Early 20th Century Organizer
“A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” was the rallying cry of James Larkin, a labor organizer in Ireland in the early 1900’s. Most often known for his leadership role in the Belfast Dockers and Carters Strike of 1907, his advocacy led to the founding of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) and Britain’s Labour Party. Larkin is celebrated in Ireland for he revolutionized labor organizing by advocating for all workers to be unionized.
Unions Are for All Workers
Growing up in the slums of Liverpool and leaving school at age 11 to work on the docks, Larkin developed into a committed socialist. He believed that workers were mistreated. In 1905 he joined the National Union of Dock Laborers (NUDL) and became a full-time organizer for worker’s rights.
His methods, though, were radical and the NUDL transferred him to Dublin. Larkin formed a union, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). His goal was to combine all Irish Industrial workers, both skilled and unskilled, into one large union. He gave convincing speeches proclaiming that unions “were for all”. Read more: Jim Larkin | Biography and James Larkin | Ireland Calling
His oratory was extraordinary. One member of royalty remarked, “Sitting there, listing to Larkin, I realized that I was in the presence of…some great primeval force rather than a man.” On the strength of his oratory and the power of his message, the union grew to 15, 000 members. The Irish Trades Union Congress recognized the power of the ITGWU, and in 1912 it established the Labour Party.
Prior to Jim Larkin’s work in labor organizing, dockers and carters, the men who worked the docks and carried products from the docks in horse-drawn carts, lived in squalid conditions. The dockers and carters were fired and blacklisted if they attempted to organize for better wages or working conditions.
The craft unions were narrowly focused on the needs of each particular trade and excluded what we call today “the rank and file.” Larkin’s legacy is that he transformed the collection of small unions into one large and powerful union that embraced the mass of workers.
He taught them that with numbers they had respect, standing, and political power. Larkin summed up his life when he said, “For years and years I have done the work I was born for.”
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