Irish Railway Record Society
– A victory for labour
This paper analyses
industrial relations on the Irish railway system between September 1911 and
December 1916, spanning the period between the defeat of the railway strike
in September 1911 and the government takeover of the Irish railway system in
December 1916. The changed situation is encapsulated in the verbatim
transcripts of exchanges between Sir William Goulding, chairman of the Great
Southern and Western Railway (GS&WR), and delegations of workers, held
in September 1911 and December 1916.
speaking to strikers seeking to negotiate a return to work:
Checker O Meara: you have a lot of undesirables in at the present time
will be a lot more if you don’t take your chance of coming back in soon
speaking to a deputation of drivers threatening strike, Goulding said: You
had better discuss our offer amongst yourselves and you should get in touch
with the Labour party to bring the matter before the house’.
Sir William Goulding
was the de facto spokesman of the Irish railway companies and the Irish
representative on the Council of the Railway Companies Association. Railway
companies in Ireland and in Britain generally adopted a policy of
non-recognition of unions. During this period, significant disagreements
emerged between the Irish companies on this issue. The MGWR, in common with
the D&SER and the CB&SCR, favoured a policy of accommodation. The
GS&WR was resolutely opposed to any concession and was supported by the
Great Northern Railway (Ireland) and the two other Belfast-based companies.
The major union for
Irish railwaymen was the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, which had
functioned in Ireland since the late 1880s. This union became the National
Union of Railwaymen in 1914. Catering for all grades of railway workers, it
espoused the philosophy of industrial unionism. Its position was challenged
from about 1910 by the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and
Firemen, which put down roots in Dublin and spread rapidly within Ireland.
ASLEF was a craft union for footplate grades and organised the strongest
among the workforce. If locomotive crews stopped work, trains stopped. The
other major national craft unions, such as engineers and boilermakers,
organised staff in the maintenance depots and workshops. The only Irish
union to have a significant presence was the ITGWU, which organised
labourers in the workshops and locomotive sheds.
The 1911 railway
strike was in essence a sympathetic strike, which escalated from a strike in
a Dublin timber yard. It was comprehensively defeated, with ten per cent of
strikers losing their jobs. In December 1916 - faced with a threatened
strike by locomotive crews on the GS&WR - the government took over the
Irish railway companies as a wartime emergency measure. What happened
between these two events was the combination of a number of issues,
including industrial relations, union structure, government regulation,
wartime labour shortages, and army recruitment. The extent of the defeat of
the 1911 strike is one of the reasons that railwaymen took no part in the
1913 lockout. Indeed, MGWR staff at Sligo, Cavan and Navan applied for and
got a bonus of up to two weeks pay in February 1914 for ‘extra work in
connection with the Dublin strike trouble’.
Railway charges were
subject to government control and any significant increase was subject to
approval by the Railway and Canal Traffic Commissioners. A strike on the
issue of union recognition occurred on the British railway system in August
1911. This coincided with an international crisis caused by German naval
manoeuvres off Agadir in Morocco. The government promoted a compromise,
which fudged the issue of union recognition, but established a system of
conciliation boards. As part of the bargain, the British railway companies
secured the right to increase rates in order to fund wage increases.
Emboldened by their victory in the 1911 strike, the Irish companies refused
to become part of the new conciliation board system. As a result, an
NUR-sponsored MP had the 1913 Railways Act amended to exclude the Irish
companies, thus depriving them of the facility to increase rates.
1911 railway strike came at the beginning of a wave of labour militancy, and
the railway companies had to deal with the upward pressure on wages which
this caused. In 1912, the GS&WR conceded increases to locomotive crew,
after some discussion with the men’s representatives. A similar process
occurred on the MGWR, with most Board meetings between January and June 1914
receiving a report from the General
Manager on deputations received from various grades and concessions granted.
However, in a unique process, the MGWR negotiated an agreement with its
locomotive staff in early 1914. This was the first collective agreement
relating to an Irish railway company and was signed ‘behalf of the men’
by Michael Tobin, who, coincidentally, was one of the officers of the Dublin
branch of ASLEF. This different treatment of locomotive staff reflected
their key status, as did the fact that locomotive men on the GS&WR were
the first group to receive a wage increase after the defeat of the 1911
increases were often the first increases conceded in many years. In April
1913, Watson reported to the GS&WR Board
on a wage claim by tinsmiths and moulders. He stated that tinsmiths had
received their last increase in 1893, and that he could not trace the last
increase for moulders, but that it was over thirty years before. In June 1913, a letter was received by the GS&WR from the ITGWU,
signed by James Larkin, seeking an increase for workshop labourer. This letter does not survive, but it created quite a stir. In June and
July, a review of porters’ wages was undertaken, and an across the board
increase of two shillings a week was granted to porters and labourers with
effect from 1 August 1913, amounting to a 10% increase for the highest-paid
category affected, goods porters.
These increases, together with the weakened state of the union after the
defeat of 1911, secured industrial peace on the railway.
relationships changed with the outbreak of war. While British companies were
taken under government control on the outbreak of war, the Irish companies
were left under the control of their shareholders. War consumes raw
materials and labour resources and this leads to inflation. Railway
companies had had a preference for recruiting ex-soldiers, many of whom,
being in the reserves, were called up in August 1914. As other men
enlisted,labour became scarcer, putting upward pressure on wages. The
immediate threat was not of strikes, but of people leaving. For example, in
Summer 1915, track worker Michael Kennedy resigned from the D&SER
‘owing to low wages on the railway and stated he was taking up a position
with Kynoch’s’ (the Arklow explosives manufacturer).
In October 1915, Watson sought GS&WR Board
approval for a two shilling increase for cleaners as ‘we are experiencing
great difficulty in getting these lads’.
On 2 June 1916, the General Manager of the GS&WR reported
to the Board that since the beginning of January, 23 permanent and 28
temporary men in Kingsbridge had resigned.
Without striking, railway workers voted with their feet and sought
higher paid work in the booming wartime economy.
In April 1915, the Railway Gazette published an estimate of union density based on the
NUR Annual Report and Board of Trade returns. It estimated NUR density as
68.7% for England and Wales, 42.7% for Scotland, and 17.7% for Ireland.
Despite the weak level of organisation, government regulation of the wartime
labour market propelled railway companies towards some form of engagement
with unions. A committee on production was set up under the auspices of the
Ministry of Munitions and allowed for certain disputes to be put to
arbitration. In March 1915, the Board of Trade wrote to the Irish companies
advising that the British companies had granted a three shillings a week war
bonus to their staff.
The British bonuses put pressure on Irish companies to follow suit, and
bonuses of between a shilling and 1/6 per week were granted by most
companies in February or March 1915. The difference in bonus levels was
accentuated by the presence of GWR employees in Rosslare, L&NWR
employees in North Wall, and MR employees in Larne. Both worked alongside
Irish company staff who received a much smaller war bonus. In their letter
of 19 March, the Board of Trade advised the Irish companies that ‘The
Union expressly state that they are not at present putting forward any claim
for recognition’, but were seeking an allowance for wartime inflation. The
company response was that no collective response was possible. The letter
stressed the traditional view that companies would receive deputations of
their own employees, but added that ‘a number (of companies) cannot see
their way to receive a deputation from men not in their own service’.
this mix was added the issue of army recruitment. In Spring 1915, a
recruitment campaign was initiated to fill the Kitchener armies. This
required the cooperation of employers, and when the Irish railway companies
were approached, they asked for the same veto on the enlistment of their
staff which the British companies had got in 1914. The recruiting
authorities gave the assurance on condition that the companies would
cooperate with recruitment efforts. Although seldom remarked on by
historians, the issue of recruitment was intertwined with industrial
relations, as can be seen from pencilled notes in a GS&WR file.
right if we can get time can spare with difficulty a good many men
be allowed to break 8 hour rule with signalmen on branch lines
active part on account of action by NUR
spare no man from Inchicore munitions and engines
join a committee appoint a rly one.
described in Journal 161, the response of the GS&WR to the recruiting
appeal of 1915 was limited. The company declined to allow military
canvassers into the workplaces, except at lunch time, and decided to
withhold the names and addresses of wages staff from the recruitment
campaign, although it did forward a list of names of clerks. Perhaps the
company felt it had done enough already, but this episode shows an
intriguing instance of Goulding, a leader of Southern Unionism and a member
of the Irish Privy Council, frustrating recruitment efforts among his
Tensions had begun
to emerge within the Irish companies on the issue of recognition even before
the war broke out. In July 1914, a meeting was held among the Irish
companies to discuss recognition. The MGWR was represented by its Chairman
and General Manager, who were mandated by the Board that if recognition was
not agreed by the other companies, the MGWR ‘holds itself free to act as
they thought right’.
The Midland were clearly unhappy with the role taken by the GS&WR and by
William Goulding in representing the Irish companies. In February 1914,
their Board recorded dissent at the practice of returning the outgoing
incumbent (Goulding) as the Irish Representative on the council of the
Railway Companies Association.
On 16 February, the
General Managers met to discuss a letter from the NUR seeking discussions on
a war bonus. In the course of the meeting, ‘The MGWR and D&SER
expressed the view that they had made better settlements with the union than
with their men alone…that recognition is about to come sooner or later and
that the companies would do better to accept the inevitable’.
The other companies did not agree, and the three Belfast companies announced
that they were going to introduce bonuses of between one shilling and two
shillings per week, well below the bonuses of between two and three
shillings a week applicable in Britain.
31 March 1915, the MGWR wrote to a number of Irish companies stating that
they had made initial contacts with the union and that the NUR could,
through their MPs, facilitate a new legislative deal on Irish railway rates
in exchange for a form of recognition. The efforts of the NUR to get a meeting with the Irish companies continued
through 1915, without success. On 3 November, the Board of Trade wrote to
each of the Irish companies regarding the NUR request for a meeting and
expressed the view that ‘ the request of the union was one which deserves
favourable consideration, and they would be glad if the Irish railway
companies could see their way to accede to it’.
Goulding wrote privately to Frederick W. Pim,
Chairman of the D&SER, (on Kildare Street Club notepaper), observing
that ‘on a former occasion your company together with the MGWR and I think
the Bandon company were unable to agree with us on the question of
negotiating with the NUR’. He went on to assure Pim that his company,
together with the three Belfast companies, ‘are firmly resolved that we
will not meet the NUR or hand over our companies to their tender mercies’.
1916, the spotlight moved to other unions. In the Spring of 1916, the
powerful Amalgamated Society of Engineers sought an increase for fitters in
Dublin. Although this claim went to the committee on war production, the
company prevaricated, and questioned the committee’s jurisdiction. The
matter dragged on, and on 21 April, the ASE issued a fortnight’s strike
notice. Goulding later stated that 'if the line was to be kept open and the manufacture of
shell fuses continued we realised that something would have to be done for
this trade and an increase of 3/ per week was granted’.
September ITGWU members employed in Inchicore went on strike, and the Board
empowered the Chief Engineer to ‘settle with them on best terms not
exceeding three shillings per week’.
This settlement could not be contained. and an increase of 1/6 a week was
offered to all grades who had not as yet received a war bonus.
In July 1916, the
GS&WR General Manager had a confidential meeting with J.H. Thomas,
General Secretary of the NUR. The significance of this initiative should not
be underestimated, given the anti-union attitude of the GS&WR. For the
first time ever, an official of the company had met with an officer of the
union. The meeting was in essence ‘talks about talks’, or what would
Labour MPs do to support legislation to allow Irish railways to increase
charges, if the companies met the union. The initiative produced no results.
It was basically what the MGWR had suggested in March of the previous year.
Faced with no
progress over fifteen months, in November 1916, a conference of NUR branches
was held in Dublin, which passed a motion calling for government control of
Irish railways. Later in the month, a meeting of locomotive drivers was held
in Thurles, which resolved to seek a meeting with the Board of Trade.
Locomotive crews were less vulnerable to company reprisals, as their skill
levels meant that, unlike porters, they could not readily be replaced. The
Board of Trade ignored this request, and on 8 December, at a series of mass
meetings of locomotive drivers and firemen held throughout the country,
motions were passed unanimously to give a week’s strike notice.
This was unconnected
to either of the unions, and individual notices to cease work were handed
in. Nathan Rimmer, the ASRS official, stated that ‘the men were acting
independently of the union executive and any action taken must be on their
Although invited to attend the locomotive mens’ meeting in Kilmainham
Courthouse, Rimmer did not do so – perhaps wisely given the illegality of
the industrial action proposed.
serving of strike notice raised the temperature. On 12 December, the Chief
Secretary's office rang Kingsbridge to ask how many men would be covered by
the bonus, if the government decided to pay it. On 13 December, Goulding met
Duke, the Irish Secretary, together with Marwood of the Board of Trade, who
asked the company ‘To go back and settle on best terms with the men and we
will stand behind you. If the men will not settle on reasonable terms let us
know and we will permit no strike’.
On 14 December, Goulding and other senior managers met a delegation of
drivers, and offered a war bonus increase of two shillings a week.
15 December, the men wrote to the company rejecting the company offer. They
used the address of Kilmainham Courthouse, which may be explained by the
fact that the proposed strike was unofficial and illegal. The situation on
the GS&WR was discussed at the War Cabinet on Saturday 16 December. At
its previous days meeting, the War Cabinet had considered a strike by
boilermakers in Liverpool. The decision taken illustrates the strategy
envisaged by Duke at the meeting with Goulding:
‘not to negotiate
until work had been resumed; to issue a warning under the Munitions Act and
the Defence of the Realm Act; to follow this by a proclamation and the
arrest of three men, in the first instance, against whom evidence of a
breach of the law was available; to undertake house-to-house visitation with
the object of providing protection for the men who wish to work, and of
isolating the strikers; and for the reinforcement of the local police’.
Action of such
nature could not be contemplated in the Ireland of December 1916. Despite
promises of support to Goulding given the previous day – essentially to
deal with the strikers in the same manner as the Liverpool boilermakers –
the Cabinet discussions took a different turn. The report made by Duke set
out how many of the Irish companies were essentially unprofitable, paid very
low wages, and that government control was inevitable. At 20:50 that
evening, Goulding received a telegram from Sir Albert Stanley of the Board
of Trade announcing that they were taking possession of the Irish railway
system. The locomens’ tactic had succeeded – they were now bargaining
with the Treasury rather than with the companies. The strike was called off
and a seven shillings a week war bonus was granted within a number of weeks.
This period witnessed splits within both the
employer and union camps. On the management side, the anti-recognition line
came under increasing pressure, with the MGWR concluding a collective
agreement with its locomotive crews in August 1914, and the period
thereafter was marked by growing tensions between the companies. On the
union side, the
main change was in the growth of ASLEF and the ITGWU at the expense of the
NUR. The ITGWU grew among unskilled labourers in the workshops. ASLEF had a
presence in Ireland among individual members since the 1890s, and developed
a Dublin branch – concentrated on Midland railway staff – from about
1910. The failure of the 1911 strike caused most GS&WR locomotive staff
outside Dublin to switch to ASLEF, whose craft union philosophy exerted a
strong attraction for locomotive crew.
The onset of war
changed everything. A shortage of labour exerted upward pressure on railway
wages, while rising prices encouraged wage militancy. Despite the presence
of voices urging engagement with the unions, the response of the companies
was to concentrate their lobbying on trying to get legislation through which
would have allowed them to increase rates in order to fund wage increases.
Workers were compelled to wait, and this delay caused the strongest group,
the drivers, to take matters into their own hands. The advances made by
Irish railwaymen were very much on the coat tails of the advances made by
their British brethren with their much higher levels of union density.
In the context of
the Dublin lockout of 1913, railway workers were, to use Sherlock Holmes’
phrase, ‘the dog that didn’t bark’. This was due not only to the
defeat of the 1911 strike, but to the series of concessions made by the
larger companies in order to insulate themselves from the labour militancy
sweeping Dublin. This can be observed in the wage increases granted between
1912 and 1914 by the GS&WR and the MGWR. This process had begun before
the outbreak of war, and was intensified by the industrial relations
machinery set up for war purposes, which facilitated skilled engineering
workers in pursuing wage claims.
majority of railway staff worked in train operations, and lengthy efforts to
secure an increased war bonus had brought no results after eighteen months
of effort. It was the threat of a strike by GS&WR locomotive staff that
broke the deadlock and brought Irish railways under London’s control. This
had advantages for both sides, as the shareholders were compensated for the
period of control, while the workforce now in effect had the government as
meant that industrial relations on the Irish Railway system moved to London,
where the Irish companies were political minnows.
While the boardroom militants led by the GS&WR
outfought the pragmatists of the MGWR and the D&SER, it was a pyrrhic
victory. Irish railways’ industrial relations were now managed in a United
Kingdom context. In practice, this meant
that the government applied British conditions to Ireland. Arguments that
British national agreements were not appropriate to Irish conditions fell on
deaf ears. This had its culmination in the eight-hour day agreement of 1919,
where Ireland was added as an afterthought with the stroke of a pen. The
Irish companies protested in vain, but their power was at its nadir, and
that of the unions was at its highest. Paradoxically, on this issue, the
Irish companies might have got a more sympathetic hearing from the NUR in
from War Cabinet decisions,
The Chief Secretary
for Ireland explained the present situation … The trouble arose from the
inadequate wages paid by the railway companies to large classes of their
servants. These wages, before the war, did not exceed, for large sections of
the employees, 15s. a week, and even now barely reached in these classes an
average of 17s. The railways themselves were of three classes: the Great
Southern and Western and the Great Northern, which are on an ordinary
footing and pay dividends; the Midland and Great Western, which just pay
their way; and the remainder, which are financially waterlogged. Mr. Duke
explained that, during his tenure of office, the companies had conceded
certain bonuses, but in the case of the poorer companies these bonuses were
as low as one or two shillings. …. There are about 22,000 railwaymen in
Ireland involved, and the demand is for an additional 10s. a week. If the
full demand is conceded, and the Government are prepared to find the money,
the annual charge on the Treasury would be about 500,000L.
The President of the Board of Trade agreed that
there was a serious danger of English railway employees at various centres
taking sympathetic action. …he suggested that it might become necessary
for the Government to take over the Irish railways at an early date in order
to release Irish railway material, as well as the British material already
being set free, for use in France. The Irish railway companies desired
either that they might be allowed to raise their rates (which would be
resisted by the Nationalist party in Parliament), or that Government would
guarantee them against loss in order to enable them to grant additional
Irish Railway Record
Society Archives, GS&WR Secretary’s File 1069/1 transcript of
meeting 27 Sept. 1911. File 2481 transcript of meeting 14 December 1916.
CIÉ archive, Heuston station, MGWR
Board minute 1491. Sligo was a port, Cavan and Navan were exchange
points between the Midland and the Great Northern Railway.
MGWR Board minutes CIÉ
archives, minutes 1473, 1474, 1490, 1504,1507,1538,1556. 1601.
secretary’s file 1146 Maunsell to Goulding 19 April 1913. (tinsmiths)
Maunsell to Goulding 11 June 1913.
GS&WR traffic and
works committee minute 25 July 1913.
Index card civil engineer staff IRRS archives.
GS&WR Board minute 15 Oct. 1915.
GS&WR Board minute 7 June 1916.
GS&WR file 2481
Marwood to Irish Railway Clearing House 19 March 1915.
For a full treatment
of this episode see P. Rigney ‘Military Service and GS&WR Staff
1914- 1923’. IRRS journal Vol.22 ( 2006) p.531 et seq.
MGWR Board minute
MGWR Board minute
GS&WR file 2314 ‘European War’ minute of meeting
GS&WR file 2481
Marwood to Goulding 3 November 1915.
GS&WR file 2481
Goulding to Pim 10 Nov. 1915. The ‘Bandon Company was the Cork Bandon
and South Coast railway.
GS&WR file 2481
Goulding to Torrens Midland Railway Belfast 20 October 1916.
minutes, Inchicore Committee 4 October 1915.
GS&WR file 2481 note of meeting by Neale 14 July 1916.
Conor Mc Cabe ‘The ASRS and the NUR in Ireland 1911- 1923
‘unpublished PhD thesis, University of Ulster, 2006 p.42.
GS&WR file 2481
note of meeting in Goulding’s hand.
Cabinet Minutes are available online at
NLI branch membership ledgers, ASLEF ‘Interviews, internet and
history’ Peter Rigney JIRRS, 179, pp. 159-161.
Copyright © 2017 by Irish Railway Record Society Ltd.