The 1907 Belfast strike

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In 1907 Belfast saw the first big battle between the working and employing classes in Ireland. The dockers' and carters' strike was the spark which lit a fire of working class militancy. Workers were flexing their muscle, Catholic and Protestant were uniting, 'Larkinism' was giving the bosses nightmares. Even the police got caught up in the new mood and mutinied.Unskilled workers in the city suffered conditions that are difficult to imagine today. It was quite common to work a 70 or 80 hour week, with wages so low that that pre-teenage children were forced to work in the mills and factories to supplement the family income. Housing was usually one or two rooms in an overcrowded, and often damp, house. Unsurprisingly, diseases like TB were rampant.

In January 1907 James Larkin arrived in Belfast to organise for the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). Within four months he had signed up over 4,000 members, mostly dockers and carters. The new trade union members were enthusiastic and strikes broke out for wage rises and improved conditions. No warning strikes, sympathy strikes, mass pickets and blacking of scab goods were the trademarks of 'Larkinism'.

On June 20th the NUDL submitted a claim to all the shipping companies in Belfast for a minimum wage of 27 shillings and 6 pence, (€2.02) and a 60-hour week. The bosses refused and 3,000 men walked off the job.

PUTTING WORKERS 'IN THEIR PLACE'

The shipping owners, and their friends in government, decided that the workers must be 'put in their place'. Police and troops were used to prevent picketing and protect scabs.

The carters refused to deliver anything handled by scabs. They then put in their own pay claim and 1,000 joined the strike.

While scabs on the docks were safe behind a wall of police and soldiers, scab carters would have to go out onto the streets. The first cart to leave the docks was met by 3,000 strikers and their supporters.

ORANGE SUPPORT FOR THE STRIKE

At the more working class Independent Orange Order demonstration on July 12th the strike was given official backing and a collection taken up. Speakers attacked the ruling class and called for unity between Protestant and Catholic.

Throughout Ireland and in Britain workers demonstrated in support of the Belfast workers. Dockers in many ports refused to handle goods diverted from Belfast. A strike of dockers and carters covering most of Ireland and Britain could have brought the bosses to their knees. But the union leaders refused to call for sympathetic strikes elsewhere, that was too radical a step for them.

The Belfast Trades Council organised a demonstration on July 26th. It turned into a one day general strike, with a march up the Falls and down the Shankill to a rally of 200,000 outside the City Hall.

THE COPS JOIN IN

As this enormous movement unfolded a mutiny broke out within the police. The RIC hadn't received a wage rise for years, they had to work long hours without overtime and now they had had enough. Larkin appealed to the police to go on strike. On July 19th a Constable Barrett was suspended because he refused to escort a scab.

Five days later between 200 and 300 police turned up for a banned meeting. Senior officers were forced to leave the room. The police had mutinied, sending shockwaves throughout the ruling class.

Between 70-80% of Belfast's policemen turned up for the second meeting. But Barrett and the other leaders had no experience in organising strikes and made a big mistake. They gave the authorities a week to concede a pay rise and Barrett's reinstatement before they would go on strike. One week was all that was needed by the Government to rush armed soldiers to Belfast and to transfer the mutineers to the more backward rural areas.

The Government and the ruling class took no chances and 10,000 troops were sent to Belfast along with 1,000 police. Nine warships arrived in Belfast Lough. By Friday 2nd August - the day before the police strike was due to begin - all the leaders of the mutiny had been transferred out of Belfast. Barrett was dismissed and six others suspended. The strike was defeated before it began.

The previous week had seen the strike movement reach a peak; now the strike could only win if it spread. The TUC had already decided they would not try to do this. Seeing the weakness of the union leaders, the government sent in troops to brake up pickets Under military protection scab carters began to work in Belfast.

INVASION OF THE FALLS

But the workers were still far from beaten and the ruling class again turned to the weapon of sectarianism to defeat the strike. The authorities sent 3,200 police and troops into the Falls. Workers were beaten and intimidated, homes were broken into and wrecked; batons and bayonets were used freely.

Locals fought back, and two of them were shot dead. It was widely believed that the workers of the Falls were deliberately provoked in an attempt to brand the whole strike as simply cover for a nationalist uprising. It didn't work, having the opposite effect with Protestants from other areas going up the Falls to back up their Catholic fellow workers in case the police and army returned.

The strike was costing the trade unions huge amounts in strike pay and this was worrying Trades Union Congress leaders. They also felt that things were getting out of hand, that Larkin would lead them into greater conflict with the government. Union officials began visiting Belfast, not to lend assistance but to bring the strike to an end. Some, like the ironworkers, ignored the wishes of their members and settled with the employers without putting anything to a vote of strikers.

Meanwhile the TUC leaders pushed for a solution to the carters' strike. A meeting was organised and the TUC argued that nothing more could be gained. No new strategy to win the strike was put forward, so the carters agreed to go back. The employers conceded the pay rise but refused union recognition. The employers of the dockers finally agreed to let the dispute go to arbitration, which resulted in some pay increases but no union recognition. By the end of August 1907 all the striking dockers and carters were back at work.

Despite premature celebrations by the rich and their pals, the unions were only partially defeated, and were far from broken. Unions for the unskilled were here to stay.

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