Extracts from the Annual Reports
Extracts from the Special Conference of the Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress on March 14th and 15th, 1924, in the Mansion House, Dublin
Protectionism Versus Free Trade
MR W CARPENTER (Irish Garment Workers’ Union, Dublin) said: His Union had a high percentage of unemployment, but he thought it was a wrong approach to deal, with it as a question between Free Trade and Tariffs. The figures quoted by Mr Johnson about the cloth-ing imports were not the whole facts. Irish mills exported cloth to Leeds, and these exports came back as imports of ready-made clothing. The situation was largely due to the people’s apathy in buying cheap ready-made goods. A suit could be made in Leeds—cut, made and trimmed and delivered in Dublin—for 10s 6d, but the workers in Leeds earned better wages than those in Dublin. But the employers in the trade in this country who were clamouring for Protection had refused even to try to manufacture that class of goods, although the workers were willing.
If workers would study economic geography, they would be able to understand the flow of trade, and to realise that Protection would be of very little use to the workers in this country. He was astonished to find Mr Johnson quoting Connolly in support of Protec-tion. He understood Connolly to have been advocating efficient industrial unions, which would be strong enough to enable the workers to control industry and trade as they pleased. There was really only one industry in Ireland, and that was agriculture; if they wanted to legislate for industry, that was the industry they should concentrate on. If it flour-ished, the country flourished.
Ireland could not compete with the big wheat farms of Canada and the United States of America, but it could become a flourishing dairy farming country if it were given wise State aid in organising proper marketing facilities. The voting on the resolution and the amend-ment could not be decisive, for a vote for either was a vote for tariffs… the proper course would be to defer the matter till August, and in the meantime the delegates could study economic ge-ography and similar subjects so as to prepare themselves for taking a decision.
MR F ROBBINS (Workers’ Council, Dublin) supported the resolution. He regretted that lit-tle attention had been paid in the discussion to the control of the big financial trusts over industry and trade. He supported Protection, not because it might appear to benefit Irish in-dustrialists, but because it would give employment to Irish workers. The recent duties on imported manufactured tobacco were an example of that. As for imported goods being sweated goods, that was the fault of the Trade Unions themselves.
Protection might raise prices in some cases, but it would also increase earning and spending power, as had happened during the War. He questioned if it would mean less employment at the docks; raw materials would be imported instead of manufactured goods. The bottle trade at Ringsend was practically extinguished, but could be revived by a tariff. The same means would enable them to meet tactics like those of the Lever Soap Trust, who controlled Irish factories, were concentrating all their manufacturing at Port Sunlight, and maintaining their trade here by giving specially favourable terms to shopkeepers. The delegates must give their
representatives authority to take a definite line.
Representation on National Executive
The CHAIRMAN formally moved, on behalf of the National Executive:
To alter Standing Order No 12, paragraph 3, to read: —
The maximum number of delegates from any one organization that may be elected to mem-bership of the National Executive, otherwise than as Officers, shall be: —
For an organization with a membership not over 10,000—ONE.
For an organization with a membership over 10,000, but not over 20,000—TWO.
For an organization with a membership over 20,000, but not over 50,000—THREE.
For an organization with a membership of over 50,000—FOUR.
MR L J LARKIN (National Executive) seconded the motion.
MR J CARR (Workers’ Council, Limerick) moved the following amendment:—
That any Union be only entitled to one member on the National Executive (outside of Offic-ers).
Mr Carr said the intention of the amendment was to secure the representation of a greater variety of interests on the Executive. If the motion were carried, any Union that became en-titled to three or four members of the Executive would naturally try to get them elected. Nei-ther the English nor the Scottish Congress allowed any one Union to have two or more members on the Executive. The whole question of representation on the Executive should be reconsidered.
There were two main principles of representation—geographical and industrial or vocation-al. The Movement was more or less committed to the vocational principle, and ought there-fore
to apply it to the National Executive. Under the scheme of the motion, only one Union would at present be entitled to as many as four members, but with the development in the way of amalgamation that might be expected—single Unions for the building trades and for the distributive trades, for example—they might have the whole of the Executive being elected by three Unions, which would almost be giving the other Unions notice to quit the Congress. He was not sure whether Unions directly represented at Congress would be enti-tled to further indirect representation through Workers’ Councils, but if so the strong Unions might still further increase their representation, and eventually the arrangement might lead to having a single organization in control.
MR J RENNIE (Society of Operative House and Ship Painters, Newry) seconded the amendment, as the best means of strengthening the influence of the Congress throughout the country. It was most discouraging to come to the Annual Congresses and find that cer-tain persons who were in a strong position in certain Unions were able practically to dictate to Congress and express opinions which went out as the opinions of the whole movement. For the benefit of the smaller sections, and also of the Trade Unions generally, he thought that the Executive should be representative of the greatest possible area of thought.
MR C J KENNY (Clerical Workers’ Union, Dublin) supported the motion, which had found general favour in his Union. The amendment superficially appeared to ensure representation of the smaller Unions, but as the mover of it had pointed out, it would still be possible for the larger Unions to get representation through the Trades’ Councils. The motion was simple and clear, and its adoption would not prevent a number of small Unions from getting repre-sentation by combining together.
MR D R CAMPBELL (Trades’ Council, Belfast) was opposed to both motion and amend-ment. The amendment would be even more unsatisfactory than the present position. The mo-tion appeared to be designed to favour a particular Union. There was a good deal to be said for that on the basis of “per capita” representation. In fact, a Union of great strength could determine not only who should be its own representatives, but also who the others should be.
Again, it would be possible for a single Union to be represented by the four Officers and by four other members of the Executive, making a total of eight out of seventeen. That would not be inconsistent with its numerical strength, but at the time the Constitution was drafted it
was thought advisable not to give such full-scale representation. The particular organization concerned agreed at the time, and its agreement was accepted by Congress as a gracious ges-ture. It was difficult to find a logical ground for refusing representation on the basis of mem-bership, but he nevertheless would regret it if the proposal were adopted. He would have to vote against both motion and amendment.
MR T JOHNSON (Secretary) thought the … amendment very unwise. The larger Unions—not the largest—would be restricted to one member apart from the Officers. That was being unjust to the larger Unions in order to favour the smaller ones. The motion did not give an absolute right to representation. The members of the Executive would still have to be elect-ed by the whole Congress, and it would be quite possible for representatives of the smaller Unions to be elected if they were deemed to be the best fitted for the position.
The CHAIRMAN, referring to Mr Campbell’s suggestion that it would have been better if the proposal had come from the Union principally concerned instead of from the Executive, recalled that the Congress of 1922 had instructed the Executive to make proposals for the reconstitution of the Executive. The Executive had considered the matter from every angle at two meetings, and had been unable to devise any scheme which would meet directly the objections made by Congress to the existing arrangement, but they believed that the scheme now proposed would in its working out be as satisfactory as could be expected. The amend-ment was even going a step back from the existing position.
MR M SOMERVILLE (National Executive and Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, Dublin) said that there was a suggestion that the proposed system would enable the Transport Union to secure practically the whole representation on the Executive. Yet two years ago that Union had tried to get two of its members elected on the Executive and had failed to do so, the system of voting being the same then as now. The Transport Union did not have a majority at the Congress. If a Union with 500 members was recognised as entitled to have one member on the Executive, if elected, surely a Union with 100,000 members was entitled to
MR W O’BRIEN (Treasurer, and Transport and General Workers’ Union) said it was im-portant to remember the actual facts. His Union had fully one-half the membership, and con-tributed more than one-half of the funds of the Congress. But it had not half the voting strength at Congress, and Congress could, if it liked, decide not to elect a single member of the Union either as an Officer or as a member of the Executive. The position in England and Scotland was different, because there no Union had half the membership. Would those op-posed to the proposal agree to election by Proportional Representation? If that were adopted,
his Union would be able to secure a bigger representation than that now proposed. Frankly, he agreed with the suggestion that there ought to be only one Union, electing only one Ex-ecutive and carrying out a single industrial policy, but they had not reached that stage yet.
MR T. IRWIN (Plasterers’ Society, Dublin) thought there might be a good many in favour of the One Big Union as an ideal, but there were some who seemed to think that the OBU must be the Transport Union, and he was not in favour of getting an OBU on those lines…
On Unemployment Insurance.
From the Executive report: The widespread and long-continued unemployment, of course, resulted in the practical breakdown of the Unemployment Insurance System. When the Un-employment Insurance Act of 1923 was being discussed in the Dail last May, the Govern-ment’s spokesman admitted that its finance was based on the assumption of a general revival of industry by October of last year. The warning then given by the Labour Party that there was no ground for anticipating any such general revival, and that in the absence of it the fi-nance of the whole scheme would break down, has since been more than justified.
The matter has been the subject of repeated representations to the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and to the Government in the Dail, but until June of this year no action was taken by the Government. The position has, therefore, been that since October, 1923, Unemploy-ment Insurance has been administered under the full rigour of the Act of 1920, although in Great Britain and the Six Counties the cruel absurdity of this course has been recognised by the Governments there. As a result of the Government’s policy a very large number of workers—how large it is impossible to estimate, but it must run into many thousands—after having suffered acutely from unemployment over a priod of many months, or even years, have been left without even the meagre relief afforded by Unemployment Benefit.
A very large number of individual cases of refusal of unemployment benefit are reported to the Head Office, and action is taken thereon with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. In some cases it is possible to secure rectification of errors, but in very many cases the claimant is disqualified under the terms of the Act of 1920, usually under Section 8 (4), and the Min-ister was powerless to grant benefit in the absence of the necessary amending legislation.
On Assistance to German Trade Unions
From the Executive report: The financial collapse of Germany had disastrous effects on the Trade Unions, wiping out their reserves and reducing their income to a vanishing point. The National Executive subscribed £50 to the Relief Fund opened by the International Federa-tion of Trade Unions, and £20, £10, and £5 respectively were given by the Irish Women Workers’ Union, the Irish Union of Distributive Workers and Clerks, and the Dublin Typo-graphical Association in response to a circular issued by the National Executive, bringing the total Irish contribution to £85.
From the Executive report: The third Dail was dissolved on the 9th August, 1923, and Au-gust 27th was fixed for the date of the General Election. The Labour Party immediately pro-ceeded to press forward with the selection of candidates for the different constituencies. Lo-cal conferences were held of delegates from Trade Unions in accordance with our Constitu-tion. The National Executive was represented at each of them. Labour entered the field in twenty-six constituencies out of a total of thirty. The following table gives the names of these constituencies, the number of seats, and the names of the Labour Candidates.
On Industrial Strategy
From the Executive report: Since the slump in wage rates in Great Britain in 1921, it has been the policy of the National Executive and of the Trade Unions to maintain, so far as cir-cumstances permitted, the wage rates secured during the boom period of previous years. The inevitable reaction that followed the collapse of the European Market so far shook the Trade Unions in Britain that (after a few major struggles had demonstrated that the advantages of the position lay with the employers)
their power of resistance was no longer sufficient to prevent wages being forced down to a point that, in many cases, was below the pre-war level.
Conscious that, considered in terms of pre-war values, the condition of the Irish worker of ten
years ago was very much worse than that of either the British, Belgian, French or Danish worker, grade for grade, we have contended that he must continue to retain for himself a higher standard of life than that which prevailed here before the European War. We have urged that if productive enterprises were directed purposely towards this end, the resources of the country are sufficient to provide such higher standard of living. Circumstances, the chief of which was the new consciousness created by the intensive Trade Union activity of the last eight years, favoured our endeavours in spite of other very serious obstacles. Notwithstanding that it has been found necessary, in a somewhat general way, to submit to reductions in wage rates, the Unions are to be congratulated on the fact that over the greater part of Ireland, if we except agricultural employment and a few severely depressed indus-tries mainly confined to Belfast, wage rates have not suffered anything like the reductions that our comrades in Great Britain were obliged to concede. Now that there is evidence that the downward tendency in Britain has been arrested, and that the Unions are attempting to recover the
position they held a few years ago, we may reasonably anticipate that the main argument by which Irish employers justified every attack launched against their workers will disappear.
Notwithstanding the fact that our tactics have enabled the Irish worker to retain, in spite of serious agricultural and industrial depression, internal warfare and unprecedented unemployment, a standard of life that, viewed from any angle, is an appreciable im-provement on his pre-war standard and is, in fact, superior to the present standard of his comrades in neighbouring countries, complaints are loud that the National Executive and the Trade Union
Executives have not been aggressively militant enough; that they have not continued to press for further advances; that they have not struck against every decrease in wage rates, no matter how small.
In our opinion the Trade Union Executives in this country are more closely in touch with the organisation and the movement they represent than the Trade Union Executives of almost every other country, and we believe they have lost no opportunity in taking any action that, having regard to the circumstances and the material at hand, would bring betterment to the people they were entitled to guide. Whenever they refrained from taking the more spectacu-lar action now so vehemently urged, we have good reason to think they were guided by a very sincere desire to preserve the integrity of the movement and conserve that power that would, in more promising circumstances, bring better results.