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Connolly’s big strike: the Dublin Steampacket Company Dispute
by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

An extended version of  a paper given to the Dublin Dockworkers, Preservation Society on 23 May 2015.
All too often, James Connolly’s last months tend to be seen as a period in which he compartmentalised his tasks, dividing his time between preparing a military uprising and, to a lesser extent, performing basic trade union work. An extreme variation of this is that he had followed the majority of his  socialist contemporaries in abandoning the class struggle at least until the end of the World War, and that, in any case, he never organised an actual strike, or, at least a major one.
None of these assumptions is true. The full facts of his wartime career show him to have been carrying out his socialist duties, even if, as he admitted, other socialists would not understand. 

These duties, were summarised in the last paragraph of the Resolution on War, passed in 1907 by the Socialist International’s Congress at Stuttgart: 

‘In case war should break is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.’

This, has been ignored all too often by those trying to explain Connolly’s first World War strategy. This ignorance is helped by the fact that he did not attend the said Congress (or, indeed any other Congress of the International). Nonetheless, he knew enough about the resolution to comment on the debate. More particularly his actions during the World War were quite in keeping with the directive given in the paragraph quoted. 

Until, August 1914, Connolly’s strategy had been summarised empirically in his formula  ‘peacefully if possible, by force if necessary’. Along with the other leaders of the Irish T.U.C., he criticised  the third Home Rule Bill (later the Home Rule Act) mainly because of the undemocratic nature of the planned parliamentary assembly. It was the opening of the European war that caused him to advocate revolution for an independent Irish Republic, since such a struggle was the most certain way for the Irish workers to utilise the war crisis ‘to rouse the masses and hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.’

The question was how this was to be done. Some parts of his strategy were clear. Firstly, he wanted to involve the organised Irish labour movement in the leadership of the struggle. Secondly, and unlike other revolutionary anti-war socialists, he did not look to a politically-defined working class body to give such leadership. Of the two such parties in Ireland, Irish Labour was identical to the country’s Trade Union Congress until 1930, while the Independent Labour Party of Ireland was a struggling propaganda group. He was discouraged from trying to turn either into a revolutionary force by his experience of a succession of politically homogeneous socialist groups. Nor did he have the expectations that Larkin had for the Irish Citizen Army (I.C.A.) other than as the coercive arm of Labourism. As an old Wobbly, he looked to the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union (I.T.G.W.U.) to give the lead but it had been weakened by the Dublin lockout. In any case, he recognised that the I.T.G.W.U., was organised to include all members of certain worker groups, regardless of consciousness and that, accordingly, though the most militant of all Irish unions, it would not take the offensive on the national issue. 

To strengthen opposition to the war he headed an alliance with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.) and Sinn Fein under the public cover of an Irish Neutrality League. To ensure this, he fought successfully for the post of the union’s Acting General Secretary. He could not project a consistent strategy for the League. It collapsed in December 1914 when the state’s suppression of anti-war publications caused the I.R.B. to end open work outside the Volunteers. After this, Connolly concentrated on reorganising his union and on its industrial work, made more necessary by wartime inflation. From May, he made propaganda in his Workers’ Republic, including articles on Revolutionary Warfare. They warned against concentrating insurrection in one city and against relying too much on the propertied classes, but encouraged readers to join ‘the Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers’. By then, too, he was trying to start a new agitational Anti-Conscription League with Sinn Fein, itself, by then a shadow of what it had been. These moves may have been encouraged by major strikes in south Wales that seemed to offer immediate possibilities of working class rebellion throughout these islands. This door closed in November when the social chauvinist Charles Stanton won the bye-election for the pacifist Keir Hardie’s Merthyr seat.

By then, anyway, the situation in Dublin had become more definitely promising because of the strike of the dockers employed by the Dublin Steampacket Company. Of the nine concerns operating out of Dublin port, it was the only Irish-based line, and, thus, an enterprise that many of Connolly’s nationalist contemporaries would have considered to be barred from class struggle. More significantly, in that port and in that of Kingstown, it was one of the most important of the shipping companies. It had the government franchise to operate the Irish Mail. It employed more than 200 of Dublin’s 600 dockers. The company’s Managing Director, Edward Watson’s, view of organised labour was similar to William Martin Murphy’s, though for him the great Satan was not James Larkin but James Connolly. When Larkin was in jail, during the lockout, his substitute, Connolly, had repudiated an agreement between their union and the company in order to close the port completely.  His act was not criticised by his comrades. Nonetheless it embittered relations between union and company. Connolly had to recognise this if he were to increase dockers’ wages. Over the late summer of 1915, he organised successful strikes of the dockers employed by the railway companies operating at the East Wall.

Then, on 1 October, he called on the shipping companies serving Dublin port to raise dock wages. Permanent workers earning 30 shillings a week should gain three shillings, casuals’ wages should rise by one shilling a day from six shillings, overtime rates should rise from five shillings and eightpence per hour to six and six. (To get this in today’s real wages in cents, the numbers given should be magnified one hundred and fifty times.) After a brief strike, five of the nine settled on the 23rd, three others within days. Only Watson and the Steampacket Company remained opposed. On the 29th, the dockers were offered arbitration or the threat of arrest under the Munitions of War Act. They braved the latter (an empty threat, as Connolly noted) and struck from the next day. 

As yet, Connolly seems to have been reluctant to concentrate too many of his union’s resources in the struggle. He did not want a new lockout. He had reason for this fear. William Martin Murphy was eager to  make such an attempt  to smash the union when Watson approached him. Other members of the Dublin Employers’ Federation were less enthusiastic and refused to move without the co-operation of the Master Carriers Association, whose carters were refusing to pass the pickets. On 8 November, this co-operation was refused, giving the Coup de Grace to Murphy’s strategy of general lockout. Admittedly, as Connolly had noted, this was a blessing in disguise for the employers who would show after the collapse of the economic boom after 1920, that it was easier to beat their workers by piecemeal attacks. For now, the strike continued. The wartime boom enabled many strikers to supplement their strike pay through ‘nixers’. From  15 December, their numbers were swollen by the unofficial action of the seamen of the British (and chauvinist) National Seamen & Firemen’s Union (N.S.F.U.) against the company. This made it pointless for it to employ scab labour on the docks, since it could not man its boats to sail there. 

Connolly’s refusal to agree to arbitration was said by him to have been out of loyalty to the shipping firms with which he had reached agreement, but there seem to have been other considerations which increased in importance. Even before the Master Carriers’ refusal, he used the stoppage as a way to reinforce the Citizen Army which had been losing members since the outbreak of the war. He organised regular drilling of the pickets to form an I.C.A. reserve. Secondly, the central importance of the Steampacket Company presented the possibility that the British Army might be used to break the strike. Watson appealed to Dublin Castle for this. Connolly saw that this could start a major crisis that would spread well beyond the port. In particular, it could provoke the the unite against the colonial state. Unfortunately for his hopes, Sir Matthew Nathan, the Irish Under-Secretary, saw this, too, was determined to avoid this and would continue to do so despite further appeals from Watson and others.  

The company got support from the Irish Party (the Home Rulers) who appealed unsuccessfully to Connolly to accept arbitration. The party’s allies on the Dublin Corporation flooded the docks with the city’s Metropolitan Police. It threatened also to get the British Admiralty to requisition  the company’s ships. Connolly warned that this would be seen as a declaration of class war by the state. In the end only one ship was requisitioned. the company’s one victory was achieved when boats chartered by the cattle trade were able to load at Dublin on 23 December. It did not happen again.

Perhaps most importantly, as the strike began, the conscription issue came to an head. The government was known to be considering conscripting Ireland as well as Britain. Above and beyond the general unpopularity of conscription, this would expose the lie, used by the Home Rulers on the recruiting platforms, that Britain had granted Ireland genuine independence. It was fuel for revolution. The Anti-Conscription League revived, now with participation from the I.R.B. Though Britain was to publish its Conscription Bill in the new year excluding Ireland from its provisions, Connolly warned against employers sacking workers to starve them into the British Army. The Workers’ Republic published his articles urging revolution alongside reports of the strike. In December and January, he presented an economic programme for a republic.  A week after the second piece, the Military Council of the I.R.B. brought him to negotiate the alliance that would fight at Easter. He wanted the Rising sooner, perhaps fearing the collapse of the strike. In the end he agreed. As long as the strike continued, the labour movement, or part of it, could claim to provide a barrier to  British troops entering Dublin by sea, leaving such forces to proceed through what the revolutionaries intended would be a country mobilised against them.

Any such fears would be fulfilled, but it was a close run thing. For more than two months, the strike continued. Its weak spot was the sailors in the N.S.F.U. That union’s leaders offered them a wage increase of five shillings a week if they resumed work. They did so on 27 March. The company began to run boats to Dublin again and to look for scabs to unload them. The psychological effect was far greater. The strikers’ momentum was broken. Though Connolly called to intensify picketing on the Steampacket Company sheds, his appeal does not seem to have been followed. On the other side, probably under government pressure, Watson did not go beyond his offer. On 11 April, the dockers resumed work at the old rates but with scabs dismissed and with the issue going to arbitration.

Connolly’s hopes of a Citizen Army Reserve of dockers had been dashed. Nor was it possible to involve the Transport Union as such in the coming rebellion. He made one last attempt to provoke the colonial state by raising the green flag above Liberty Hall on 16 April. The said state remained unprovoked. For the Rising he had to rely on the purely military forces of the Citizen Army and the Volunteers, though some dockers may have joined the rebels after the outbreak. By then, anyway, Eoin MacNeill had ensured that the Rising would be restricted to Dublin and a few other urban centres and their surroundings. The Rising planned for all nationalist Ireland was postponed, and Connolly had to choose between leading just such a localised, class-amorphous rebellion as that against which he had warned, or waiting to be interned. Considerations internationalist as well as national convinced him to lead his colleagues to choose the first option. 

The arbitration tribunal on the Steampacket Company strike met on 29 June, after Connolly’s death. The dockers were represented by his friend William O’Brien, then Acting Secretary of Dublin Trades Council. Released from internment to negotiate in handcuffs, O’Brien won the dockers 37 shillings for a five hour week with overtime at five pence an hour: casuals, six shillings and twopence per day and the same overtime: Sunday work a shilling an hour. The strikers had won their demands. The full possibilities of their action had not been realised.

How far Connolly made a conscious decision to use a dispute as a means to bring his union into direct opposition to the colonial power in Ireland is an open question answerable only by circumstantial evidence. What is certain is that this evidence both on his side and on the side of Dublin Castle is fuller than the selection that backs the traditional account of the Easter Week leader who happened to be (or, just, to have been formerly) a socialist.  

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