The 1911 Railway Strikes
[The Hugh Gegarty Memorial Lecture, presented to the Irish Labour History Society by Dr. Conor McCabe, 11 March 2011.]
In September 1911 the ASRS called a strike which saw ten per cent of the strikers laid off in an overt and unapologetic act of victimisation undertaken by the chief director of the GSWR, Sir William Goulding.
Whereas in Britain successful strike action had led to increased membership and the formation of the NUR and the Triple Alliance, in Ireland trade union development on the railways was frozen, and remained so for the next five years.
The hardline stance taken by Goulding in 1911 made the similar stance taken by William Martin Murphy in 1913 all the more viable.
Unlike in Britain, militant action on the part of the Irish railway companies in 1911, and not the trade unions, had won the day.
The strike increased tension between the Irish membership and the British-based leadership, and it was not until the exceptional circumstances brought about by the Great War had set in that the Irish railwaymen were in a position to challenge the companies once again over wage and work conditions
Grassroots militant trade unionism had surged across Britain in 1911, and achieved improvements in pay and work conditions much more quickly and effectively than any conciliation board or parliamentary committee – the standard demands of the more conservative elements within the unions.
Many of those who took on leadership roles during 1911 were advocates of industrial unionism and, in particular, syndicalism. Sympathetic strike action had been used as a tactic in England, and proved to be a success.
One element of the industrial unrest of 1911 was a call for the end of sectional interests and the creation of a united front against all employers, regardless of trade or, indeed, industry.
It is in this context that the September strike needs to be seen. The tactics and ideology behind the wave of militant industrial unionism that Britain experienced in 1911 help explain why the Irish railwaymen took part in a strike that was of no immediate benefit to them – why they had engaged in sympathetic action.
They did so because, in the first rush of success, these were the tactics that had won the fight, and it was believed that they would do so again.
The 1911 Strikes
On Friday morning, 18 August 1911, staff and labourers of the L&NWR at the North Wall, Dublin, struck work ‘and at that hour also practically all the men were out at Harcourt Street station.’ Shortly after noon, ‘almost every man at the GNR terminus… struck work, including signalmen, porters, and the whole of the goods and traffic employees.’
A meeting for Irish transport workers was called for 8 o’clock that night at Beresford Place by James Larkin and Walter Halls. A strike committee had been formed of which Larkin was a member. Strike activity occured in places such as Derry, Kingstown, and Waterford.
However, before the stike could escalate, a settlement was reached in London. It was hailed as a success was celebrated at a rally in the Phoenix Park.
The procession was led by railwaymen with a banner saying ‘All Grades. All Creeds. No Distinction.’ Speakers at the rally included Walter Halls, Nathan Rimmer, Jim Larkin, and William Partridge, who presided.
Walter Halls addressed the crowd:
In the future we are not going to have the rank and file crawling into the office to any body of railway directors. We are going to maintain a bold front. Men of skill who have training that qualifies them to speak on behalf of their fellows would GO TO THE DIRECTORS AND ARGUE THE CASE OF THE MEN [original emphasis], and if we cannot then succeed in getting what we want, we can have recourse to the method that has been successful on this occasion. What is now annoying the directors is the growing spirit of solidarity amongst the working classes, and they don’t know how to deal with it.
Jim Larkin said that ‘we have to show to the employing class that the docker, the coal heaver, the railway man, the sailor and the fireman are all of one class and if one section is struck at all the others will say “out we go”.
on Saturday, 19 August, timber merchants in Dublin closed down their yards until a settlement of the railway strike was reached. When the railway dispute ended the ITGWU men employed by the timber merchants refused to return to work unless they received an improvement in pay and working conditions.
The timber merchants would not accept the terms and a lockout ensued.
Blacklegs were hired and one month later, on 15 September 1911, two porters at Kingsbridge station refused to handle goods from timber merchants Messrs. Henry Kelly and Co. of Thomas Street, Dublin.
This brought the railwaymen, and the ASRS executive, into the lockout and a sympathetic strike.
In its opening days the strike caused considerable disruption to trade. In the afternoon of Friday 15 September, after the two checkers had been dismissed from duties, about ‘400 men in the goods department of the G.S. and W. railway company’ at Kingsbridge struck work, leaving ‘only a few men [-] at work, and the company found it necessary to close down the Goods Department for the day.’
GSWR refused to acknowledge the ASRS of its mandate. The issue quickly moved from one about the handling of ‘black’ goods to the issue of union recognition by the railway companies.
By Friday evening the strike had already spread to Limerick, where officials with the GS&WR refused ‘to receive goods for transmission to Dublin and England’.
The next day a union ‘organiser’ arrived in Limerick city and a meeting of railwaymen was held – the result of which was the striking of work by all platform men, and some signalmen and guards.
A meeting of train drivers was held on Sunday 17 September at Inchicore where it was decided to strike in sympathy. On Monday 18 September telegrams ‘from Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Thurles, Ennis, Nenagh, Birr, Queenstown and other stations [reported] that the men have ceased work and that traffic is almost, if not entirely, paralysed.’
That evening in Waterford all the locomotive men struck work and demanded ‘as a basis of settlement the right to refuse to handle “blackleg” goods and that several items in the programme which has been before the company since 1907 should be conceded.’
At a meeting of railwaymen in Tuam, Co. Galway, it was decided to strike, and only one of the fifty railway employees showed up for work the next day.
In Dublin a rally was held in the Abbey theatre. Rimmer told the meeting that ‘he was satisfied that this was no mere dispute between railways and their employees but a fair stand-up fight between capital and labour… The bugle of battle had been sounded, and it remained now to see which was to be victorious.’
By Wednesday 20 September, around 1,800 men were on strike in the GS&WR’s traffic department. As a consequence of the strike the company’s directors decided to close Inchicore Works, with serious disruption to businesses and to the supply of goods to the South and West.
A representative of the Board of Trade had arrived in Dublin to try to resolve the situation, but to little effect. The companies would not meet with them.
The Executive retaliated by calling for a national strike of railwaymen in Ireland – ASRS members in England and Scotland were not to be affected by this dispute.
This, effectively, ended any chance of success for the September sympathetic strike. With no chance of a walk-out by their fellow members in Britain, it became an Irish affair, with a British-based union funding the strike pay.
The focus of the dispute was now on those who had been dismissed and their reinstatement.
Indirect talks were held between the railway and timber merchant employees, and the ITGWU and ASRS, on Thursday, 28 September – by which time the strike was on the point of collapse.
Troops had been heavily deployed along the GS&WR network. ‘Military detachments [were] guarding the Kingsbridge station in Dublin and most of the signal boxes on the line, and a number of artillerymen… arrived in Waterford.’
According to one traveller on the Dublin and Cork line:
it looked as if Ireland was turned into a military camp, minus the tents… most of the waiting apartments usually set aside for passengers were converted into barrack rooms… all the signal boxes, pumping stations, and railway bridges were guarded by troops with loaded firearms, sentries being located on the public roads leading over the bridges outside large towns, while the bridges crossing the railway in rural districts were watched by policemen.’
The ASRS agreed to lift its restrictions on the handling of certain goods but asked for ‘the reinstatement of the whole of the employees without penalty.’ The company directors refused any compromise and Goulding told the Press that as far as the GS&WR was concerned ‘the company could not dispense with the new hands taken on, or reduce the loyal men promoted, but would take on members of the old staff as it suited the work of the railway.’
The railwaymen had no option but to accept the terms and on Wednesday 4 October the dispute officially ended, with ninety per cent of the strikers reinstated and ten per cent dismissed from their jobs, with only an unsecured promise of re-admittance. Walter Halls’ claim at the Phoenix park rally in August that the railway directors did not know how to deal with ‘the growing spirit of solidarity among the working classes’ rang hollow in the aftermath of the September 1911 sympathetic railway strike.
The company’s hard-line stance had strong support during the strike, but the decision to punish ten per cent of the strikers through the loss of their jobs was a controversial one, and out of step with Irish political opinion. The strike was seen in general as foolish and irresponsible, but not malicious, and certainly not deserving of the loss of one’s job.
Goulding did not agree.
In a letter dated 26 September 1911, he wrote to Mr. Cosmo O. Bonsor of the South Eastern and Chatham Railway to thank him for his company’s support during the recent strike.
Mr. Bonsor had told Goulding that he hoped that the GSWR’s stance would help to carry ‘the fight’ to the English companies. Goulding replied that ‘if so, I trust that they will then show some of the back-bone that we poor Irish companies are displaying, in our position as directors of the companies, no matter what pressure may be brought to bear by the government.’
Goulding believed that his British counterparts had made a fundamental error in 1907 when they agreed to arbitration and the conciliation boards, and ‘in a faint hearted manner… handed themselves over to Mr. Lloyd George and the Board of Trade.’ It was a mistake that Goulding was determined not to make.
Irish political opinion was firmly against the practise of sympathetic strikes and lockouts. It did support arbitration, however, and on this point Goulding and the politicians differed.
Trade unions, in Goulding’s view, were not to be tolerated under any circumstances. The success of Goulding’s stance ensured that his approach towards employer-employee relations on the Irish railway system remained the dominant one in the boardroom.
The Dublin Employers’ Federation was quick to lend its support to the GSWR. On Tuesday 19 September, the organisation’s executive council passed a resolution condemning the D&SER for its decision to agree to the railwaymen’s demands, and supporting the GSWR, GNR, and MGWR for ‘declining to allow employees to dictate to them what traffic the companies are to handle…’
Support was also forthcoming from the Irish Timber Importers’ Association; the Cork Timber and Iron Company; the Cork Employers’ Federation; and the Dublin Mercantile Association, who passed a resolution stating that ‘the principle involved justifies the railway companies in the resistance to the demands made upon them. In the interest of the public no other course was possible.’
The association did go on to say, however, that it believed the differences between the companies and their employees should be settled by arbitration.
The stance taken by the GSWR, to exclude all formal third party negotiations, was radical even by the standards of its contemporaries.
Political opinion in Ireland assumed two things about the September strike: one was that the railway companies would not enter into direct negotiations with the strikers; the other was that, as before, both sides would agree to an intermediary to help settle the dispute.
It was a role that had been taken on in the past by Michael Davitt and Archbishop Walsh of Dublin. The assumption in political circles that the railway companies would enter into some form of arbitration, for once, did not carry any weight. It was also thought that in the aftermath of their victory the companies would prove themselves to be more conciliatory, but this also wrong.
The companies pushed forward their advantage to ensure that, in the words of one GNR official, ‘now that they had the men defeated, they would never have any more trouble.’
The decision to punish the railwaymen was deeply unpopular. Mr. John J. Farrell, lord mayor of Dublin, wrote to Goulding on 29 September, mainly to thank him for granting him an audience to discuss the situation, but also to say that any generous act towards the defeated strikers would strengthen Goulding’s position as chairman as he would retain ‘all the public support which you had up to the present.’
The strike had carried on after the men had conceded most of the companies’ demands because they wanted their dismissed colleagues reinstated. The refusal of the GSWR to agree to this led to complaints from businesses who were reliant on the railways, no more than the public, in order to conduct business.
At a public meeting held in Tuam on 29 September a resolution was passed that called on the company to ‘end at once the present intolerable condition of affairs by restoring all the men.’ On the same day, Teaman & Co, merchants, Queenstown, wrote to Goulding to say that ‘we cannot help thinking that if the management of the Great Southern and Western Railway Co. was in capable hands things would never have drifted into this parlous condition.’ ‘Having taken a keen interest in the misunderstanding that has arisen between your directorate and the employees and the subsequent negotiations’, the letter said, ‘we are compelled to say deliberately that your action, personally, is nothing short of a kind of half-hearted treason.’
The Irish Cattle Trade Association also wrote in a similar, if less direct, fashion, calling on the GSWR ‘to have the strike terminated as soon as possible.’ As stated, political, business, and public opinion did not appear to affect Goulding, and the strike ended only after the complete capitulation of the railwaymen.
Goulding and the GSWR did agree to meet the railwaymen on 28 September, but it was made clear that it was not a forum for negotiation.
The railwaymen deputation of thirteen consisted of seven from the locomotive and six from the traffic departments. Guard Thomas Murphy, Kingsbridge, was their spokesman. Walter Halls and Nathan Rimmer were not present. The GSWR was represented by the company directors.
The tone was set by Goulding, who opened the meeting by reading from a prepared statement.
The company has had frequent strikes of various kinds in the last few years, and the board are now firmly determined in the interests of the general public, the traders of the country, their own employees, and the shareholders, that the industry of this country is not to be paralysed like this again, and are determined at any cost to re-man the system, and they hope that the majority of their old employees will tender their application at once, and that a lasting peace may ensue… I sincerely regret that you should have been led into such a mistake, which has cost the country so heavily, and trust you will now immediately accept the olive branch we hold out to you.
Goulding told the railwaymen that all of the demands were to be dropped, and that an undertaking to handle all goods and obey company officers had to be signed before men could be reinstated. To this the railwaymen agreed.
The sticking-point was the fate of the men who had been sacked as a result of the strike.
Goulding said that as some of their positions had been filled, not all the men could be taken back. The meeting broke up without agreement over the issue of re-instatement, but it was clear that the railwaymen had nothing to bargain with.
The GSWR directors and the railwaymen met again one week later, on Tuesday 3 October, and for the last time on this issue the next day, 4 October. Driver Richard Hennessey from Inchicore, who would play a leading role in the Irish NUR from 1916 onwards, was present at all three meetings but did not speak. Thomas Murphy acted as their spokesman and tried to get more of the dismissed men reinstated.
Goulding, however, was not in a conciliatory mood. The following exchange took place:
[Goulding]. I am afraid we cannot do that. As I told you yesterday, we have more than the balance in at the present time… I am delighted that you are going to let us have peace – permanent peace – and all that the directors can do to make it a permanent peace will be done.
[Murphy] Could you not exceed 90 per cent?
[Goulding] We could not possibly do so. We have put it at a much higher figure than we really ought to have done.
[Murphy] You must look at it from your own side of the board (sic). You would not think much of anybody who would go and allow 10 per cent of the men to be sacrificed. It would not be human. It would be an immoral act. We are anxious that you should give a guarantee as to the time you will take in the 10 per cent.
[Goulding] We could not give any guarantee. Everybody’s case will be considered when the time comes and vacancies occur. We are overstaffed at present.
The railwaymen finally accepted the directors’ terms, and Goulding ended the meeting by saying that he hoped that ‘we shall have perfect peace in the future and that everything will go on smoothly.’ He then sent a telegram to his wife: ‘strike settled men accepted terms. Send trap to meet me Sallins at 5 o’clock.’
The GSWR paid a bonus to the men who showed loyalty to the company during the two disputes. In August a bonus of three days’ pay was given to those who remained loyal, while an additional bonus of five pounds was presented to clerical staff at Kingsbridge who took on extra duties such as loading trains with passenger luggage.
In September bonuses totaling £1,979 were paid to those who ‘showed their loyalty’ during the September strike. It was agreed by the directors that the bonuses should be paid to the men during their lifetime ‘without further reference to the board.’
The bonus was paid each year onwards. In 1942 there were nine retired railwaymen who were still in receipt of the bonus, as a top-up on their pension. The company also provided for a clock to be sent to 121 station masters as a token of appreciation for their ‘loyal and able service to the company during the recent labour troubles in August and September last.’
Despite calls for leniency, the company kept to its decision to sack ten per cent of the strikers.
On 30 October the lord mayor of Cork wrote to Sir William Goulding with regard to three men who had been dismissed. ‘Of course, if an example be made, somebody must suffer,’ he wrote, ‘but it might be wise to consider whether enough suffering has not already been inflicted on them as they all have families to support, and the weather recently has been of a sort to try men in their position most severely.’
Peter Ffrench, MP, also campaigned on behalf of dismissed men, only to be told by Goulding that ‘with regard to men not now in service… we have more men in the service than formerly although only ten per cent according to agreement (sic) have not been taken back.’
Any employee dismissed automatically lost his pension rights.
In terms of trade union organisation, the Irish railwaymen were in a far weaker position at the end of 1911 than they had been at the start of the year. J.H. Thomas admitted in his evidence to the 1911 Royal Commission that the union’s involvement in the September strike had been undertaken reluctantly, and that they had been ‘dragged’ into the dispute.
The Manchester Guardian, a liberal newspaper with trade union sympathies, saw the tactics of the Irish railwaymen in the strike as ‘very wrong and unfair methods of warfare. It is the more necessary to condemn such methods because if we do not the legitimate and beneficent work of the trade unions is likely to suffer.’
Eight years later, Mr. R. Mullin of the NUR Amiens street branch labelled it ‘that most unfortunate strike of 1911.’
At a time when ASRS membership increased by 58 per cent, from 75,154 in December 1910 to over 116,500 by December 1911, the Irish membership remained static, at about 3,000, and did not grow until after the 1916 pay dispute.
It is clear that the majority of railwaymen in 1911 were cautious when it came to trade unionism, and the outcome of the September strike did little to change this situation.
Despite this, however, it is reasonable to assume that those who undertook the sympathetic strike action did so with at least some hope of a successful conclusion.
The reasons, motivations, and tactics behind the August and September disputes were not that dissimilar, despite the conflicting results.
They need to be understood within the context of an atmosphere between workers and owners that was highly confrontational, and one where grassroots militancy achieved improvements in pay and work conditions much more quickly and effectively that any conciliation board or parliamentary committee.
This was a radical time for trade unionism, with the ideas of syndicalism and industrial unionism on the rise. The railwaymen had the example of the British dockers and seamen to show them that militant action got results.
With the conclusion of the national strike in August, however, the initiative moved from the more radical elements within the ASRS to its executive.
This executive was not willing to jeopardise the recent gains in union recognition and bargaining power by responding to the more dissident voices within its membership, regardless of whether those voices came from England or Ireland. The executive worked, with some success, to ensure that the direction of the union remained in its hands.
The actions of the executive left some bitterness among the Irish activists, however, and the belief that Ireland was not as important as the regions on the ‘mainland’ stuck: would the ASRS have allowed ten per cent of its membership to be treated in such a fashion in Manchester, say, or Liverpool?
The idea of Ireland on the margins was often footnoted by the railwaymen in the years after 1916 as proof that the Irish branches needed autonomy in order to secure the best deal for the membership.
The September strike put a strain on relations between the railwaymen and the ITGWU, one that was highlighted by the absence of future joint action rather than by any one statement.
The railwaymen did not get involved in sympathetic strikes during the 1913 lock-out. This is not surprising given the fact that two years previous the activists saw ten per cent of their men punished for undertaking similar action – men who lost not only their jobs but their pensions as well.
In the period 1921-1923, when the ITGWU undertook once again a policy of ‘poaching’ other unions’ members, the Irish NUR made the argument that if railwaymen joined the ITGWU they would be used in sympathetic strikes. 1911 was not mentioned, but enough had been said.
The strongest factor in the collapse of the September strike, however, was the militant stance taken by the boardroom directors.
William Martin Murphy said that the strikers ‘were beated to the ropes’ by the employers, and the success stayed with him.
It was, in the eyes of Goulding, a principled stand against blackmail by the trade unions, and one where compromise was not an option. Its immediate legacy was a bouyed-up employers’ federation and a weakened railway union – two factors which came into play during the 1913 lockout.