Organise, organise, organise.
Oration by Ethel Buckley, Deputy General Secretary of SIPTU at the graveside of trade unionist, Patrick Dunbar, who was murdered by strike breakers on 10th March 1913 while participating in the Sligo Dock Strike against the Sligo Steam Navigation Company.
We are here to remember our comrade Patrick Dunbar who was murdered by strike breakers exactly one hundred and ten years ago this year. Patrick was martyred for committing the simple offence of insisting on the right as a working person to be treated with respect and dignity, the right to a voice in the workplace, the right to organise.
Today we remember also all the others — the members of the National Union of Sailors and Firemen and the Dockers who were members of Jim Larkin’s incipient Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union who participated in that struggle against the Irish Steam Navigation Company over 56 days in that pivotal year in the history of the Irish labour movement. And we are here as well to remember their loved ones, the women and the children who ran the gauntlet of starvation, imprisonment and exclusion to bring that struggle to a successful conclusion.
While remembering them we are here as well to express our debt of gratitude to those heroic men and women of 1913 whose courage and whose sacrifice then, and many others over the decades that followed, bequeathed to us the degree of national independence and the quality of life in the Ireland of today.
All that being said, we owe it to those who participated in the heroic struggles of 1913 to challenge the revisionist portrayal of their endeavours as some kind of curtain raiser for the subsequent decade of national rebellion. True — the events of that year did play into, precipitate and form the character of the insurrection of 1916 in which James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army played a central role and in which Liberty Hall itself featured as the headquarters of the leaders in the weeks leading up to the Rising. But 1913 was part of a wider egalitarian movement which saw the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of workers across the UK and the developed world in the years between 1910 and 1914.
It was a period, for example, which saw the number of workers involved in strikes in Britain soar to 515,000 in 1910, 962,000 in 1911 and 1.5 million in 1912.
This was not simply an intensification of industrial battles around pay and conditions of employment — although it certainly was that. It was also informed by a grander aspiration, enlightened by the new Trade Unionists of the 1880s, which extended to notions of a decent life, access to education, to healthcare, to proper housing and even a say in the architecture of the future. It was a movement characterised by the participation for the first time, although not exclusively, of unskilled workers such as carters, dockers, servants and others.
This was the aspect of its character that William Martin Murphy and his contemporaries among the Dublin employers set out to crush with brutal force later that year.
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Their endeavour saw the employment of all the institutions of authority from the police to the courts to the jails, to the media which they largely controlled and the established churches, to the ultimate instrument of economic blackmail — starving little children to the point of death. All this was to suppress the aspiration of the poor to a legitimate say in the shape of the future.
Far from the onset of a nationalist rebellion, the 1913 Lockout was a war waged by the rich against the poor. It was not a case of the old enemy, England, supressing the Irish. It was planned and executed from beginning to end by wealthy Irish people against their fellow citizens in order to deprive them of the most fundamental right, the right to organise, the right to freedom of association, so as to ensure that they would have no say in the evolution of post-Home Rule Ireland.
Indeed, far from the simplistic English versus Irish portrayal, it was thanks to the solidarity of hundreds of thousands of British working women and working men, who contributed generously every week to the collections organised by the TUC, along with others across this island, including the people who won out in the Sligo dock strike and elsewhere, that ensured Murphy and his henchmen did not succeed in crushing the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.
However, they did manage to ensure that the egalitarian ideas premised on the basis of the primacy of the common good which inspired Markievicz, Dunbar, Lynn, Larkin, Connolly and the others who led the resistance would not influence public policy in the independent State which emerged from that decade of rebellion.
The tragedy of it is that despite the heroic role played by the Citizen Army in 1916, despite their martyrdom and the sacrifices of thousands of Trade Unionists in the War of Independence, despite the great general strike against conscription of 1918, despite the munitions strike of 1920 crippling the British military operation across the country and despite all the efforts we have made in all the years that followed, public policy in both jurisdictions on this island has been formulated almost exclusively in the image of the interests of William Martin Murphy and his kind.
Indeed, the most graphic illustration of this is that even to this day working women and men in this Republic are still denied the legal right to collective bargaining, without which the European Court of Human Rights has held the right to Freedom of Association to be meaningless (and we are one of the very few countries in the EU, indeed in the OECD, in which this remains the case). And notwithstanding the passage of time, workers seeking to vindicate their human right to organise must still run the gauntlet of intimidation, victimisation, discrimination and dismissal, being deprived of their livelihoods exactly as it was in 1913.
So the essential right to organise, the right to freedom of association, the right to bargain not beg for which Patrick Dunbar gave his life, is not some issue that can be safely consigned to the bad old days.
The right to organise, to freedom of association, to bargain collectively, to respect and dignity at work, to be heard and listened to, is as relevant today as it was when Patrick Dunbar was laid to rest in this place 110 years ago.
And while we are here to honour his memory, to pay homage to his courage and his sacrifice and to the others, the men, the women and the children too, whose solidarity with each other resulted in victory in the Sligo Dock Strike of 1913, we insist in reiterating our commitment to those same aspirations and we are inspired by the memory of Patrick Dunbar and that of the others too.
However, it is not sufficient to stop at that. Patrick Dunbar and those who stood with them did not have to confront the globalisation of capital and the way it has so dramatically shifted the balance against organised working people over the past four decades.
It is not sufficient for us to pay homage to the memory of the heroic fighters of the past, not sufficient to assemble at sacred places such as this in pursuit of inspiration. We have to face today’s challenges equipped with the tools of tomorrow.
We can no longer attempt to discharge our obligations to working people and their families relying on the tools of the late 19th and 20th century.
The trade unionists of those times had the courage and the vision to discard the narrow infrastructure of their day, building new national unions such as the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union here in this country and we in turn must do the same.
Solidarity is still the key and that is why we must fashion a new movement uniting all trade unions which embraces the capacity of every profession, trade and occupation.
We must build new communications channels to challenge the dominant dogma of today’s William Martin Murphys and their kind over the generation of ideas and we must complement it with a renewed vigour for trade union education equipping working people and our union activists on the vanguard with the analysis, the tools, the language and the confidence to challenge the marketisation of education and proliferation of capitalist ideology.
Because ultimately we, on the left, must also develop be capable of challenging their hegemony over the dissemination of news, information, analysis and the conduct of public commentary.
Simultaneously, we must build an industrial capacity which is capable of co-ordinating collective bargaining and organising across every sector of the economy backed by dynamic properly resourced District Centres strategically located around the island and run by vibrant District Councils, to ensure that no worker can any longer be rendered defenceless as a powerless individual without even a voice in the workplace in circumstances where their employer holds all the power.
We must steel ourselves for the political battle ahead on the transposition into Irish legislation and industrial relations of the EU Directive that supports the right to collective bargaining.
Collective bargaining and the right to organise are intrinsically linked. They are two sides of the same coin.
If we collectively bargain from a position of strength, then workers can achieve a result that reflects that strength. If we bargain from a position of weakness, workers get a result that reflect that weakness. Undoubtedly, negotiating strategy and tactics are important in collective bargaining, but ultimately a union power is derived from membership density and that’s equally the case in a firm, in a company, in an industry, in a sector and in a labour market.
In order to build worker power, first we must organise. Then, we bargain.
If we do this in the reverse order, in other words if we bargain first and then ask workers to join the union afterwards because we got something for them, we are doomed to fail because every strategic organiser knows from bitter experience that eaten bread is soon forgotten.
Transposition of the EU Directive on Adequate Minimum Wages is a once in a generation opportunity to make progress on the right of workers to organise and to build the trade union renewal that everyone gathered here in Sligo today so desperately longs to see and be a part of.
There are elements of the state, the government and certainly the employers whose vision for the transposition of the Directive and the expansion of collective bargaining coverage is very different to ours. They envision widescale collective bargaining involving employers and non-union workers. There is no renewal for the trade union movement in that scenario. In fact, the expansion of collective bargaining coverage in the absence of the expansion of trade union membership is a fast track to union irrelevance across whole swathes of our labour market.
Comrades, what we need, and what I pledge to you that I will prioritise in SIPTU campaigning in the coming weeks, months and years is a Right to Organise framework of supports and protections for workers which would encompass three fundamental elements:
It would make it safer for workers to unionise; this requires a radical overhaul of the Unfair Dismissals Act so that it is no longer cheap and easy for the bosses to fire union activists;
It would provide statutory protections and facilities for union representatives to effective carry out their role in the workplace
It would provide access for full-time union organisers to workers and workplaces both physically and digitally so that we can unionise.
If in the negotiations on the transposition we achieve these measures, we could once and for all provide workers with a safe and level playing field upon which to make up their mind as to whether or not to join, then I believe we could say with thorough justification that we are continuing the project of Dunbar and of Markievicz and Partridge, of Connolly and Larkin, of Molony and Bennett.
Whether we prevail will decide whether working people and their families have the capacity to exercise a degree of influence in the architecture of the future of Ireland or whether it is to be designed exclusively in the image of those whose sole preoccupation is the accumulation of profit to the exclusion of every social and human consideration.
These are the challenges of this time and this day 110 years on from Dunbar’s great sacrifice. This is the most fitting way to remember Comrade Patrick Dunbar and all the other martyrs and to ensure that they did not give their lives in vain.