We have a Dublin Lockout centenary exhibition coming up here at the National Library of Ireland this August, but many other protracted labour struggles took place in other parts of Ireland in 1913. In this blog post, author and historian Padraig Yeates looks at a dispute in Sligo between March and May of that year...
A forerunner to the Dublin Lockout that ended in victory
The Great Dublin Lockout of 1913 has overshadowed other industrial disputes that year but a similar battle took place six months earlier in Sligo port. It had almost as much impact locally as the Dublin Lockout and it caused massive disruption to trade in the North-West. Like the Dublin dispute it was over trade union recognition but in this case it ended in victory.
The dispute began on March 8th, 1913, when seamen on the SS Sligo demanded extra money for handling cattle. The employer, the Sligo Steam Navigation Company, rejected the claim. The seafarers were members of the National Union of Sailors and Firemen, which had a good working relationship with Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). In fact, John Lynch, President of the local ITGWU branch was also the local delegate (or shop steward) for the NUSF.
When the seamen went on strike the dockers supported them. Members of both unions left the ship with the cattle on board. This caused significant loss to the company and embittered relations from day one of the dispute. Four of the five seamen involved in the action subsequently received seven days' imprisonment each for deserting their posts.
The ITGWU was stronger in Sligo than anywhere else along the western seaboard. The county and the port were the most industrialised in Connacht.
The situation escalated rapidly when the company decided to man the ship with members of the Garvey and Verdon families, who were stevedores in the port. They returned from Liverpool with a group of strike breakers on Monday, March 10th and, during a confrontation with ITGWU strikers that day, Patrick Dunbar was attacked by members of the Garvey family and killed. In the words of the Sligo Champion, ‘things have now assumed an aspect which grossly threatens the commercial prosperity of the port and the town generally’.
The main focus of the dispute now changed from extra cash for seamen handling cattle, to union recognition. A proposal was made to settle the dispute on the basis that:
- Employers could use ‘free labour’ if they chose
- The Verdon-Garvey group could continue working on the Steamship Company quay
- James Verdon could remain a Stevedore agent with the Sligo Steamship Company
- The strike issues would be reviewed
- A joint committee of three members of the Importers' Association and three representatives of the men would conduct the review within three months
- No strike action would take place while the review took place
- The Review Committee could also review pay and conditions ‘from time to time’
The ITGWU organiser, PT Daly, who was sent from Dublin to assist the local leadership, was willing to accept all the conditions except the first. When the employers insisted on their right to employ ‘free labour’ the dispute continued.
The strike lasted for 56 days during which time there were renewed clashes on the docks and riots in the town when the property of some leading firms, including Pollexfen and Company, Harper Campbell Ltd., Suttons, Newsome and Sons, and Messrs Thomas Flanagan were attacked. Dozens of strikers were fined and/or imprisoned. The union retaliated by organising a mass meeting in Sligo Town Hall and a boycott of shops that sold goods brought in on company ships. The Connacht Manufacturing Company, of which Sir Josslyn Gore Booth (a brother of Countess Markievicz) was a director, was among the companies affected.
Eventually the high cost to the ratepayers of maintaining soldiers and police drafted into Sligo, along with the collapse of trade, led to negotiations under the auspices of Sir Josslyn’s agent, JA Cooper, and Alderman John Jinks. Agreement was reached on May 6th. The terms were not made public but the key change was that ‘free labour’ would not be employed on the docks, only ITGWU members.
The victory in Sligo was achieved at the same time as the union was fighting a bitter three month battle for better pay at the City of Dublin Steamship Company and it was a morale booster for the Dublin dockers and carters. The union eventually won the City of Dublin Steamship Company dispute, only to face an offensive from employers to crush the ITGWU a few weeks later. While the Lockout was successful in the short term for the employers it had no consequences in Sligo, where employers had a new found respect for the union and the power of organised labour.
Padraig Yeates, author and historian