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.
I believe the 1919 general strike in Belfast was a much more radical event than depicted here, an event that demonstrates how the potential to undermine sectarianism exists in the unity of protestant and catholic workers. It was also a strike with major implications for what would happen in course of the Irish revolution over the next few years. John presents the course of the strike as being very much directed by the relatively conservative strike committee (more on their composition later) and quite different to Glasgow. But apart from the presence of longstanding revolutionaries in the movement, the rank and file were often several steps ahead of the committee.
The first response of the shipyard owners to the strike, for example, was to try to continue work, using foremen and apprentices to keep the yards open. But a spontaneous picket of 2,000 strikers broke through the gates and brought out the apprentices, before stoning the company offices for good measure. By nightfall the strike committee was in control of not just the power supply of the city but the streets. No traffic could travel down Queen’s Road, for example, without a pass issued by them.
The correspondent for the Manchester Guardian sent the following report: ‘Soviet’ has an unpleasant sound in English ears, and one uses it with hesitation; but it nevertheless appears to be the fact that the Strike Committee have taken upon themselves, with the involuntary acquiescence of the civic authority, some of the attributes of an industrial soviet.’
The Mayor of Belfast admitted ‘as far as the municipal undertakings were concerned [he was] entirely at the mercy of the strike committee.’ A telegram from the Belfast authorities confirmed the situation, that small businesses were having to contact the strike leaders, ‘The work-men [sic] have formed a ‘soviet’ committee, and this committee had received 47 applications from small traders for permission to use light.’ It is noteworthy that the strike committee consisted of both protestant and catholic trade unionists, with a catholic, Charles McKay, at the head of a strike in which protestant workers were the majority.
The same Monday that the strike began, the British Government announced that it was going to introduce the eight-hour day for railway workers. This was to head off possible solidarity from railworkers for the engineering strike that was also taking place in all the major British cities, and most militantly in Glasgow. In Belfast the news did not prevent railworkers unofficially joining the strike on Tuesday 28 January. Other groups of workers joined the movement, again demonstrating autonomy from the conservatives in the labour movement. Graveyard workers, also without the sanction of their union leaders, walked out to participate in the strike. In the rope factories, the mainly female workforce learned that pickets were due to arrive to bring them out, and they too struck on their own initiative. Meanwhile at the Sirocco engineering works some strikebreakers and apprentices were managing to keep the factory open. This was dealt with by cutting off the power to the factory. In the evening theatres were now closed, while few restaurants and hotels could manage a service. The dark streets of the city were thronged all the same, with excited crowds of workers defying the arrival of snowy weather.
By the Thursday of the strike momentum was still gathering. A rent strike began in working class districts. In Royal Avenue and North Street, more plate glass windows were put in to prevent employers draining power allocated for emergency services. A major turning point in the fortunes of the strike came on 4 February 1919 when the transport workers sent a deputation to the strike committee and asked to be included in the action. The leaders of the strike were nervous of taking a step that would result in a major escalation of the dispute. As J. Milan, of the Electrical Trade Union told the Newsletter, ‘the strike committee adopted a policy of procrastination on the matter… the transport workers would come out at any time but they hadn’t called on them as the strike committee wasn’t sure it could run the city.’ At angry meetings the rank and file strikers demanded that the transport workers be brought out, and that the ‘up-town’ shops (Mackie’s, Combe’s, Sirocco and the Lin- field foundry) join the strike also. But bombarded by newspaper scare stories about how food supplies would give out if there were further escalation, the strike committee lacked the resolve to escalate matters further and put to the vote a proposal to accept a 47 hour working week. Surprisingly the result of the ballot went against the strike committee on Friday 14th February by 11,963 votes to 8,774.
Sensing a weakening of the strike, however, the authorities now made their decisive move and the next day sent in troops that had been called up from Dublin. These soldiers guarded the power stations and trams. Attempts to move the trams were met with running battles from mass pickets. The strike committee refused to implement the decision of a mass meeting held on Custom House Square on Sunday to call out the transport workers at last. But the rank and file workers had failed to develop any organisational structures independent from the strike committee, and although they expressed their anger and frustration at the committee outside of the hotel where talks were taking place with the employers, the engineering factories were now reopening. A gradual drift back to work took place over the next two weeks until on 24 February 1919 the strike was officially ended. Belfast’s greatest working class struggle was over, and although they did not know it, the leaders of the national movement in the south had seen a significant turning point pass in their own campaign.
The leaders of Sinn Feín had no interest in this strike. This was natural enough from those on the right of the party, such as Arthur Griffith, who were hostile to independent labour organisation, but even the socialist inclined Minister for Labour, Countess Markievicz, who at the time was giving fiery speeches in favour of the Workers’ Republic, had no familiarity with northern working class politics. At no time did Sinn Feín have a strategy for incorporating the north into their struggle for independence. This can be seen from their eventual adopting, in July 1920, an economic boycott against northern business, which Arthur Griffith believed ‘would bring the unionist gentlemen to their sense very quickly.’ In fact, the Belfast boycott rein- forced the prospect of partition as although it caused an estimated loss of £5million of trade, it proved to northern business they could get by on their connection to the markets of the British Empire.
Outside of the nationalists in the north, the only constituency that might have been sympathetic to the idea of Irish independence were the more militant protestant workers, who saw the Unionist shipyard owners and employers as their greatest enemies. For over two hundred years there has been a radical, non-sectarian, protestant tradition in the north, and in 1918 it was most strongly represented in the form of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and other revolutionaries such as those behind the newly created Revolutionary Socialist Party of Ireland, which in 1919 was holding meetings in Belfast of up to 500 people. In other words, there were well-rooted revolutionaries involved in the strike.
In the heightened atmosphere created by the strike for shorter hours, the Belfast left found itself with a large audience. The important demonstration John mentions, that of May Day 1919 when over 100,000 people marched from Donegal Place to Ormeau Park, had as organising secretary Sam Kyle, whose speech on the day emphasised the Red Flag, internationalism, and the need for Belfast to have independent labour representation. In the subsequent local elections of January 1920 these activists won an impressive 12 of the cities 60 seats; the most remarkable result being that of Sam Kyle who stood in Shankill and topped the poll. Since this was an election that took place under the newly introduced PR system it is possible to prove that his supporters understood that his politics were hostile to unionism, as only a tiny percentage of his transfers went to unionist candidates.
I do accept that with the (unnecessary) partial defeat of the strike, the influence of the left over the wider working class was on the wane. Demoralisation spreading through Belfast’s working class, and at the same time a sudden slump in May 1920 combined with the continuing existence of a large number of unemployed ex-veterans to create the conditions under which a sectarian pogrom could take place. That July, the leading Unionist politicians, such as Edward Carson and James Craig used the orange marches to make speeches advocating an attack on Labour and Sinn Fein. Loyalists, with the complicity of the shipyard owners, then organised meetings where several thousand unemployed and ex-servicemen gathered to roam through the factories armed with sledgehammers and other weapons. Catholics and socialists had to flee for their lives. About 12,000 workers in all lost their jobs, to be replaced by the loyalists; some 3,000 of those were protestant trade unionists. Ex-Orange Lodge master, turned Larkin support, John Hanna, was one of these. In his view, ‘during the strike for 44-hours week the capitalist classes saw that the Belfast workers were one. That unity had to be broken, it was accomplished by appeals to the basest passion and intense bigotry.’ The mobs also went to Langley Street and burnt to the ground the hall of the ILP, ‘and as a result the growth of the Labour movement was stemmed.’
With the crushing of radical organisation in Belfast, and the decision of the British Cabinet on 8 September 1920 to raise a Special Constabulary, which absorbed the Ulster Volunteer Force into an official security force, the core structures of a future partitioned Northern state were secure. The general strike of 1919, however, shows that another alternative was possible, that of working class unity and the collapse of sectarianism.
[…] Kostick replies to John Gray’s article on the Belfast General Strike of 1919 (found here), arguing that opportunities for socialist politics during the period should not be […]
[…] the discussion on the Belfast General Strike of 1919. John’s original piece can be found here, and a reply by Conor Kostick […]
[…] of Rebel will be familiar with the recent exchange between John Gray and Conor Kostick regarding the revolutionary potential of the Belfast General Strike of 1919. […]
[…] of Rebel will be familiar with the recent exchange between John Gray and Conor Kostick regarding the revolutionary potential of the Belfast General Strike of 1919. […]