As I walked past the Dockers Monument today, I was reminded of an overlooked aspect of Limerick’s history. Among that blizzard of centenaries that began to fall last year, the 1913 Lockout, and to a lesser extent the bitter strikes in Sligo/Galway, justifiably received vast swathes of media attention and analysis. Yet the first notable industrial dispute in Ireland in 1913 occurred in Limerick City.
The dispute, which led to several weeks of strike action, was between the dock labourers and their employer, the Limerick Steamship Company. The conflict arose because the dock labourers, who were all members of a union (Limerick Dock Labourers’ Society), objected to working alongside “non-society” men employed by Mullock & Sons, coal merchants. The dockers were concerned that the outsourcing of non-unionised labour by individual employers at the docks, undermined their position and put pressure on their already low wages and job security.
After talks broke down, the labourers took action. Six hundred tons of coal had arrived in the city on the SS Sinainn. The dockers announced that they would only discharge the cargo, if they were also allowed to bag it into Mullock & Sons yard. When this request was denied they began their strike on Friday the 24th January. (Trivia: This ship was detained at Hamburg in 1914 and used as a transport ship by the German Army until it was sunk by mines in 1916)
Imported Strikebreakers from Liverpool
The Limerick Steamship Co. responded by importing labourers from England to complete the work. These men, who numbered around sixty, were all from Liverpool, and they arrived in Limerick with the strike just a few days old. This action was coordinated by the Shipping Federation, which was an association of shipping industry employers, established to curb trade unionism and mitigate the effects of strike action. Limerick Steamship Co. also contacted the constabulary and warned them that there may be unrest because of such a provocative move.