On January 21, 1876, James Larkin was born in a Liverpool slum. He received minimal schooling. The few years he went to school he also worked to supplement his families income.
Larkin held a variety of menial jobs before finding employment on the Liverpool docks ultimately becoming a foreman. He was a labor leader, Socialist, nationalist and finally a Communist.
In 1905 Larkin became an organizer for the National Union of Dock Labourers.
(NUDL). Larkin’s approach to strike management was too extreme for the NUDL leadership. Consequently, he was transferred to Dublin to over see NUDL efforts there.
In Dublin, he formed the Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). The ITGWU was to be an all inclusive union mixing skilled and unskilled laborers from all trades.
The ITGWU agenda was: an eight hour work day, a guaranteed pension at the age of sixty, Compulsory Arbitration Courts, universal suffrage, and nationalization of all transportation.
A series of strikes in Dublin between the years 1912 and 1913 culminated in the Dublin Lockout of 1913. Depending on the source the lockout pitted between 300 to 404 employers against 20,000 employees (one source says, 100,000 strikers).
The bone of contention was workers’ right to unionize. Larkin’s hoped for boycotts and sympathetic strikes staged by other unions. There was to be no violence. It was absurd for workers to destroy the means of their livelihood.
August 26, 1913, the workers walked off the job. Employers responded by locking them out unless they agreed not to join any unions. Larkin’s call for sympathetic strikes went unheeded. Newspapers denounced the strike. Companies imported strike breaking laborers.
Catholic Charities refused aid to the children of striking workers. Workers felt the deprivations of prolonged unemployment. On January 8, 1914, the workers agreed not to engage in any union activity. The once powerful ITGWU became irrelevant.
When World War 1 started in 1914 Larkin insisted that the Irish should not fight for England. Instead, they should arm themselves to win Irish independence from England. “…fight for Ireland and no other land”, he admonished.
That same year Larkin went to America to raise money to buy arms through speaking tours. In New York City he founded the James Connolly Socialist Club named in honor of a friend and associate killed during the 1916 Easter Uprising. The JCSC became a hot bed of leftist activity.
In 1920 he did a three-year stretch in Sing Sing prison for criminal anarchy and Communism. In 1923 he was deported to Ireland.
Larkin’s brother Peter and son Jim organized the Workers’ Union of Ireland. On January 30, 1947, James (Big Jim)Larkin died when he fell through a floor that was under repair in the WUI’s headquarters Ashe Hall.
Larkin’s efforts on behalf of Irish labor are honored with a bronze statue outside of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions office on Donegall Street Place in Dublin. His philosophy, “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” remains a rallying cry of labor unions.
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