Remembering the Newry Dock Strike of 1907 Part Two
Solidarity and Sellout!
The Newry dock strike is over one hundred years old but it still contains lessons as fresh today as they were then. The strike faced the rancour of the Unionist ruling class, and the Nationalist middle class and its leadership in the Catholic church who condemned it as “contrary to Catholic interests”, they faced internationally organised imperialist interests and the betrayal of the union bureaucracy. Housing was also an issue at the time which was addressed by the strikers' direct action when they defended a family from eviction in Peters Place. All familiar issues today. This relatively lengthy excerpt from a full account deals with the earliest phase of the strike and the impressive solidarity that marked it.
On Tuesday November the 19th the newly formed branch of the NUDL faced up to a choice. Solidarity with the Belfast strikers had been central to their formation and this solidarity was now to be tested. But the Newry dock workers were not found to be lacking in resolve when the first boat redirected from Belfast arrived for unloading.
The Helen Craig, which arrived at 10:00 am with a load of coal for Fishers and Sons, had tried Drogheda and Dundalk where the workers had refused to touch the boat refusing to unload the “tainted” cargo “in accordance with Trade Union principles and until the shipowners of Belfast recognise the Union” according the the Frontier Sentinel.
The owners were desperately trying to break the NUDL in Belfast and hoped to unload at another port and have the cargo shipped overland.
Other ships unassociated with the Belfast strike arrived on Wednesday and were unloaded. Work started immediately on the Seapark which carried a load of grain for Campbell and company on Merchants quay but the other ship, coincidently named the Helen, was carrying coal. Although an agreement had been put in place to unload the Helen the labourers exhibited a great degree of independence and militancy and refused to touch anything connected to the coal trade. Only Fearon's intervention later that day convinced the workers to begin unloading the boat. Like the NUDL members in Drogheda and Dundalk the workers in Newry port approached the concept of sympathetic action with a pragmatism and vigour that was not suited to bureaucratic rules or a legalistic interpretation.
The Woodburn, which arrived on Thursday, a day after the Helen, was also unassociated with the strike and had its cargo of coal unloaded without delay at the same time as work began on the Helen. After 48 hours of action the dispute had settled into a pattern but with only one boat out of four being blacked the strike’s impact was minimal.
Instinctively the dockers knew that their employers who had been quite happy to impose extremely mean working conditions on them would not concede as long as their action effected only a quarter of the port's traffic. In order to successfully support their demands for recognition in Belfast and gain better conditions they needed to increase their effectiveness. This meant going beyond the limited sympathy actions they were involved in and establishing their ability to close down the port in order to force concessions from the employers.
Although facing up to a wealthy and domineering local upper class unaccustomed to being challenged the dock labourers were not the slightest bit cowed and set about taking on the task of imposing their control on the Quayside. Following a local dispute over the Harrier, which carried sand from Ballyedmond, the brickworks had to be closed down and the local elite immediately sat up and took notice. The press also began to bare its teeth and the Newry Reporter, obviously blind to the workers harsh conditions, attacked the strikers for behaving “absurdly” in persisting with their refusal to unload the Helen Craig.
A campaign of half truths and propaganda ensued as the paper’s editorials attempted to browbeat the strikers into unloading the boat with false claims that the ship had been “chartered before the present dispute arose” and was carrying “cargo for local firms”. This prompted a reply by James Fearon in which he pointed to evidence that the ship had been blacked in Belfast and was; “lying in Belfast for three days during the strike”. Fearon clearly showed that the coal was not for local firms but that it was in fact to be unloaded in Newry and sent to Belfast overland as a way of breaking their strike.
The Newry Reporter’s attempts to pressurise the local workers into doing their will met with determined opposition so an alternative plan was hatched and the Helen Craig left the Albert Basin. A great deal of obfuscation surrounded its departure time and its intended destination but where it was bound for is important as it reveals the extent to which the employers plans to outwit the strikers backfired on them.
They had planned to take the boat to Warrenpoint to have it unloaded as the union had not been organised there. Ostensibly the ship had left early on Saturday 23 November to be unloaded at Belfast, according to the Newry Reporter, but this was not the whole story. Frank Fisher later cast light on the facts when he admitted that; “the owners proposed to discharge the Helen Craig at Warrenpoint” It was here that the employers ran into the real practical difficulty that working class solidarity presents.
On the previous day T. Smith, an agent for Captain Roger Hall the dock owner, ordered the dock workers to unload the Helen Craig early the next morning, Saturday 23rd, but they point blank refused according to Fisher.
The employers response was an outraged attack. Smith immediately sacked two crane operators and twenty dock labourers. The employers' preparations for a back door route around the blockade had been defeated by exemplerary solidarity a day before the Helen Craig had officially left Newry, but the press were keen to keep this setback under wraps and a pretense was kept up that the boat had never been destined for Warrenpoint in the first place.
Significantly, although the Warrenpoint workers said they “were members of the Union” they were not. No branch existed, and none was formed until a week later when Larkin and Fearon led a march from Newry, including the Grattan fife and drum band, up to the dock gates.
In an act of courage the Warrenpoint dock workers had taken immediate spontaneous action in the spirit of unity and working class solidarity.
Had they delayed, waited for a meeting, or as happens today waited for their leaders to conduct a ballot, it would have been too late and the ship would have been unloaded, the employers would have been ecstatic and the local media would have pressed home the advantage of such a blow to the strikers morale.
This was a courageous 'wildcat strike' and its effectiveness was immediately clear to the employers in Newry who had believed they could lie about the Ship's destination, “cleverly” slip it in to Warrenpoint and successfully undermine the Newry strike before anyone knew about it.
Having seen no evidence of a union being formed in Warrenpoint the employers had felt confident enough to go on an offensive against what they saw as a smaller and more vulnerable workforce. Smith's decision to sack the whole workforce reflected not only their own arrogant attitude towards their employees but also a cynical belief that they could easily recruit another squad of labourers in time for the discharge of the Helen Craig the next morning. This was a serious miscalculation.
Smith had not counted on the strong solidarity among the Dockers or the resentment the whole community felt towards their subsequent attempts to recruit strike breakers. The offer of a £1 bounty, well over a weeks pay for a Carter, and double pay to anyone who would scab met with no significant success in the village.
With stalemate in Warrenpoint the centre of gravity swung again to Newry. Boats not associated with the dispute in Belfast continued to be unloaded but during the course of Sunday 24th as the dockers were paid in the various quayside bars anger built up as news spread of the sackings on Friday evening.
Later that night when Carters turned up to continue unloading one of Fishers coal boats, the Ashton, the quay labourers, acting on Fearon’s advice, refused to unload the remaining 200 tons. Although Fishers denied any involvement the Dockers correctly believed that the closure of Warrenpoint docks was at their behest. The sackings escalated what had been largely a small scale sympathy strike into a direct confrontation with the largest of the local Shipping employers.
Although the Newry Reporter was later to recognise that the incident was initiated by attempts to arrange for the unloading of the Helen Craig in Warrenpoint at this stage the editorial left Fisher’s version uncontested and found that “there is absolutely no reason to doubt his [Fisher’s] word” that they were uninvolved in the plans or the subsequent sackings.
As a sense of outrage built among the employers that the workers' should express such 'will' the press went on the assault. James Fearon had protested against the “bias” in the press but now it became vitriolic as the Newry Reporter could barely conceal its incredulity at the sheer audacity of the ordinary working class of Newry and Warrenpoint in challenging the owners' power. The paper's editorial launched an assault on the dockers blaming them entirely for the dispute and denying that they had any justifiable grievances at all.
By this stage the Belfast strike, which had been faltering, had been conclusively defeated due to the intervention of the NUDL's leading bureaucrat, James Sexton, who had arrived in Belfast from England with the intention of undermining Larkin's strike and saving union funds at the strikers expense if necessary. The Belfast NUDL leaders and Larkin were excluded from the planned talks which Sexton ultimately emerged from to announce that the Belfast members must return to work solely on the strength of the employers reassurances that there would be no repercussions for strikers and that “all was to be plain sailing”. Of course it wasn't and large numbers of the strikers were victimised and sacked as “troublemakers” with no reply from Sexton. Larkin was reported to be ashamed at a betrayal which resulted in union members being blacklisted on Belfast docks for years.
Newry and Warrenpoint were now isolated but determined. Having failed in their plans for the two ports Fishers now redirected their traffic towards Dundalk but when the Olive arrived there although their employees unloaded the ship as usual the Carter’s refused to move the cargo from the quay. This was the closure of the last of the local ports available to the local employers whose next step was to introduce brute force to the dispute. Rather than consider for a moment conceding a pay increase to workers on below poverty level incomes, living in dire housing, without health care or sick pay and doing backbreaking work they brought forward plans to involve the Shipping Federation an internationally notorious strike breaking organisation.
The dispute in Newry was a small affair for the Shipping Federation, an organisation that had been instrumental in breaking the Belfast strike and also strikes in Hamburg and “Bloodily” on the streets of Antwerp. The genteel owners of the local shipping companies were Federation members and now had called in an organisation which was quite prepared to break bones in order to get its way. It had taken them less than 10 days to decide that the use of brute force on their local workers suited them better than paying an extra shilling a week.
The strikers, now deprived
of allies in Belfast, were on the eve of facing this formidable adversary
as they gathered at the Warrenpoint port gates on 30 November. It was a
well attended rally with support from the town and a large crowd that had
marched from the docks area in Newry behind the band. Larkin and Fearon
addressed the crowd and spirits were high. After the meeting had ended
and the crowd “had all returned peacefully to their respective homes” the
Dalriada, owned by Robinson and Company of Glasgow slipped quietly into
Warrenpoint harbour and the Newry employers secretly prepared to roll out
the full extent of its well resourced Shipping Federation scabbing operation.