Probably the readers of The Irish Worker will be glad to learn something of the condition of affairs in the port of Belfast. In the stress and storm of building a Union during and immediately after a strike there is not much time left to an organiser to do much descriptive writing, and hence I have not been able to keep in as close touch with the journal of the Union as I would have wished to, but will in the future. But this battle of the working class should be recorded, and the tale of its martyrdom preserved - the first as an inspiration and the second as a warning. Belfast has had its battles of Labour, and the record of Labour in the port of Belfast for the past five years has every right to be recorded as a record of martyrdom.
Never have I seen the evil results of want of organisation better exemplified than in the Low Docks of Belfast prior to our recent strike.
With the usual fiendish ingenuity of the capitalist class, every device was employed to spur on the dockers to increased activity, and to promote discord and strife. With the disruption of the Union the men were left dispirited and powerless, and stevedores, shipowners, and foremen wrought their sweet will upon them. In order to extract the last ounce of energy out of their bodies a system of bonuses was introduced among the grain labourers. Every gang turning over more than 120 tons of grain received as a bonus the magnificent sum of 6d per man. This, taking 100 tons as an average day's work, meant that for one-fifth of a day's work extra crowded in the ten hours they received one-tenth of a day's pay. This in itself was bad enough, but in actual practice it worked out even more mischievously. By tips to winchmen, firemen, and others, the pace was kept up upon the unfortunate fillers and carriers - curses, obscene epithets, and even physical violence were freely used to supplement the usual fear of dismissal, while the tallymen and checkers were forbidden to reveal the actual tonnages being done until the end of the day's toil. As a result of this systematic slave-driving the average day's work was driven higher and higher, until 160, 180, and 200 tons as a day's work ceased to excite any comment or be considered anyway remarkable. If the reader unacquainted with the technical details of dock labouring at grain vessels will try and realise that this means that one man of each gang, the man carrying to the ship's rail from the ship's hatch, has to carry over his own back all this immense weight, he will begin to understand the depths of slavery to which these men were reduced, as well as the cold-blooded cruelty and avarice of their employers. All day long in the suffering heat of a ship's hold the men toil barefooted and half naked, choked with dust; while the tubs rushed up and down over their heads with such rapidity as to strain every muscle to the breaking point in the endeavour to keep them going, and with such insane recklessness as to be a perpetual menace to life and limb. Add to this inferno of industrial slavery that the men could not even retire to attend to the wants of nature unless they paid a substitute to take their place, that a visit to a WC or a drinking fountain often entailed dismissal, and that every slave-driving foreman or lick-spittle "master's man" had a free hand to apply the spur, and the reader will have some conception of the depths of degradation to which our unfortunate Belfast brothers were reduced. Accidents were common, as is always the case when men are rushed to the breaking point, and physical break down was so prevalent that it was but rarely that men were able to finish three days' work in succession, the inevitable consequences of their exhausting labours compelling men to remain idle in order to recruit their strength, followed in the complete demoralisation of the workers.
Dockers are as a rule not famed for steadiness and sobriety, but when the nature of their casual labour is taken into account the fact cannot be wondered at. Were some of their "cultured" critics subject to the same conditions perhaps their genteel varnish would not survive the strain very well. Labour carried to such an excess that men must rest on alternate days to recuperate naturally produces demoralisation and evil habits; hence the organiser and agitator who preaches rebellion against exhausting, ill-paid labour is doing more to uplift and regenerate humanity than they who preach righteousness, but tolerate and encourage slavish conditions and the slavishness begotten of them. The men engaged in timber carrying, in general cargo, and in the coal boats all suffered, in varying degrees, such abominable conditions as these I have but faintly described. In general it may be said that since the general exodus from the Union after our friend, Jim Larkin, left this city the exploiters of labour had piled outrage upon outrage and iniquity upon iniquity until every man in the port with a spark of manhood left was ripe for rebellion. It but required a spark to ignite the magazine; that spark came in the fullness of time.
I had been agitating all up and down the docks, and at every available street corner since the inception of the seamen's strike, urging the men to seize the golden opportunity to strike a blow for their brothers, the seamen, and incidentally for themselves, and found the stream of recruits slowly, if surely, gathering in volume, when I learned that the proprietors of the Head Line, the Ulster SS Co, had refused to pay the Belfast seamen and firemen on the Innishowen Head the rate of wages the same firm was paying in the British Channel. Seizing the opportunity along with Mr Bennett, the Secretary of the Seamen and Firemen's Union, we called upon the dockers at that boat, and all their mates around the docks to come out at once, strike a blow for the sailors, and end their own slavery. Before night we had 600 men on our hands - the battle had begun. How this battle was won I need not remind you. That it was won was largely due to the noble help so generously given by the Dublin men we are not likely to forget. We had not a penny in our funds when we struck. We paid 4s strike pay on the tenth day of our strike, and 4s 6d on the second week. Of this sum more than half came from Dublin, the remainder came from street collections among the loyal-hearted workers of Belfast.
What has been the result of this battle - the fruits of this victory? To tell it in detail would involve the printing of many technicalities, the meaning of which would be lost on many of our readers. But in general it might be said that in wages the grain labourers have gained an increase of at least 3s per week, while their gain in improvement of conditions and increased self-respect cannot be overestimated. On returning to work I announced as organiser that the Union would insist upon the day's work being restricted to 100 tons per gang, and that any gang exceeding that amount would be treated as scabs. It is a great pleasure to record that in enforcing this restriction the Union has been able to count with certainty upon the loyal support of its members. Despite the fact that the employers renewed their offer of a bonus for increased output, no gang have yet consented to earn it. Indeed, in order to make it more attractive the employers offered a bonus of 6d per every 25 tons "or practical part thereof+8221; over 100 tons. Thus a gang turning over 100 tons and one cwt would be entitled to claim this bonus, but it lies yet unclaimed. The awful memory of their recent slavery has made our members watchful. Also, all the slave-driving, curses, obscenity and physical violence on the part of the bosses is a thing of the past. All have been warned that any attempt at a renewal of it will be met with a strike for the dismissal of the offender. Similar conditions have been gained for the timber labourers, and for the men on general cargo. Increase of wages all round, abolition of slave-driving, full and complete unionising of all labour on foreign-going vessels, and spread of the union all around the Coal Quay, is our present record. We have enforced union conditions for the Seamen and Firemen on all ships coming into the Low Dock, downing tools on about a dozen occasions in order to do so; and we stopped work on railway waggons ten minutes after receiving word from our General Secretary and the Executive of ASRS in Dublin. The Belfast branch of the Railway Servants were still considering the matter for days after they received word from their Executive, but the Belfast Branch of the Irish Transport Workers' Union acted in the Railwaymen's interest ten minutes after we got the joint mandate from Dublin. The timber labourers in the employ of Messrs Dixon were locked out in Dublin; we immediately withdrew our men from Messrs Dixon's yards in Belfast. As a result of this promptitude our Dublin brethren were reinstated with pay for the last day. A boat belonging to Messrs G & R Burns (Lord Inverclyde) was sent down to the Low Docks for 500 tons of grain. It had on board Messrs Burns' own "constant hands", men who would not join the union, and cheerfully scabbed all during the recent strike. We told them we would give them to breakfast time to join the union; they said that according to the newspapers there was to be no discriminations; we told them that we would give them an experience that would lead them to have less faith in newspapers. They did not join, and much to their surprise our members refused to give their boat another pound weight, and after lying all day it had to be taken out of the dock, and down to Larne.
The Branch has rented extensive premises at 122 Corporation Street, and intend having a smoking and reading room in connection therewith; we are considering the organisation of a band, and have in contemplation also the launching of many other schemes for the moral, social, and financial uplifting of the members.
We are proud of taking part in the recent wonderful revolution in the World of Labour, and look forward, with pleasure, to future activities in the same cause, and to future successes under the banner of the Irish branch of that great onward moving, conquering army of toil, which is destined, I believe in our own time, to conquer and to own the world.
The Irish Transport and General Workers' Union is in the vanguard of that Irish branch of the Army of Labour, and we are honoured when we carry its banner. - Yours,
Republished in James Connolly: Lost Writings, (ed. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh), Pluto Press 1997.