Jim Larkin and His Irish Unions

At the turn of the twentieth-century, working conditions for unskilled laborers in Europe could only be described as atrocious. Disease ridden housing conditions led to a dispraportionately high infant mortality rate, and malnourishment and overcrowding promoted the spread of tuberculosis throughout the population. There could be as many as 835 people living in just 15 houses, and these conditions inspired people to organize against their employers and fight for a living wage. Read more: The Definite Biography of Big Jim Larkin

Unskilled workers would have to compete for a job on a daily basis, with the hiring being done in pubs and the lowest bidder being given the job. James Larkin sought to defy the status quo and held a unique vision for the time, and through a relentless work ethic he built a Union of workers to hold the most severe work strike in Irish history.

James held a syndicalist world view, and this idea of civilization was the catalyst that motivated him to form the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. It was his belief that the means of production should be under the control of the workers who produce, and that the management of an industry should be regulated through multiple units of representatives of workers from every department that specializes in their respective area. These specialized units would be in control of managing and negotiating economical terms.

Yet the most controversial idea supported by Larkin’s syndicalism was that workers from completely unrelated areas of the workforce should volunteer themselves to the strikes of others.

Founded as a “general union” the Irish Transport and General Workers Union held the Dublin Lockout using this form of protest, and for seven months the 20,000 workers held strong in their battle for the right to unionize.

The venture ended in failure, with British agents rejecting Larkin’s request for a sympathetic strike. Most of the workers ended up signing pledges to never join a union, and the defeat left James disenchanted as he departed for a career in oratory in the United States. He arrived in America in 1914 and used his time to raise funds for the operation of his union. Learn more about Jim Larkin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8QqK8YbbaI

To be more specific, Larkin was working on an elaborate headquarters for the organization to operate from, and he needed a huge amount of support to achieve his vision.

But in 1920 he was jailed for “criminal anarchy” for publishing radical communist materials during the First Red Scare. He was sentenced, and later deported to Ireland to continue his communist activism.

Although he was received as a hero when he arrived back in Ireland, sources that worked closely with him describe an egotistical narcissism that eventually led to his demise within the union he created.

After what has been described as a slanderous attack on leading members of the organization during a dispute, Larkin was expelled from the ITGWU and forced to form a new union.

The Workers’ Union of Ireland still exists in some form today as a conglomerate with other unions, and exists as a testament to Larkin’s will. James died peacefully in his sleep in January of 1947, yet his work still continues.