The Belfast Dockers' Strike 100 Years On

John Quinn explores one of the city's most dramatic episodes

There are few events in the turbulent history of conflict in Belfast where the working class of both traditions managed to stand united in pursuit of a goal for the benefit of all.

This is what happened in the summer of 1907 when for a brief period, sectarian divisions were set aside and working people united into an effective labour movement.

So unique was the event that even elements of the Royal Irish Constabulary participated in supporting what history has now termed The Dockers' Lock-out Strike of 1907.

At the turn of the 20th century, unskilled workers in Belfast lived in grinding poverty matched with a harsh working regime.

Low wages meant primitive conditions and long hours, and the fact that many had to live in damp, overcrowded terrace houses resulted in outbreaks of typhoid and TB.

In 1909 Doctor Bailie, City Medical Officer of Health, recorded as part of an official report:

'As in previous years it is found that consumption [pulmonary tuberculosis] is most prevalent among the poor, owing largely to the unfavourable conditions under which necessity compels them to live, such as dark, ill-ventilated houses and insanitary habits together with insufficient food and clothing.'

Margarine, American bacon and cheap foreign meat (sold from barrows) relieved the monotonous diet.

Periwinkles, for boiling, and raw mussels and cockles were bought from the hawkers' carts which toured the working-class streets in the evening.

It was against this background that Jim Larkin arrived from Liverpool as organiser of the National Union of Dock Labourers.

Formed for dock labourers, carters and coal-fillers, within a month the new union had 400 members; by April 2,000, and by May nearly 4,500.

However the Unionist press, politicians and employers did their utmost to undermine Larkin's efforts, denouncing him as a ‘socialist and a Catholic’ and discouraging the Protestant workers from becoming involved in labour movements.

Unionist capital and enterprise dominated Belfast at the time, but the labour and trade union movement was developing as a serious force, attracting people from across the sectarian divide.

Fred Crawford, a Belfast businessman, staunch anti-Home Ruler, and future UVF gunrunner, had formed a secret society known as ‘Young Ulster’ some 14 years earlier.

He summed up the situation in Belfast at the time:

‘We have lost a lot of staunch Unionist workmen in Belfast. They consider themselves betrayed by their leader, Mr Balfour, and have gone for the labour and socialist programmes.’

The new trade union members were enthusiastic, and small strikes broke out, demanding decent wages and improved working conditions.

On April 26, unskilled workers at the Sirocco Engineering Works in east Belfast went on strike in hope of winning more pay.

On the same day Samuel Kelly, owner of Kelly's coal yard, attempted to sack union men. The result was a strike.

Employers, already concerned at the extent of union recruitment, had made plans to bring in so-called 'scab' labour (those prepared to work irrespective of strike action) from Liverpool, before the unions became too strong.

On Monday May 6, dockers employed at the Belfast Steamship Company refused to work with non-union labour and went on strike.

Larkin intervened and convinced the men to return to work. He felt such action was premature as the union needed to strengthen and consolidate.

The dockers agreed to return to work only to find themselves locked out, with 53 scabs in their place. The strike in turn escalated. So began the Lock-out Strike.

Three days later the locked-out coalmen from Kelly's Yard attacked the scab labour. Rather than allow the situation to intensify, Kelly granted union recognition and wage increases from 6d to 5 shillings.

The dockers, however, were forced to continue their strike and 300 members of the RIC were drafted in after scab workers were attacked.

Scabs were forced to live on board the SS Caloric, moored in the middle of Belfast Lough.

The strike spread to workplaces across the city. By the end of May, thousands of workers were either on strike or threatening strike action.

The following month, coalmen across Belfast demanded a 2 shilling rise, with four firms conceding. Firemen and seamen joined the strike.

On the June 20, the National Union of Dock Labourers submitted a claim to all shipping companies in Belfast for a minimum wage of 27 shillings & sixpence, and a 60-hour working week.

The shipping bosses refused, and an all-out dockers' strike of 3,000 men began on June 26.

The carters refused to handle anything moved by scabs. By June 28 they in turn submitted a claim for 26 shillings and union recognition, but this was rejected. In July 1,000 carters joined the strike.

July saw the strike reach its pinnacle as military and RIC reinforcements were drafted into Belfast to protect the strikebreakers.

The employers stated that ‘no person representing any trade union or combination’ would be recognised, that they would exercise the right to employ or dismiss whom they chose, and that if a strike took place without three days written notice, the strikers would be locked out and their jobs given to others.

Any worker who wanted his job back was given until July 15 to sign a document accepting these conditions. The document was rejected.

The workers responded with large outdoor rallies in the working-class districts of Belfast.

Daily meetings had already been organised at the Custom House to keep the strikers informed of how events were unfolding, but the first of the rallies was held on the Shankill on the evening of July 15.

The following evening Templemore Avenue in the east of the city was the venue; after that, Clonard Gardens on the Falls was the setting. Others followed in Sandy Row and York Road, with several thousands attending the five rallies.

A week later, on Friday July 26, the Belfast Trades Council organised a demonstration at the City Hall, while RIC personal held their own strike meeting at the RIC Headquarters in Musgrave Street barracks.

Thousands of troops and a further 1,000 RIC members were drafted into Belfast and the military began to break up pickets clearing the way for scab carters to move through the city.

Constable Barrett [pictured, top], the main spokesman for the RIC strikers was dismissed, six others suspended and dissidents transferred out of the city.

However their efforts were not in vain as the British Government was forced to improve pay and conditions for the RIC.

Despite support by workers in other parts of Ireland and Britain, the TUC in Britain failed to call for a general strike, which would have prevented the movement of troops by ship and rail.

Instead leaders of various unions and TUC leaders began arriving in Belfast and began to engage in settlements, over the striker's heads. This divisive action was to mark the beginning of the end of the strike.

Events in early August would accelerate the TUC into forging a deal with the employers, when 3,000 troops and members of the RIC were sent into the Falls area and began a series of searches and harassment of people.

This evoked a reaction and riots broke out before soldiers opened fire on a crowd assembled on the Grosvenor Road, killing two men and wounding several others.

The unionist newspapers used the shooting to portray the labour agitation as ‘part of a conspiracy against the unionist cause in Ireland'.

The British trade union leaders became alarmed at events and without any consultation with Larkin, commenced talks with the employers.

They agreed on a pay increase to 26 shillings and on the right of the employers to employ non-union labour. They argued that nothing more could be gained, while inexperience on the part of the Belfast strike leaders meant that no alternative strategy to win the strike was advocated.

Larkin was later to claim that the men were forced back by the unions' refusal to continue paying them strike pay, which was 10 shilliings.

The strike ended on August 28 and Belfast returned to the old divisional politics when yet another Home Rule crisis emerged in 1912.

Jim Larkin continued the struggle and created the Irish Transport Union in 1909. Four years later in 1913 he carried the struggle to the streets of Dublin.