We have just had, and taken, the opportunity in Belfast to put into practice a little of what is known on the Continent of Europe as "Direct Action".
Direct Action consists in ignoring all the legal and parliamentary ways of obtaining redress for the grievances of Labour, and proceeding to rectify these grievances by direct action upon the employer's most susceptible part - his purse. This is very effective at times, and saves much needless worry, and much needless waste of union funds.
Direct Action is not liked by lawyers, politicians, or employers. It keeps the two former out of a job, and often leaves the latter out of pocket. But it is useful to Labour, and if not relied upon too exclusively, or used too recklessly, it may yet be made a potent weapon in the armoury of the working class.
The circumstances under which we came to put in practice the newest adaptation of it in Belfast were as follows:-
A dock labourer named Keenan was killed at the unloading of a ship owing to a bag being released by one of the carriers a moment too soon. Flying down the chute it struck Keenan, knocking him to the ground and killing him. The accident happened owing to the practice of the stevedores of backing in a team of horses about ten minutes before the meal hour, and demanding that the men rush the work in order to load the vans before quitting for their meals. It was in this perfectly needless rush the sad affair happened.What was our surprise to read in the report of the inquest that the solicitor for the merchant insinuated that the man was killed because he was a non-union man - that in short he was murdered by the union members! As a matter of fact he had promised to join, and being an old dock labourer had been given a few days grace in which to come up to our offices and make good.
All the papers of Belfast gave prominence to this "Extraordinary Allegation", as one journal called it, and the matter was commented upon freely throughout the city.
After due deliberation, thinking over all the possible means of redress for this foul libel we resolved to take the matter into our own hands, and put a little pressure upon the purse of the man who employed this libeller to slander the Union.
Accordingly at dinner time we told the men employed on the ship in question - the Nile - not to resume work until the merchant repudiated the libel or disclaimed all responsibility therefor. The men stood by loyally, and immediately all the forces of capital and law and order were on the alert. The news spread around the docks as on a wireless telegraph, and both sides were tense with expectancy.
While we were thus waiting and watching the stevedore of the Nile sent for the merchant, and asked me through one of his foremen to wait on the spot for him. I waited, but whilst I waited one very officious Harbour official ordered me off the Harbour Estate. The Harbour of Belfast, unlike Dublin or Liverpool, is practically enclosed property. I informed Mr Constable that there was no meeting in progress, and that I was only waiting an answer to our request for a disclaimer from the merchant. He then became rude and domineering, and eventually began to use force. I then told him that if I, as a union official, could not speak to the men individually on the Harbour Estate we would take the men off where we could talk to them.
So we gave the word and called off every man in the Low Docks. In ten minutes 600 men responded and left the docks empty.
In ten minutes more a District Superintendent, merchants, managers, detectives, and Harbour underlings generally were rushing frantically up to the Union rooms begging for the men to go back and "everything would be arranged."
Well, everything was arranged within an hour. The offending solicitor, after many hoity-toity protests that "he would not be dictated to by the dockers," climbed gracefully down and dictated a letter to the Press disclaiming any intention to impute evil actions to the Union members, and the letter accordingly appeared in all the Belfast papers.
In addition the Harbour Master assured us that he regretted the action of the constable, which would not be allowed to happen again, and that we would be given full liberty to go anywhere in the docks or ships at all times.
It was all a great object lesson, and has had its full effect on the minds of the Belfast workers. It has taught them that there are other ways than by means of expensive law-suits to vindicate the character and rights of the toilers; and as a result it has given dignity and self-respect to the members of the Union.
We have found it necessary, in order to cope with the needs of our increasing membership, to open new offices for the Ballymacarret side of the city. These offices are at 6 Dalton Street, and will be in charge of a Union official between the hours of 4 and 7 pm during the week, and from 12 to 5 pm on Saturdays. They will be a great convenience to the local Quay and to our new members from the Chemical Works.
Our campaign against the sweating conditions in the Rope Works is now in full swing. Breakfast and dinner hour meetings are being held when the gospel of discontent and wise organisation is preached to the sweated employees of this huge capitalist concern. We expect good results to the workers from this campaign.
On Tuesday, September 11th, we held a most successful joint demonstration with the seamen and firemen, with Father Hopkins as our chief speaker. The magnitude of the meeting surprised and delighted our comrade, and his speech surprised and delighted the vast audience.
Mr D.R. Campbell, President Belfast Trades Council, was in the chair, and the following resolution was moved by James Connolly, seconded by James Flanagan, supported by Father Hopkins, and passed amid great enthusiasm:-
Resolved - "That in the opinion of this meeting of Belfast workers, the action of Wexford employers in discharging men for joining the Irish Transport Workers' Union was an outrageous attack upon the liberty of the workers; and that we call upon our Wexford brothers to stand firm, and also call upon all trade unionists in Ireland to answer this outrage by boycotting all the bicycles and other products manufactured by the firm in question."The meeting closed with ringing cheers for Father Hopkins, singing of "He's a jolly good fellow", and cheers for the Transport Workers' Union. - Yours,
Republished in James Connolly: Lost Writings, (ed. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh), Pluto Press 1997.