The Great Lockout: Dublin 1913

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John Newsinger

Almost exactly 100 years ago, one of the most important struggles of workers on these islands took place. The Great Dublin Lockout of 1913 refers to the herculean efforts by the workers of that city to defend their newly-born - and militant - trade union organisation from a concerted attack by the employers.

This book highlights all the vital elements of that struggle: poverty, militancy, solidarity - on both sides of the Irish Sea - and shamefully, one of the worst sell-outs in the history of the TUC. But like many such fights, it needn't have ended as it did. John Newsinger not only explains why, he also shows why the lessons are still relevant today.

Dublin's workers had the lowest wages and the worst living conditions in Western Europe. Their militancy stemmed from these conditions, and was a key factor in their receptiveness to the "divine gospel of discontent" preached by a militant syndicalist from Liverpool called Jim Larkin.

Larkin's union, the ITGWU, was a rank and file revolt against a British-based leadership that was more interested in collaborating with employers than beating them and refused to back its Irish members whenever they had to fight, which was frequently.

But the union's militancy was much more important than its nationalism. For the workers, solidarity was central. This meant active support for any group in dispute, utmost respect for picket lines, and the blacking of 'tainted' goods. The sympathy strike was the main weapon. And it was a popular means not simply because it was effective, but also because it was key to improving both working and living conditions.

The book is fantastic on the tremendous solidarity that Dublin received from British workers. It tells of large-scale street collections, the likes of which probably weren't witnessed again until the Great Miners' Strike of 1984/85. It tells of food ships and their cargoes, and the solidarity action by railwaymen in Liverpool and beyond, who struck or were locked out rather than touch Dublin traffic.

But the book's main strength is its explanation of how the workers were sold out by the TUC. Larkin was a magnificent leader, but by a whole series of manoeuvres he was outwitted by the bureaucrats. They stamped on solidarity action and ensured Dublin's unionists were starved back to work, beaten. They regarded "Larkinism" as a greater threat than the bosses, and crucially, the rank and file wasn't strong enough to resist. Although they lost, the epic struggle of Dublin's workers is one that deserves to be remembered, not just because it was a century ago, but because we can still learn from it today. And this book is the best introduction to that history.

The Great Lockout: Dublin 1913 is published by Bookmarks, £4