Solidarity not Sectarianism – The Belfast Dock Strike 1907

This much delayed post was initially intended to be posted in August, on the 110th Anniversary of the 1907 Belfast dockers strike and against the backdrop of the McStrike action across the UK.

In 1907 the British Labour Party held its first annual conference in the city of Belfast, in attendance was an, at the time, obscure trade unionist, James Larkin. Belfast was Ireland’s second city and an industrial centre with a notoriously unequal distribution of wealth. James arrived in the city determined to unionise Belfast’s dockers, many of whom worked informal hours on a day to day basis with no guaranteed working hours or income. James Larkins National Union of Dock labour would soon swell to have a membership numbering in the thousands in the city.

The strikes began in April when non-unionised workers began a strike over pay in an engineering works owned by Samuel Davidson, following this Davidson quickly sacked the unionised workers within his work force, who he blamed for sowing the seeds for the strike. When prominent coal merchant Samuel Kelly followed suit soon after almost his entire workforce walked out. by early may James Larkin and the dockers would join them, walking out in dispute over having to work with non-unionised labour. Non-unionised workers were brought in from Liverpool to keep the industries going and soon there was a vast army of labour working in Belfast Docks under the protection of the police. Following this the strike escalated with tobacco and iron workers striking and by June 26th Larkin called out all dock workers on strike and urged transport workers not to move goods from companies involved in the conflict. 880 porters would join Larkins call for solidarity and soon the docks were ground to a halt and riots in support of the strikers broke out in both Catholic and Protestant areas of Belfast, notably on the nationalist Falls Road in the West and the mainly protestant Ravenhill Road in the east. On the eve of the 12th of July, a date associated with sectarian conflicts in Belfast, a mass rally in support of the strikers was held in Belfast that crossed the sectarian divide and a parade including both Irish Nationalist and Unionist flute bands. By the 16th of July the police would come out on strike in protest of being made to protect imported strike breaker labour.

Throughout the whole period the strike leaders and unions were subject to a slanderous and sectarian campaign as the press and the colonial establishment attempted to sow disharmony between the workers by exploiting their differences. A previous attempt at unionising dockworkers in 1891 had failed after the press had successfully managed to turn protestant workers against catholic workers by characterising the strikers as ‘fenian’. However, in 1907 the strike would hold despite a relentless propaganda campaign by big business and the Orange Order. Ironically James Larkin, frequently denounced as a ‘papist’ or ‘fenian’ by the protestant establishment throughout this period would later be denounced as ‘an orangeman’ and ‘an atheist’ when he began to organise predominantly catholic labour in Dublin.

However, despite the solidarity of the workers the end of the strike was beginning when on August 1st the Royal Navy deployed 9 warships to Belfast, which by now with the solidarity of the police was an entire city united in revolt. The authorities moved quickly, transferring 200 police officers viewed as ringleaders of the police mutiny out of Belfast. Then on the 11th August 3200 troops occupied working class areas of the city resulting in the death of 2 workers and the injuring of many more. As mass repression was carried out on the streets of Belfast the reactionary elements of the trade union establishment worked against the Belfast workers. The less radical British leadership of the Unions involved negotiated weak agreements with the industrialists and urged their members to go back to work. Finally, on 28th August the British head of the NUDL conceded and instructed the dockers to return to work. Although small localised disturbances would continue throughout the winter the strike was broken.

Following the strike ‘Larkinism’ as it was dubbed would be universally condemned by the Nationalist and Unionist establishment. Sinn Fein condemned union militancy as ‘an English disease’ whilst Unionist figures tried to connect the strikers with Irish Nationalism. 3000 workers from all areas of the cities were forced out of the shipyards due to their perceived socialist sympathies and the working class unity that had prevailed throughout the strike was shattered. The Irish trade union movement drifted away from the trade union movement of the mainland UK, Larkin would continue to organise and fight for worker’s rights across Ireland notably in Dublin and Sligo.

 

References

Patterson, H. (1980) Class Conflict and Sectarianism: The Protestant Working Class and the Belfast Labour Movement, Belfast, Blackstaff Press.

Morgan, A. (1991) Labour and Partition: The Belfast Working Class 1905-23, London, Pluto Press

Gray, J. (1985) City in Revolt: James Larkin and the Belfast Dock Strike of 1907,Belfast, Blackstaff Press.james-larkin

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