concrete vision of constructing a new world. They identified profit driven capitalism as the motor force of exploitation, and therefore responsible for the hardship and squalor it imposed on working people, and they robustly argued for a socialist alternative.
In 1910 Connolly first became an organiser for the Socialist Party of Ireland. Its Manifesto boldly declared, ‘The Socialist Party of Ireland . . . believes that the dependence of the working class upon the owners of capitalist property, and the desire of these capitalists and the 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.’ It outlined its aim as the working class ‘gaining control and mastery of the entire resources of the country. Such is our aim, such is Socialism.’
This conviction that there was a radical alternative way that society could be transformed was fundamental in giving these workers’ leaders confidence in assisting the launch and conduct of bold struggles for justice of working people across many fronts. This stands out in glaring contrast to the crop of leaders who today occupy the leadership of the workers organisations. As a juggernaut of austerity destroys jobs and living standards to protect the financial markets system they reduce themselves to impotent spectators unwilling to raise a finger to organise a fight back. But in the coming days they will have the audacity to put themselves at the head of events commemorating the sacrifice of the Dublin workers of 1913 whose legacy they most shamefully betray.