100 years ago Belfast was gripped by a remarkable general strike of Catholic and Protestant workers. John Gray, an author and historian of Belfast labour, looks back at that extraordinary event.
This January marks the centenary of the most formidable strike in Belfast’s history. It is usually described as the ‘engineering’ strike but is better described as a general strike. True the city’s 30,000 shipyard workers were at the heart of it but, crucially, municipal workers were also involved, and in all 60,000 came out. Workers seized control of electricity, gas and water supplies and closed the newspapers, all except their own strike bulletin, in a struggle that lasted for four weeks.
There was one simple demand—for a 44-hour week, a cut from the existing 54-hour week and one to be made without loss of pay. It was a revolt against the tyranny of a working day that lasted from 6.30am to 6.00pm with Saturday morning working.
It was a demand made from an apparent position of strength. The Belfast shipyards were the largest in the world. They had prospered during the war, and now there was a post-war boom as the vast quantity of shipping sunk during the conflict was replaced.
Belfast workers in no way felt constrained by the acceptance at a national level of a 47-hour week, nor did they see any need to co-ordinate their action with Glasgow where the demand was for a 40-hour week. Belfast was confident that it could plough its own furrow.
Workers here did so with extraordinary determination. On 14 January 1919 they voted 20,225 to 558 for ‘drastic action in the way of an unofficial strike.’ One banner carried on a 30,000 strong march that day said it all, ‘47 be hanged, we want 44.’
Ten days later the strike began with the complete paralysis of the city’s main industries. Such was the strength of the strike committee’s position that they were able to reach agreement with the Lord Mayor on the issue of permits for the use of gas and electricity for vital services. They also exercised tight social control: on the first day of the strike there were some minor disturbances and the Royal Irish Constabulary agreed to enlist 300 strikers as special constables to assist in maintaining order.
Why were the authorities so willing to allow the strikers to control and even dictate the situation? Certainly there was a fear of serious violence if they adopted a more confrontational approach, but, crucially, the strikers were at the core of support for political Unionism, hence Carson and Sir James Craig argued at cabinet level for a softly softly approach. They were prepared to play a long game.
For their part the strikers hoped for a rapid victory. As Charles McKay, one of the strike leaders, put it on 28 January, ‘the fight would be bitter and some of them had got to suffer… It was better to make it fast and furious, short and sharp.’ They hoped to drive the key local employers, and notably Lord Pirrie of Harland and Wolff, to the negotiating table and to win quickly in Belfast regardless of what was happening elsewhere.
Yet this was no equivalent to ‘Red Clydeside’. Belfast had no recent history of a militant shop stewards’ movement as in Glasgow, rather the strike here was led by local trade union officials and officers. They were no revolutionary vanguard. Some certainly had Independent Labour Party backgrounds but others were members of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association.
There was talk of the strike committee functioning as a ‘labour parliament’ but no more than that. The Northern Whig was able to re-assure its readers that ‘as far as Belfast is concerned Bolshevism does not exist.’ When three more serious revolutionaries arrived in the city they were soon enough chased from strike platforms. As one heckler put it, ‘the black north can take care of itself anyway without either Larkins, O’Hagans or Russian Jews.’
The strikers finally got their talks but after protracted negotiations all that was on offer by 10 February was the 47 hours already conceded nationally, and a vague promise that the Belfast shipyards would take up the case for shorter hours nationally.
If the Belfast leaders now lacked the capacity to up the ante, the red flag waving militants in Glasgow had arguably over reached themselves. On 31 January a mass demonstration there was broken up by the police and military and the strike leadership was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act. The illusion of a revolutionary situation soon vanished in the face of overwhelming state force. On 12 February the Glasgow strikers surrendered leaving Belfast isolated.
Meanwhile in Belfast unskilled workers and municipal employees with less resources to sustain a prolonged strike began to waver. Nonetheless on 14 February the strikers voted by 11,963 to 8,774 to reject the employers offer of 10 February.
Following the events in Glasgow the Belfast leaders feared that they too might be arrested. Certainly many businessmen were demanding firm action and condemned the Lord Mayor for surrendering to the strikers.
Yet the authorities still acted more subtly than the effective martial law imposed in Glasgow. Instead they made a selective and strategic intervention: on 14 February the army—complete with six armoured cars and 100 scab labourers—entered the gasworks, and used DORA to force two key workers to co-operate in getting the works going again.
With municipal services being progressively restored the strike lost momentum. Further talks with the employers made no progress, and on 17 February the strike committee called an end to the dispute, albeit in the face of some opposition. They put a brave face on it arguing that, ‘To know how and when to retreat… is the mark of a great general.’
What then of their generalship? It was certainly an extraordinary achievement to mobilise such a universal and united strike and to sustain it for four weeks. The flaw in their thinking was an overblown sense of what Belfast could achieve on its own, which led to a weakness in their failure to work with the trade union movement elsewhere on these islands and notably in Glasgow.
Beyond striking their emphasis on social control, including collaboration with the RIC, meant that they had no other shots in their locker when early negotiations failed. However a more militant approach might not have served them well—it had brought early retribution down on the red flaggers in Glasgow!
Paradoxically the very moderation of the Belfast strikers – doing nothing beyond striking – helped persuade a nervous Unionist leadership to intervene against any immediate and forceful government intervention, and this very much in contrast to events during the 1907 Dock Strike. However all that that secured was a stalemate and a stalemate when men are out on strike always serves the employers in the long run.
It is also true that while they had failed they had retired with their forces intact. That was evident on May Day in 1918 when 100,000 rallied in Ormeau Park.
Yet in the violent course of Unionist state formation over the next two years no tolerance of such deviation, and by a significant section of the Protestant working class, could be tolerated. In July 1920 a massive wave of workplace expulsions took place affecting no less than 7,500 workers. Among them were most of the leaders of the 1919 strike.
As one of them, James Baird, described it, ‘Every man who was prominently known in the Labour movement… was expelled from his work.’
Truly James Connolly’s prophecy of, ‘A carnival of reaction’, following any partition had been fulfilled and the memory of the 1919 strike was for long obliterated.