Friday, 27 May 2011

SIPTU’s Historic Links with Belfast

SIPTU’s involvement with Belfast commenced on the 20th January 1907 when James Larkin arrived in Belfast as a delegate for the first annual British Labour Party Conference.  His other objective was the  organisation of Belfast's 3,100 dockers, 2000 of whom were casual ‘spellsmen’ hired at low rates on a daily basis. Working terms and conditions were poor even for regularly employed Dockers. Wages were terrible, and their working week could be as long as 75 hours.

At this time Larkin was an organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL).

(SIPTU activists at Belfast May Day 2011)

Within one month after his arrival in Belfast, Larkin had achieved membership of 400. By April, he had organised 2000 workers.

The combination of poor working conditions and growing trade union membership set the stage for the Belfast Strike in 1907.  On July 24th this dispute also involved 300 Belfast policemen who refused to engage in activities detrimental to the strike.  The Government responded by bringing 7,000 troops from Dublin and calling martial law in everything but name.
Larkin was unhappy at the way his NUDL bosses resolved the dispute and when he was dispatched to Dublin he decided to form his own union the Irish Transport and General Workers Union  (ITGWU) now SIPTU.  Belfast was represented at that founding meeting on the 28th December 1908 in Dublin and has an unbroken tradition ever since.  Belfast Dockers in the main repudiated the NUDL to join Larkin’s new Union the ITGWU.
Over the years the ITGWU/SIPTU has had its offices in various centres in the city.  Initially 11 Victoria Street,  and in 1922 the office was located at 122 Corporation Street, William McMullin worked here and eventually became General President of the ITGWU. 

The union opened new offices on the Antrim Road for the first time owning its own premises in Belfast. Today the union office is at number 3 Antrim Road,  5 fulltime staff work from this busy hub assisted by hundreds of activists to ensure the continuation of our proud tradition, and to also ensure Belfast continues to play its full role in the union.
Belfast is then a founding Branch of SIPTU.  It continues to fly the flag for the Union- not just as an exercise in banner waving but as a continuance of an anti-sectarian, socialist voice for inclusion and equality within and across the local economy. 

The three biggest employments are NIR, Boots the Chemist and the Community Sector. 

Thousands of activists have worked on behalf of their colleagues since then to improve terms and conditions of employment.  It is these thousands of activists from SIPTU and other unions who we can thank today for the vast improvements in working conditions over the last 104 years since Larkin came to town. 

However these gains are now under increasing threat from unscrupulous employers who will hide behind the recession to attempt to claw back these hard won gains and today as 104 years ago our activists will play a key role in resisting this pressure and building upon the gains of the past.

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