On May 16, 1920, workers took over thirteen creameries in Limerick, Ireland, beginning an occupation that would reverberate across the country. They hoisted a red flag over the central plant at Knocklong and unfurled a banner: “We make butter, not profits. Knocklong Creamery Soviet.”
Though the workers relented on May 22, after demands on wages and working conditions were met, the Knocklong Soviet raised the specter of workers’ control and generated widespread interest in labor circles. The creamery seizure is also noteworthy because it came at a time when, according to popular memory, class struggle had given way to the independence struggle. Throwing off the chains of the British — rather than those of the employer class — was supposed to have animated Irish workers during those years.
Even within the labor movement, militant trade unionism is presumed to have arrived with “Big Jim” Larkin in 1907 and to have been crushed during the 1913 Lockout. Any remnants of revolutionary socialism, the story goes, were buried with James Connolly’s body after the Easter Rising.
Yet between 1917 and 1923, Ireland was gripped by a wave of worker militancy. Trade unionists across the island occupied their workplaces — including bakeries, mental asylums, mines, and trains — establishing over one hundred soviets.
Those six years remain a high point in the history of Irish socialism.
In the years leading up to the Easter Rising, the trade union movement had little more than a foothold in Irish industry. More than seven out of nine employees, the 1911 census reported, worked in largely unorganized, subsistence-wage sectors such as agriculture and domestic work. Unions had a stronger presence in the shipbuilding and engineering trades, as well as among bakers, butchers, and candlestick makers.
Despite the concentration of union members in craft trades, the size of the unskilled workforce meant any union that managed to recruit a fraction of general workers would be in a position to dominate the Irish Trades Union Congress (which, in 1911, had just fifty thousand members).
Those employed in transport and essential services were especially important. Located at the hinges of commercial infrastructure, where strikes would have an immediate impact, transport workers were the best positioned for successful industrial action.
Putting that latent power into action, Irish transport workers walked off the job at a rate that dwarfed their counterparts. Between 1907 and 1912, the sector accounted for 33 percent of strikers and 33 percent of strike days. In contrast, over the same period, 12 percent of strikers and roughly 4 percent of strike days in the United Kingdom were tied to the transit industry.
Irish transport workers also acted as a bridge to other general workers. And because of their isolation, skilled workers were willing to support transport workers when they took the initiative. Transport was also a growth sector. The 1891 census noted 38,231 “persons engaged on railways, roads, rivers, seas, storage, conveyancing messages etc”; by 1911, that number had more than doubled.
If transport workers were the pivotal bloc of laborers, Jim Larkin was the union movement’s central leader. Larkin arrived in Ireland in 1907 as an agent of the Liverpool-based National Union of Dock Labourers. Initially, he tried to follow his union’s policy of avoiding strikes. But within months he concluded that only militant tactics, particularly solidarity actions, could break the resistance of Irish employers to unskilled worker organizing.
Before the end of the year, Larkin split with Liverpool and formed the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). Irish unions had long been reliant on the British labor movement, and by the early twentieth century many activists were asking whether it would ever commit the resources needed to take on Irish employers. Larkin’s ITGWU was resolutely independent from British control — an Irish union for Irish workers, as he put it, that also embraced socialism.
Larkin’s approach to unionism developed into its own school of thought. Larkinism drew on syndicalism — the philosophy of worker control then spreading across the English Channel from France — but incorporated other important elements as well. As Larkinism matured, it came to mean a method of sympathetic action, a strategy of industrial unionism, a politics of socialist republicanism, a morality of class solidarity, and an ambition to create a worker counterculture.
The Red Flag Times
In 1913, following a wave of industrial militancy across Ireland, Larkinism was dealt a severe setback when over four hundred Dublin employers combined to smash the ITGWU. Yet by 1917, labor was on the march again, militant, radical, and heavily influenced by syndicalism. Employers would remember the years that followed as the “red flag times.”
While the climate of class struggle internationally and the political revolution domestically contributed to the change in labor’s fortunes, the primary cause was the war. Ireland experienced World War I in two distinct phases. From 1914 to 1916, Irish employers were rewarded with great prosperity for meeting the needs of Britain’s war economy, while workers endured declining real wages. The second phase was friendlier to workers, who benefited from government intervention in war-related industries and improved economic conditions.
Trade unionism exploded in all directions. From under 100,000 in 1916, Congress-affiliated membership reached 225,000 in 1920. Trades councils multiplied, growing from fifteen in 1918 to forty-six by 1921.
In December 1916, under severe rank-and-file pressure, the London-based National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) sanctioned a national strike in Ireland. When private interests would not meet their pay demands, the government stepped in to keep the war effort running smoothly, taking control of Ireland’s thirty-two railway companies and awarding workers a substantial war bonus.
Over the next nine months, the NUR’s Irish affiliation rocketed from 5,000 to 17,000 members. It was a victory for the rank-and-file over the union’s London executive, as well as for the union over the railway companies. NUR members launched the monthly journal New Way and developed the most articulate rank-and-file movement Ireland would see during those years.
Wartime state intervention helped workers in other ways too. As food supplies worsened in the winter of 1916–17, the government introduced tillage orders, obliging farmers to bring at least 10 percent of their arable land under the plough in 1917, and an additional 5 percent in 1918. Because of the labor-intensiveness of tillage, the measure buttressed farm workers’ value in the labor market. In September 1917, the government also established an Agricultural Wages Board to set compulsory minimum pay and conditions.
The food supply crisis gave the ITUC a social purpose and widened the orbit of industrial struggle. Workers, especially NUR men, responded to profiteering by setting up consumer cooperatives that, though limited in scale and duration, helped mold the inchoate anticapitalist sentiment growing in the popular consciousness.
As unrest spread, the ubiquity of pay claims turned wage movements into “the wages movement.” Trends toward general action first cohered in Dublin in October 1917, when pending strike notices affected almost 3,000 employees. The ITGWU in particular took advantage of the new opportunities. Reorganized in 1917, the union mushroomed from 5,000 to 120,000 members by 1920, half of them in agriculture.
Tactically, there was a spontaneous resurgence of Larkinite methods of solidarity action. In some cases this meant general strikes: eighteen occurred between 1917 and 1920, mainly in small towns, where almost all workers were ITGWU members. During these often-violent mass stoppages, strike committees usually governed the town, controlling business and transport through a system of permits, and workers advanced common wage demands. Workplace seizures, almost all involving the ITGWU, were also common.
At times, the strike was used for more expansive aims. Ireland’s first general strike, in May 1918, was declared against conscription; its second was called for international working-class unity and self-determination; and its third demanded the release of political prisoners.
With this outburst of activity, the ITGWU was confronted with an entirely novel problem for an Irish union: how to make use of the tens of thousands of workers flooding into the union. It turned to James Connolly’s Socialism Made Easy for an answer. In July 1918, the ITGWU issued The Lines of Progress, a pamphlet intended to “advance Connolly’s OBU idea” in order to develop “a scientific solution to the labor question.”
In 1918 the ITUC took as its objective the promotion of working-class organization socially, industrially, and politically in cooperatives, trade unions, and a political party. At a special conference in November 1918, the federation officially changed its name to the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress and adopted a socialist program, calling for the collective ownership of wealth and democratic management of production.
Syndicalism was evident in efforts to develop a working-class counterculture, through cooperatives, May Day parades, festivals, and labor newspapers. Liberty Hall tried to revive Larkin’s ideas on alternative morality. Its 1919 annual report directed members to conceive of the union “as a social centre, round which they can build every activity of their existence, and which, wisely used, can be made to remedy all their grievances.”
In 1919, trade unions set up the James Connolly Labour College, which enrolled over two hundred students in classes that ranged from history and public administration. An appeal for lecturers in the Watchword of Labour advised that “the working class outlook” was an essential requirement “for unless ye become as proletarians ye cannot enter the Workers’ Republic.” The college flourished until November 1920, when it was ransacked by the British military.
But the upswell was not to last. The massive expansion in the world’s productive capacity built up over World War I, coupled with a subsequent increase in output to meet the demands of a peacetime market, led to an economic crisis. Food prices were the first to tumble, causing a severe depression in agriculture.
Over the course of 1921, Irish manufacturing trade was almost halved, and by December, over 26 percent of workers were out of work. Rising unemployment depressed consumer demand, sending the economy into chaos. Employers clamored for the restoration of pre-war wage levels.
In Britain, wages were getting “back to normal” following the collapse of the Triple Alliance of railway workers, miners, and transport unions. A similar pattern was anticipated in Ireland. While largely fulfilled in Northern Ireland, employer expectations were frustrated in the South by worker militancy.
In 1921 the ITUC had pledged to “hold the harvest” of wage gains, and urged the formation of inter-union committees on a local and industrial basis to coordinate resistance to cuts. Speaker after speaker embraced industrial unionism as a strategic riposte to the employers’ attack. They declared that there would be no “Black Fridays” in Ireland — an allusion to the decision of British union leaders in rail and transport not to back a miners’ strike in April.
In the absence of effective policing, workers were able to put up a dogged fight. The ITGWU’s one hundred thousand members, most with peak wage rates, led the charge.
But labor slowly succumbed to the wage-cutting offensive. The last phase of the industrial war was the “autumn crisis” of 1923, when 20,000 workers took strike action or were locked out. By December 1923, it was all over. General unions were in severe decline, and trade unionism in agriculture was approaching collapse. The following year, ITUC membership would fall to 175,000, and by 1929, it would wither to just 92,000.
With trade unions defeated, their leaders were discredited. Workers had in many instances pressed for more aggressive action, only to have officials acquiesce in the face of the employer offensive. The ITGWU, for instance allowed the Free State army to crush the eighty soviets declared in 1922 with scarcely a protest.
The union’s leadership was well-positioned to quash calls for militancy. Between 1920 and 1922, the ITGWU’s organizing staff dropped from twenty-one to nine, and the bureaucracy swelled. By May 1923, 50 of the union’s 324 branches had paid officials. Within Head Office, the increasingly authoritarian atmosphere resulted in a loss of principled officials and their replacement by careerists.
As the dust settled in 1924, disillusionment pervaded the entire trade union movement. For the Labour Party, there was a price as well. Its impressive 21 percent of the vote in June 1922 — its first general election — was grounded on the post-1917 advance of trade unionism. Over the next twelve months, the parliamentary party failed to make itself relevant to the continued workplace strife, and its electoral support plummeted accordingly. In the August 1923 general election, it won just 11 percent.
Outside the trade union movement, those hostile to social radicalism were happy to draw a veil over what they regarded as an unfortunate and un-Irish episode. The “red flag times” soon disappeared from public consciousness.