On launching the first and most durable women’s trade union in the country, Delia Larkin was critical of the poor pay and conditions women had to endure, insisting they were ‘weary of being white slaves who pass their lives away toiling to fill the pockets of unscrupulous employers’.
There was a wave of strikes in Ireland north and south in the run up to the foundation of the union and many of them involved large numbers of women workers. Mary Galway, Secretary of the Textiles Operatives Society in Belfast played a leading role in mobilising women workers in Belfast and in 1911 lead a very significant strike of over 3,000 mill workers in the city.
The women at Jacobs in Dublin city withdrew their labour in 1911 and successfully won a pay claim. By 1913 the women at Jacobs had become a very militant force. They were among the most militant workers involved in the Lockout. A few days into the famous tram strike, a number of women at the plant were instructed by management to remove their union badges, they refused and were immediately dismissed. 250 of the women then refused to remove their badges, by the end of the day 300 women had been dismissed and word had spread around the city and the port to block the handling of Jacob’s goods. These women went on to establish the soup kitchens and organised a fund to help as many striking families as they could.
With no prospects of getting their jobs back they chose to stand up for the right to join a trade union and against the intimidation, which was at that stage a well-known feature of life in the Jacob’s factory.
The IWWU has played a key role in struggles in Ireland, which we all should appreciate. It was a result of the fighting spirit of the union’s members in the Dublin District Laundries that achieved the two week paid holiday for all back in the 1940s. Today’s union leaders could learn a lot from the IWWU members who fought throughout the 20th century for equality and justice, fair wages and working conditions.