Irish union and social activist Jim “Big Jim” Larkin died more than six decades ago but his name continues to resonate in the city of Dublin. It was there in the Irish capital that his efforts to organize and unionize the working class is legendary.
James Larkin was born in 1876 in Liverpool, England. His parents were immigrants from Ireland and toiled away in the slums of Liverpool. Life was harsh. Young Jim Larkin attended school in the mornings but worked in the afternoon to help his family earn income.
Larkin was 14 when his father died. That meant his formal schooling was over and his life of full-time work began. He worked at a variety of jobs. By 1903 he was employed as a docker where he achieved the status of foreman.
By this time Jim Larkin had already dabbled considerably in socialism. He joined the Independent Labor Party – a party established in 1893 that represented working-class folks. Although a foreman, Larkin enthusiastically took part in labor strikes. He soon became an organizer for the National Union of Dock Labourers.
Despite considerable success in union organizing both in Ireland and Scotland, Jim Larkin eventually broke with the Dock Labourer Union over inner conflicts on strategies and goals. He continued his work within the labor movement, however.
Larkin is perhaps best remembered for his role in the Dublin Lockout of 1913. This was a major dispute between 20,000 workers and about 300 employers across a variety of industries in Dublin. The conflict that ensued is still considered the most severe industrial dispute in Irish history.
A lockout of workers lasted seven months. Factory owners attempted hire scabs to keep their operations going while picket lines of strikers clashed with them, as well as police and “private henchmen” hired by factory owners. The dispute was long, often violent and swept up a variety of players, from the Catholic Church to the Irish government.
In the end, Larkin and his union allies were defeated in the Dublin lockout. However, the events eventually led to future changes and significantly more favorable labor laws.