Background to the Strike
The Edwardian period saw Belfast at the crest of a long wave of industrial and geographical expansion. Skilled workers in shipbuilding and engineering were, by UK standards, well paid, well housed, and unionised. Nevertheless, unskilled workers were poorly paid relative to their UK counterparts, and employers were able to draw on huge numbers of unskilled rural workers. According to John Gray, the gap in wages and living standards between the two groups was, ‘a yawning abyss, unequalled anywhere else in the United Kingdom.’
The first annual conference of the British Labour Party was held in Belfast in early 1907. Labour organiser and socialist agitator James Larkin attended, intent on the organisation of Belfast's 3100 dockers, 2000 of who were casual ‘spellsmen’ hired at low rates on a daily basis. Even for regularly employed dockers, wages were low, and the working week could be as long as 75 hours.
The National Union of Dock Labourers organised almost 400 of these men in 1891, but their presence was broken by a lock out in 1892, when the press characterised the union leadership as ‘Fenians.’ However, only one month after his arrival in Belfast, Larkin had again achieved membership of 400. By April, he had recruited 2000 new members.
In the same month, unskilled, non-union workers at Samuel Davidson's Sirocco engineering works held a strike over pay. Davidson promptly dismissed the union members among his workforce. When coal merchant Samuel Kelly tried to follow suit, almost his entire workforce walked out. Early in May, dockers working on the SS Optic, owned by the Belfast Steamship Company, also conducted a strike. Employers, led by Thomas Gallaher the tobacco magnate and owner of the Steamship Company, had clearly anticipated the move. More than 50 blackleg dockers were already en route to Belfast. The day after their arrival, NUDL dockers drove the blacklegs from Kelly’s coal quays and the Belfast Steamship Company’s sheds.
Kelly capitulated and granted union recognition alongside the pay rise the coal heavers had demanded. Now Gallaher was the main enemy. Hundreds of scabs were working his Donegall Quay under police protection, and soon the RIC were joined by troops requisitioned by Belfast’s Lord Mayor. Larkin referred to Gallaher as 'an obscene scoundrel' and repeatedly lambasted him in speeches.
With the strike spreading, 1000 of Gallaher’s tobacco workers walked out and attended a meeting of striking dockers. In mid June, 500 coal heavers for other firms struck for pay, and unrest escalated rapidly. Further disputes involved sailors, firemen and iron moulders. The NUDL increased tensions by demanding a wage increase in addition to union recognition. On June 25, smaller cross channel and cargo firms capitulated, and on the next day all dockers working the Heysham, Barrow, and Fleetwood berths walked out. This ambitious escalation, a direct threat to railway companies in Great
Britain, also supplied Gallaher with powerful allies.
Meanwhile carters on the railway company quays refused to handle goods unloaded by the blackleg dockers imported from Dublin. They submitted a general pay claim and on July 4 all carters in Belfast struck. Now even if Gallaher and the other employers managed to unload vessels, they were unable to move them out of the port. The Belfast News Letter reported ‘stagnation … from the Custom House to the Clarendon Dock.’
The strike continued to spread despite the Lord Mayor’s request for more troops from Dublin. Boilermakers and engineers were out, closing premises across the city. Riots in support of the strikers’ demands broke out on the Protestant Ravenhill Road in east Belfast and, significantly, on the Catholic nationalist Falls Road in the west.
Following an incident on July 19 when an RIC constable refused to escort a blackleg goods driver, 200-300 police officers attended an angry meeting at Musgrave Street police station. A week later, another illegal meeting attracted perhaps 800 officers, about two thirds of the Belfast force. Having prevaricated for a month, the military now rushed thousands of troops including cavalry into the city. Warships arrived in Belfast lough. This was effectively the imposition of martial law, and by early August some transport was moving in the city.
Breakdown of the Strike
The breakdown of the strike can be attributed to numerous factors. Perhaps confused and frightened by the degree of working class cohesion and militancy, the representatives of the British labour movement in Belfast began to guardedly dissociate themselves from both the strike and from Larkin. The press also employed scare mongering tactics, peddling the twin threats of socialism and Irish nationalism. Negotiations with some employers brought sectional settlements and isolated the dockers.
A body blow to the unity of the strike, or at least the perception of working class unity, was the military reaction to rioting on the lower Falls. After responding to stone and bottle throwers with bayonet and cavalry charges, soldiers fired on the crowds on Monday, August 12. Although troops were withdrawn from the area on the following day, the damage had been done. A distinction had been drawn between nationalist and unionist sections of the working class, and opportunistic unionist and nationalist politicians, as well as the press— particularly the Belfast Telegraph—drummed home the sectarian message.
By September, the strikers were as good as defeated. Settling with non-unionised workers, retaining blacklegs, and locking out union members, the employers isolated Larkin and the dockers. Despite localised outbursts of unrest carrying on into the winter, the strike was effectively over and the employers’ reaction began.
City in Revolt: James Larkin and the Belfast Dock Strike of 1907 (1985) by John Gray; Labour and Partition: The Belfast Working Class 1905-23 (1991) by Austen Morgan; James Larkin (2002) by Emmett O’Connor; Divine Gospel of Discontent: The Story of the Belfast Dockers and Carters Strike 1907 (1980) by Fergus O’Hare; Class Conflict and Sectarianism: The Protestant Working Class and the Belfast Labour Movement 1868-1920 (1980) by Henry Patterson.
Consult the Linen Hall Library catalogue