Over 100 years ago, a small group of workers in Tralee embarked on the heroic Munster Warehouse Strike of 1915-1918. Kieran McNulty argues that this episode contains much by way of inspiration for the struggles of today.
There is a long tradition, over the past 100 years, of shop workers in Tralee fighting for their rights. Recently this proud tradition has has continued with the struggle of the Dunne’s Stores workers in 2015 and today’s industrial action by the Debenhams workers.
Retail workers provided perhaps the best example of rank and file union militancy in Kerry during the First World War in the form of a dispute at the Munster Warehouse Company (MWC) in Tralee, whose managing director was Daniel Murphy. The company was one of the few large commercial concerns in the town, and witnessed the most protracted and bitter industrial struggles in Tralee’s history.
Eighteen male and female shop assistants employed by the MWC went on strike for almost three years between 1915 and 1918, in protest at the company’s breaking of a local agreement concerning the ‘living-in system’.1 This system meant that the place of work was also the home of the firm’s employees who had no choice in this arrangement.
Peter Joseph Doran was one such employee of the Company. On leaving Saint Vincent de Paul Orphanage in Dublin in 1913, he ‘went to the Munster Warehouse … as an indentured apprentice gent’s outfitter aged 12 … returning to Dublin in April 1918’. He had no relatives in Kerry and, it seems, had little contact with his family in Wicklow.2
This practice had been condemned as early as the 1910, at the conference of the Irish Trade Union Congress held in Dundalk, where delegates had passed a motion calling for abolition of the ‘living-in system’. Trade unionists opposed this system because of the adverse conditions it imposed on workers. There were no inspections of the system, the quality of food was often ‘unfit for human consumption’ and women and girls were expected to share sleeping accommodation with men and boys.
Concern over the safety of female workers was further emphasised when it was observed ‘that in some cases assistants not returning before the hour of locking-up are shut out for the night, and that girls excluded are known to spend the whole night wondering about the streets’.3 Another motion at the 1914 conference declared that the continuance of the ‘living-in system’ was ‘illegal’.4
The employees of the MWC were all members of the Irish Drapers Assistants Association (IDAA), the precursor union to MANDATE, with Michael. J. O’Lehane the union’s national General Secretary and T. Howard, the Tralee branch secretary.5 O’Lehane brought a new militancy among shop assistants, many of whom were women.
As early as January 1914 an agreement between the IDAA and Tralee firms employing their members had been reached, where, according to Elaine Sugrue, only in exceptional circumstances would the ‘living-in system’ be used in preference to the ‘living-out system’ and then only up to a maximum of ten per cent of employees, all of whom would be females. It was also agreed that a ‘living-out allowance’ would be granted in order to facilitate workers to obtain accommodation off company premises.
In September of that same year, the terms of this agreement were broken by Murphy when ‘two young male assistants in the Munster Warehouse were told that they would not be granted a living-out allowance’.6 Murphy was alone amongst employers in Tralee who reneged on this agreement. The Munster Warehouse strike thus began on 15 May 1915 when the company refused to negotiate with the IDAA.7
In June, five members of Society of Tailors employed by the MWC also joined the strike.8 According to Crean, ‘since not a large number of workers involved, the union was able to afford to pay them strike pay indefinitely in order to make a point’.9
The actions of one woman in particular were singled out for praise, a Miss N. Roach. She was described in the journal of the IDAA, the Drapers’ Assistant, as ‘one of the most consistent members of the Tralee branch’ who ‘never flinched in her duties as organiser’. Roach was employed as a buyer of millinery and mantles, and when the strike began she not only threw her lot in with the assistants ‘but by wonderful spirit’ helped to lead ‘the rest of the ladies involved’.10
However, despite this acknowledgement of the role played by the female membership of the IDAA, and Howard congratulations of the ‘ladies on their gallant action on coming out on strike’ with the men, Sugrue has also highlighted, by March 1916, the Tralee branch of the union were critical of female members, informing the union’s executive committee that the women members were ‘shirking their duties’ and ‘did nothing by way of picketing’. This eventually resulted in the union executive increasing men’s strike pay to 25/- per week and reducing the women’s strike pay to 10/- per week.11
In terms of the local press, The Kerryman was very supportive of the strikers while both the Kerry News and the Kerry Weekly Reporter carried adverts for the Munster Warehouse Company.12 The Workers’ Republic’ reported surprise at discovering ‘that the [Tralee] Picturdome are all the time showing Munster Warehouse advertisements’.13
In June the Listowel branch of the IDAA ‘passed a resolution in support of the Tralee workers’.14 The striking workers organised sustained pickets outside the Munster Warehouse Company and held regular public meetings on Denny Street in an effort to win support for a boycott of the firm’s business.15 Eventually the dispute became a national issue. At the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party’s conference in Sligo in August 1916, the following resolution was proposed by O’Lehane and passed unanimously:
That this congress strongly condemns the action of the company in Tralee … in flagrantly violating the agreement entered into with other traders in that town, as well as with the employers in connection with the ‘living in system’ and it desires to place on record its appreciation of the magnificent fight which the assistants have put up during the last fifteen months.16
O’Lehane said the strike at the Munster Warehouse was the longest dispute in which the IDAA had been involved and he described the strikers ‘as really our heroes in the trenches’.
The perspective of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Henry Duke, a Conservative Party member of Lloyd George’s war-time coalition cabinet, was revealed later that year in December when, in the House of Commons, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) MP for West Kerry, Thomas O’Donnell, asked the Chief Secretary:
“Why the staff of the Munster Warehouse, Tralee, who are out on strike, were interfered with when only engaged in peaceful picketing, as they are entitled to do by law?”
To which the Chief Secretary, in rejecting the accusation replied:
“On the occasion to which the hon. Member refers the police considered the strikers were not acting within the law, and warned them to this effect, and I am told they desisted from the action of which complaint was made.”
The attitude of Duke towards the Munster Warehouse strikers was only to be expected from such a prominent member of the British ruling class.
In early 1918, in an effort to settle the dispute, both sides agreed to arbitration by the new Bishop of Kerry, Reverend Dr. Charles O’Sullivan. Although Tom Crean argues that the settlement arrived at through these negotiations represented ‘a clear defeat for the IDAA’,17 the evidence would suggest that neither the union nor the MWC emerged as clear victors at the end of the protracted dispute.
On 25 February, the Bishop’s compromise settlement was accepted by both the Munster Warehouse Company and eventually by the IDAA. This settlement for the first time included male and female assistants, both present and future, aged over 21, being granted the option to work either under the ‘living-in’ or ‘living-out’ systems. No ‘preferential’ treatment would be given to those employees choosing the ‘living-in’ system, nor should a disproportionate number of junior labourers be employed. It was also agreed that within the following month the company would begin to reinstate those workers who had been involved in the strike and that all future disputes would go before an agreed ‘arbitration’ panel.18
Although this agreement fell some way short of meeting all the demands of the workers, it did inspire confidence in the wider labour movement. Despite its limitations, the IDAA, as exemplified by the example of the Munster Warehouse dispute, ‘represented’ as argued by Sugrue, ‘a radical departure from the norm in admitting women members, proving that class solidarity trumped gender antagonism for Irish drapers’ assistants … and provided female drapers’ assistants … with the opportunity to become active participants in the labour movement.’19
The strike was an inspiration to workers during the early Twentieth Century and should be viewed in the same way today. As Debenhams workers up and down the country continue to struggle to be treated with decency by their employers, the example of the Munster Warehouse Strike remains a source of inspiration.
This article is an extract from a book by Kieran McNulty to be published in the near future with the working title of: Working-class Radicalism in Kerry, 1913-1923: A Social and Political Analysis.
- Worker’s Republic, 29 May 1915, Kerryman, 29 May, 1915.
- Tony P. Redmond, Duleek, correspondence received by post in regard to his grandfather, Peter Joseph Doran, 14 April 2016. ‘While in Tralee, [Doran] joined Na Fianna’ and on returning to Dublin would eventually join the IRA.
- Report of the Seventeenth ITUC, Town Hall, Dundalk, 16th, 17th, 18th, May 1910, (Dublin, 1910), p. 10, (ILHS).
- Report of the Twenty First ITUC, (with which has been incorporated the Irish Labour Party), City Hall, Dublin, 1st, 2nd and 3rd June 1914, (Dublin, 1914), p.99, (ILHS).
- Kerryman, 29 May 1915.
- Elaine Sugrue, ‘Women and Irish trade unionism: the Irish Drapers’ Assistants’ Association, 1901-20’ in Saothar, 42, 2017, p. 72.
- Kerryman, 29 May 1915.
- Thomas Neilan Crean, ‘The Labour Movement in Kerry and Limerick’, [Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, (TCD) 1995], 163.
- Ibid, p.163.
- Drapers’ Assistant, December 1917 as cited by Sugrue, ‘Women and Irish trade unionism’, p.72.
- IDAA Executive Ordinary Minutes, 20 October 1915; 2 March 1916; 28 June 1916 as cited by Surgru, ‘Women and Irish trade unionism’, p.72
- Kerry News, 31 May 1915, Kerry Weekly Reporter, 21 April 1917.
- Worker’s Republic, October 23 1915.
- Worker’s Republic, June 26 1915.
- Worker’s Republic, May 29 1915.
- ITUC & LP Report of the 22nd Annual Meeting, Town Hall, Sligo, August 7th, 8th, 9th, 1916, (Dublin, 1916), p. 60, (ILHS).
- Crean, p.164
- The Kerryman, 2 March 1918.
- Sugrue, ‘Women and Irish trade unionism’, p.72.