From Forward, 4 October 1913.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
Proofread by Chris Clayton, August 2007.
To the readers of Forward possibly some sort of apology is due for the non-appearance of my notes for the past few weeks, but I am sure that they quite well understand that I was, so to speak, otherwise engaged. On the day I generally write my little screed, I was engaged on the 31st of August in learning how to walk around in a ring with about forty other unfortunates kept six paces apart, and yet slip in a word or two to the poor devil in front of or behind me without being noticed by the watchful prison warders.
The first question I asked was generally “say, what are you in for?” Then the rest of the conversation ran thus:
“For throwing stones at the police.”
“Well, I hope you did throw them and hit.”
“No, by God, that’s the worst of it. I was pulled coming out of my own house.”
‘Pulled’ is the Dublin word for arrested. It was somewhat mortifying to me to know that I was the only person apparently in prison who had really committed the crime for which I was arrested. It gave me a sort of feeling that I was lowering the moral tone of the prison by coming amongst such a crowd of blameless citizens.
But the concluding part of our colloquy was a little more encouraging. It usually finished in this way:
“Are you in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union?”
“Of course I am.”
“Good. Well if they filled all the prisons in Ireland they can't beat us, my boy.”
“No, thank God, they can’t; we’ll fight all the better when we get out.”
And there you have the true spirit. Baton charges, prison cells, untimely death and acute starvation – all were faced without a murmur, and in face of them all, the brave Dublin workers never lost faith in their ultimate triumph, never doubted but that their organisation would emerge victorious from the struggle. This is the great fact that many of our critics amongst the British labour leaders seem to lose sight of. The Dublin fight is more than a trade union fight; it is a great class struggle, and recognised as such by all sides. We in Ireland feel that to doubt our victory would be to lose faith in the destiny of our class.
I heard of one case where a labourer was asked to sign the agreement forswearing the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and he told his employer, a small capitalist builder, that he refused to sign. The employer, knowing the man’s circumstances, reminded him that he had a wife and six children who would be starving within a week. The reply of this humble labourer rose to the heights of sublimity. “It is true, sir,” he said, “they will starve; but I would rather see them go out one by one in their coffins than that I should disgrace them by signing that.” And with head erect he walked out to share hunger and privation with his loved ones. Hunger and privation – and honour.
Defeat, bah! How can such a people be defeated? His case is typical of thousands more. Take the case of the United Builders Labourers’ Trade Union, for instance. This was a rival union to the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. Many sharp passages had occurred between them, and the employers counted confidently upon their cooperation in the struggle; Mr. William Martin Murphy especially praising them and exulting in their supposed acquiescence in his plans. Remember also that they were a dividing society, dividing their funds at the end of each year, and therefore without any strike funds. When the members of their union were asked to sign the agreement, promising never to join or help the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, not one man consented – but all over Dublin their 2,500 members marched out “to help the I.T.&G.W.U. boys.” Long ere these lines are written, they have experienced all the horrors of starvation, but with grim resolve they have tightened their belts and presented an unyielding front to the enemy.
It is a pleasure to me to recall that I was a member of their Union before I went to America, and that they twice ran me as their candidate for Dublin City Council before the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union was dreamed of.
What is true of that union is also true of most of the tradesmen. All are showing wonderful loyalty to their class. Coachbuilders, sawyers, engineers, bricklayers, each trade that is served by general labourers, walks out along with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union boys; refuses to even promise to work with any one who signs the employers’ agreement, and, cheering, lines up along with their class.
Or think of the heroic women and girls. Did they care to evade the issue, they might have remained at work, for the first part of the agreement asks them to merely repudiate the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and as women they are members of the Irish Women Workers' Union, not of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. But the second part pledges them to refuse to ‘help’ the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union – and in every shop, factory and sweating hell-hole in Dublin, as the agreement is presented, they march out with pinched faces, threadbare clothes, and miserable footgear, but with high hopes, undaunted spirit, and glorious resolve shining out of their eyes. Happy the men who will secure such wives; thrice blessed the nation which has such girls as the future mothers of the race! Ah, comrades, it is good to have lived in Dublin in these days!
And then our friends write deprecatingly to the British press of the “dislocation of trade” involved in sympathetic strikes, of the “perpetual conflicts” in which they would involve great trade unions. To those arguments, if we can call them such, our answer is sufficient. It is this: If the capitalist class knew that any outrages upon a worker, any attack upon labour, would result in a prompt dislocation of trade, perhaps national in its extent; that the unions were prepared to spend their last copper if necessary rather than permit a brother or sister to be injured, then the knowledge would not only ensure a long cessation from industrial skirmishing such as the unions are harassed by today, it would not only ensure peace to the unions, but what is of vastly more importance, it would ensure to the individual worker a peace from slave-driving and harassing at his work such as the largest unions are apparently unable to guarantee under present methods.
Mark, when I say “prepared to spend their last copper if necessary,” I am not employing merely a rhetorical flourish, I am using the words literally. As we believe that in the socialist society of the future the entire resources of the nation must stand behind every individual, guaranteeing him against want, so today our unions must be prepared to fight with all their resources to safeguard the rights of every individual member.
The adoption of such a principle, followed by a few years of fighting on such lines to convince the world of our earnestness, would not only transform the industrial arena, but would revolutionise politics. Each side would necessarily seek to grasp the power of the state to reinforce its position, and politics would thus become what they ought to be, a reflex of the industrial battle, and lose the power to masquerade as a neutral power detached from economic passions or motives.
At present I regret to say labour politicians seem to be losing all reality as effective aids to our struggles on the industrial battlefield, are becoming more and more absorbed in questions of administration, or taxation, and only occasionally, as in the miners’ national strike, really rise to a realisation of their true role of parliamentary outposts of the industrial army.
The parliamentary tail in Britain still persist in wagging the British industrial dog. Once the dog really begins to assert his true position, we will be troubled no more by carping critics of labour politics, nor yet with labour politicians’ confessions of their own impotence in such great crises as chat of the railway strike or the Johannesburg massacres.
Nor yet would we see that awful spectacle we have seen lately of labour politicians writing to the capitalist press to denounce the methods of a union which, with 20,000 men and women locked out in one city, is facing an attempt of 400 employers to starve its members back into slavery.
And thou, Brutus, that you should play the enemy’s game at such a crisis! Every drop of ink you spilled in such an act stopped a loaf of bread on its way to some starving family.
Last updated on 19.8.2007