Irish Transport and General Workers Union

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The history of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) is in many senses the history of the modern Irish labour movement. The ITGWU was at the fulcrum point of the majority of industrial, organisational, political and personality issues involving Irish labour since its foundation in 1909. The union can trace its origins to 26 January 1907, when James Larkin, the newly appointed Irish organiser of the Liverpool-based National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL), took up his duties in Belfast. Larkin's success at revivifying the moribund Irish NUDL branches and his opening up of new ones brought him into conflict with the union executive and, in particular, its general secretary, James Sexton. On 28th November 1908, Sexton won executive authority to suspend Larkin at any time and he implemented this by circular to all branches on 7th December. The NUDL had strikes and disputes in Cork and Dublin on 28th December 1908, Larkin's hand strengthened by settlements in the disputes, a meeting was held in the Trades Hall, Capel Street, Dublin, attended by delegates from Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Dundalk and Waterford, at which it was decided found an "Irish Union". The ITGWU was formally launched and registered as a trade union on 4th January 1909.


The new union was, in essence, a breakaway from the National Union of Dock Labourers and its membership profile reflected the waterside occupations of that union. Membership quickly expanded, however, both industrially and geographically. From the outset, Larkin's oratorical skills and organisational zeal marked out the new union. Its Irishness meant its focus was unclouded by the need for reference to Britain for strike sanction or other permissions and workers quickly joined. Some were new to trade unionism as the trade union message was brought to hitherto neglected quarters, while others transferred from the NUDL or other British unions such as the Workers Union and the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers. By 1911 the ITGWU had moved to the old Northumberland Hotel premises in Dublin's Beresford Place and renamed them Liberty Hall. The union had affiliated to the Irish Trades Union Congress in 1910, despite some opposition from craft unions unsettled by the militant language and style of the new body. This new radical style soon found expression in the union's weekly paper, the Irish Worker. James Connolly, who returned from America to become organiser for the Socialist Party of Ireland in 1910, after several refusals in favour of his avowed interest in socialist agitation, accepted an offer from Larkin to become ITGWU organiser in Belfast in June 1911.

Response of the Employers

The employers, individually and as a class, were alarmed at the vibrant new organisation. They had an opportunity to test its strength in late 1911, early 1912, with the Wexford lock-out that commenced in Pierce's Foundry. The dispute, originally led by P.T. Daly, was embittered with much violence but the union maintained its pressure and generated remarkable popular support, indicated most notably by the decision the Leinster Council of the GAA to donate the entire proceeds of the hurling final between Dublin and Kilkenny to the strike fund. Connolly finally worked out a winning formula that involved the creation of a fictionally independent union, the Irish Foundry Workers Union, that the employers could recognise without acknowledging the ITGWU. Richard Corish was the new union's first secretary. Connolly was to repeat this formula with the creation of the Irish Textile Workers Union in Belfast.

Formation of the Labour Party

At the 1912 conference of the ITUC in Clonmel, the ITGWU moved the motion that was to lead to the creation of the Labour Party. Labour was now separated both from British Labour and Irish Nationalists. Both actions were a result of the gathering impact of the ITGWU's political message of militant industrial trade union tactics and a vision of an independent socialist Ireland. Irish employers who a few years earlier had challenged Dublin trade unionists to form an "Irish Union", with presumably an implicit assumption that this would be somehow more amenable than a non-Irish one now began to actively react with fear and loathing as the ITGWU advanced on all fronts.

William Martin Murphy and the 1913 Lockout

Leadership of these reactionary sentiments was provided by William Martin Murphy and the 404 employers of the Dublin Employers Federation who enforced a general lock-out of those supporting the ITGWU on 3rd September 1913 by issuing an infamous document calling on workers to renounce the union.

The Lockout of 1913 is a familiar story with the carnage of Bloody Sunday, 31st August 1913; the deaths of Byrne, Nolan an sixteen year old Alice Brady; Larkin's Fiery Cross Crusade in Britain that generated considerable rank-and-file activity and led to the TUC Dublin Food Fund to relieve the suffering; Connolly's industrial skills in drawing Dublin port shut "tight as a drum"; the food ships in the Liffey; and the remarkable solidarity of Dublin's ragged poor, inspired by the messianic Larkin, to resist hunger and winter in defence of the principle of trade unionism and the vision of a new society. By the late spring of 1914 exhaustion was forcing workers back to work and the union was powerless to advise other than that they made their own terms. The most celebrated and demanding dispute to confront the Irish trade union movement was sliding off into the pages of history.

The union struggled both with debts of the long battle and with the defection of their leader Larkin, to America in October 1914, and continuing industrial problems as the First World War took its toll on the Dublin labour force through enlistment and death in the trenches, and rising prices and shortage at home. Larkin had intended to hand over the reins of office to P.T. Daly with Connolly in charge of the insurance section. Thomas Foran persuaded Larkin to reverse these intentions and Connolly became acting general secretary. Inspired by the decision of the International Socialist Conference at Stuttgart that "In case war should break out, it should be their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule", Connolly increasingly turned his attention to the question of national self-determination. As Greaves has observed, the union began to operate at two levels. Above ground 1916 heralded the revival of interest in membership that was to become a flood in 1918, while below ground preparations were made for a more limited national rising as disappointment with the failure of the Stuttgart strategy within Europe as a whole became clear.

The ITGWU following the rising and Connolly's death

Connolly's death in 1916 robbed the union of its second "founding" figure. Larkin still in America. Foran, bringing "common sense and immense energy", slowly managed the union through its crisis and the physical destruction to Liberty Hall after Rising. William O'Brien, who had applied for membership on 30th December 1916, elected vice chairman of Dublin No.1 branch at the AGM of 21st January 1917. He was to be elected general treasurer and take up a full-time position in February 1919. The drive into rural Ireland was now underway and membership increased dramatically both through new recruitment in virgin areas, the transfer of members from other moribund unions and the wholesale amalgamation of other organisations such as the Irish Land and Labour Association. By the end of 1919, membership stood at 102,000 with large sections involved in agriculture and branches in every county. The union was no longer a residual dockers union confined to the east coast waterfronts, it was a truly national and general workers union. The success of this expansion was largely based on industrial results as the union claimed to have won approximately £1,250,000 for 59,000 members in increased wages in 1920. Membership rose to 130,000. Political issues, local and national, were also embraced by the union but the major concern was to organise all workers into the "One Big Union". Crisis was about to engulf the union1 however, as partition, civil war and unemployment combined to reverse the trend of four glorious years. A new pragmatism, no doubt inspired in part by O'Brien's calculating administrative mind, witnessed the union's attempt to manage contraction and resist wage cuts rather than win wage rises. Power based on employment and mass unemployment was increasingly the order of the day.

Compounding the problems of economic reverse and political uncertainty within the new state, Larkin's return from America in 1923 brought to a head the simmering differences between himself and O'Brien, centred on the issue of the control and direction of the union. Greaves suggests more abstract motives than mere personality and seeks an "explanation in terms of Larkin's own perspectives of the future".

In 1924 while Larkin was in Moscow, his brother Peter founded the Workers Union of Ireland. It was allegedly against Larkin's wishes but this is unclear. Dublin members largely went over to the new body, country members did not. The effect on ITGWU membership was dramatic. In 1922 the figure was 100,000, in 1923 it had fallen to 87,000, in 1925 it was down to 51,000, it affiliated to the ITUC in 1926 for 40,000 and in 1929 it had fallen to 15,453. A further irritant was the creation in Britain of the Transport and General Workers Union encompassing in part the old NUDL. Now there was competition from a third general workers union and court cases were pursued to insist on the adoption, in Ireland, of the title Amalgamated TGWU. Foran unsuccessfully tried to avert the clash between Larkin and O'Brien and then struggled to keep the organisation together in the face of difficult circumstances of world depression, domestic unemployment, emigration and the collapse of the rural economy.

Some victories were still won. The "Strike of the Five Houses in 1926 effectively established the ITGWU within the Dublin hotel and restaurant trade and destroyed the attempt at company unionism. Two bitter building workers' disputes in 1930 and 1931 were fought successfully and in 1935 a controversial tramway men's dispute was settled in the union's favour. On the political front the union continued to be actively involved in support for the Labour Party and regularly claimed the majority of returned Labour deputies as ITGWU members, with the implicit financial and organisational support of the union behind them.

The 1941 Trade Union Act was seen in some quarters as an attempt by the ITGWU, in general, and by William O'Brien in particular, to win by statute what they had failed to achieve in open competition, the "One Big Union". Various writers have indicated the behind the scenes compact between O'Brien and the Fianna Fail administration. There is no doubt that O'Brien contributed views to draft bills and that he argued for similar structures before both the ITUC and the Council of Irish Unions. The Council was an attempt to counter the power of the amalgamateds within the ITUC as divisions grew. Larkin and the WUI were rigorously opposed by the ITGWU as the animosity remained. The ITGWU successfully blocked the affiliation of the WUI to the ITUC, it also opposed the WUI at trades council level. Larkin's power was to have one final public burst, however, as agitation against the Wages Standstill Orders of 1941 and 1942 under the Emergency Powers legislation galvanised workers in popular opposition to the government. The National Union of Railwaymen successfully brought a constitutional case against the Trade Union Act effectively killing trade union restructure by command contained within it. In 1945 these various strands of conflict, Larkin and O'Brien, British-based and Irish-based unions, socialist and Catholic, combined to propel the movement into a final split. The ITGWU led a number of Irish unions out of the ITUC to establish Comhar Ceard Eireann, the Congress of Irish Unions. Not all Irish unions followed and, of course, opposition to the affiliation of the WUI to the ITUC now ceased.

The Union in the Modern era

When O'Brien retired in 1946 and Larkin died in 1947, their immediate legacy was one of division and disunity. The industrial split had been replicated by the secession by ITGWU sponsored Labour deputies into the new National Labour Party. Thomas Kennedy, William McMullen and John Conroy were to consider the questions of rebuilding the union and defending workers in the years of post-war inflation. Successful wage demands in 1949 almost restored the pre-war position and membership rose to 130,000. A new and highly successful monthly journal Liberty was established. The union was active in utilising the newly established procedures of the Labour Court, inaugurated in 1946, with Cathal O'Shannon, a union nominee, as a workers' member, especially for low paid workers. In 1950 strikes among union members averaged two a week. Organisation was extended among railway workers and rail clerks and led to a big rail strike at the end of the year. Disputes continued throughout 1951 but in 1952 a National Agreement was concluded between the CIU and the Federated Union of Employers.

In 1953 John Conroy succeeded the retiring William McMullen as president. Conroy set about the question of trade union unity with purpose and the ITGWU, through the CIU, was heavily involved in the Provisional United Organisation of the Irish Trade Union Movement (later known as the Provisional United Trade Union Organisation: PUTUO). The PUTUO and the FUE concluded arrangements on collective bargaining arrangements and pay. 1959 witnessed the fiftieth anniversary of the union and the reunification of the trade union movement with the establishment of the ICTU.

The 1960s were years of steady growth for the union in membership and organisational terms. In 1964 the industrial services of the union were streamlined with the creation of national group secretaries. National level bargaining was now more effectively dealt with and the improved ability of the union was reflected in a steady membership growth to 150,000. In April 1965, the fifteen-storey Liberty Hall was opened as a symbol of the union's status and success. Fintan Kennedy, an able administrator, had succeeded as general secretary and was to become president following the death of John Conroy in 1969. The deaths of Conroy and Young Jim Larkin robbed the movement of the possibility of reunification of the ITGWU and WUI.

1969 was a year of great change. In addition to Fintan Kennedy becoming president, John Carroll became vice president and Michael Mullen, general secretary. They proved a powerful and far-sighted trio. The opening up of the Irish economy to foreign multinational capital provided new jobs in manufacturing industry but also difficulties of winning trade union recognition from largely American, anti-trade union firms. The El dispute in Shannon proved a decisive victory in this battle but only after a bitter and at times violent dispute. The ITGWU, having disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1944, took the decision to reaffiliate in 1967 and generally adopted a broader political profile on economic and social issues. This led to the decision to create a development services division in 1971 consisting of education and training, research, industrial engineering and communications departments. The four functions were transferred to new premises in Palmerston Park, Rathmines, Dublin 6 in 1972.

The 1970s and early 1980s saw unparalleled growth of the union with financial membership eventually exceeding 183,000. New full time branches were established in many new locations such as Mayo, Donegal, Clare, the midlands and County Galway. Wages were steadily improved through various systems of national bargaining packages involving employers and later government. The union's research facilities enabled a high success rate to be achieved before tribunals and the Labour Court. The union structures also began to reflect the growing number of women members and eventually this lead to the appointment of a women's affairs officer and a Women's Affairs Committee, supported by its own conference, in the early 1980s. The union has a good record on the front of fighting for equality for its members. Part of the growth of the union was achieved by the absorption of smaller unions, a trend neglected for many years, and the Irish Shoe and Leather Workers Union and the National Union of Gold, Silver and Allied Trades came into the union. A cultural division was created after the merger with Irish Actors Equity and other groups for artists and writers.

The recession of the 1980s saw the destruction of many established industries such as Dunlop and Fords in Cork. Other multinational enterprises also closed or reduced numbers and technological advances caused employment reduction in creamery and other food processing factories. Public sector cutbacks also resulted in reduced employment in health, local authority, forestry and other areas. The union, in common with the rest of the trade union movement, experienced contraction and the all too familiar problems associated with unemployment and emigration. Structural changes in the work place resulting from a combination of new technology and the application of the new techniques of human resource management and the flexible firm, have forced the union to examine the future trends of the Irish labour market, particularly after the integration of Europe with the Single European Act in 1992. Both Fintan Kennedy, (retirement), and Michael Mullen, (death), left their positions in 1981 to be replaced by Edmund Browne and Chris Kirwan with John Carroll becoming president. Carroll made the future of the union a priority and engaged in talks with the Federated Workers Union of Ireland not only to repair the ancient rift but more importantly to create a structure that could carry the Irish trade union movement into the twenty-first century. The FWUI response, led by general secretary, William Attley, was positive, and the merger took effect in January 1990. Both the ITGWU and FWUI were dissolved and the Services Industrial Professional Technical Union (SIPTU) was formed.


With SIPTU's formation, the name of the ITGWU ceased to exist. It was a name resonant with struggle, heroism and vision. It was a name synonymous with the crucible years of Connolly and Larkin, the struggle for a socialist Ireland. It was a name synonymous with the downtrodden. It was a name that will never be forgotten. That the contemporary members can consider its burial is testimony to their continued ability to change in order to secure change. That is in the best traditions of the ITGWU.


  • Greaves, Charles Desmond; The Irish Transport and General Workers' Union: The Formative Years 1909-1923