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Monday, 26 August 2013 00:00

Why the lockout still matters 100 years on

by Bernadette Hyland

On the centenary of one of the most important industrial struggles in Ireland's history we talk to John Newsinger about his new book on the Dublin Lockout - and its lessons for workers today

Tomorrow marks the centenary of the Dublin Lockout. John Newsinger, the author of new book Jim Larkin and the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913, argues that it was "without doubt the most important industrial struggle in Irish history.

"It was also one of the most important industrial struggles in British history."

A hundred years later he feels that there are lessons that people can still learn from those events.

"The Irish in Dublin at that time were some of the most downtrodden people in Europe.

"But a key aspect of the lockout was the solidarity among workers and the way in which the strong helped the weak."

From 1910 to 1914 there was a massive backlash from working class people in Britain and Ireland against the British state.

In Dublin workers had the lowest wages and worst living conditions as the workforce were often casual workers fighting to survive from day to day.

The dispute lasted six months with over 25,000 people on strike and was led by charismatic trade unionist James Larkin of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.

Newsinger defines Larkinism as "a remarkable movement of working-class revolt and resistance."

Newsinger's book is a highly readable account of the lead-up to the strike and the consequent repercussions for the trade union movement on both sides of the Irish Sea.

He has uncovered new research which he has incorporated into the book, including facts such as that Jim's brother Pete Larkin spoke at a meeting in Sheffield where 20,000 people turned up and the trams had to be stopped.

He used the newspaper of the Social and Democratic Federation, Justice, and local newspapers to discover new facts about the impact of the Dublin lockout in Britain.

But Newsinger feels that there are still big gaps in the story.

"There is no list of places where Larkin spoke when he came to Britain and there is a need for someone to study reports that were published in local papers," he says.

Newsinger is a Marxist historian and trade union activist and in his writing of history he deliberately tells the stories from the people's viewpoint.

"In my past I worked in industry in a sweatshop and even there we turned around our pay and conditions.

"Even in the worst conditions people had a laugh. Sometimes it is the little anecdotes that capture the flavour of real life and of people fighting back."

Often overlooked is the women's role in the lockout and in his new book Newsinger has captured the way in which women were fiery union members.

As the dispute progressed the authorities used the police to baton union members and drive them off the streets.

Often they would be arrested for dubious crimes. Larkin told the story of how a 17-year-old union member was up in court and sentenced to one month's hard labour.

Leaving the dock she shouted: "Three cheers for Jim Larkin." She was hauled back and given another month.

Once again she shouted her support for Larkin but this time the magistrate did not respond.

But it was no laughing matter for union members as over 400 men and women, including most of the union leadership, served time for their activities during the lockout.

James Byrne, chair of the Kingstown Trades Council, died after being on hunger strike.

Newsinger feels there are plenty of parallels with workers today, particularly the casualisation of workers through the use of zero-hours contracts.

"Even where I work in the university sector we have seen the increase in the use of casual contracts," he says.

"I belong to a privileged group of workers and many do not even realise what it means to be on a zero-hours contract.

"Of course my students totally understand it because they are working in shops or supermarkets where this kind of contract is rampant."

He feels there is a lack of knowledge about the history of working-class struggle and hopes that this book will encourage a broader range of readership.

"I don't want people to think it's just nostalgia.

"People can learn from the lockout today and there is a need for a series of small, low-priced books on popular movements that changed society."

Newsinger believes that there should be more access to working-class history where people are shown to be winning even small victories.

"I like the Channel 4 programme The Mill because it shows people fighting back and also having a laugh at authority."

People can still learn from the lockout, he argues - particularly about the importance of solidarity.

"The capitalist class prospers by divide and rule.

"This has to be met with working-class solidarity. The need for rank-and-file organisation and for socialist politics was crucial in 1913 and it remains crucial today."

  • Jim Larkin and the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913 by John Newsinger is available from Bookmarks bookshop, priced £4.

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