Jim Larkin – A Labour Movement Giant

Big Jim’s slogan was “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.” James Larkin was born in 1876 in Liverpool, England. His life is a chronology of militant labour movements involving the countries of England, Ireland, America, and the Soviet Union. He founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (‘ITGWU’) which became the region’s largest union but not without a great deal of historical skirmishes.

Jim demanded respect wherever he went because of his over six feet tall stature, his big-boned and broad shoulder features. Larkin began his union quest in 1906 when he was elected General Organizer of the National Union of Dock Labourers for T & J Harrison Ltd. His union work resulted in a recruitment of over 2,000 men. However, during his work he led three strikes and in 1908 Larkin was suspended.

Larkin decided to establish his own union – the ITGWU. The union demanded a legal eight-hour day, benefits for the unemployed, and pensions for all workers at 60 years of age. Further demands included adult suffrage support and nationalism of all transportation jobs.

Larkin took an interest in becoming a Christian Socialist. He said that the two most important topics to him was Capitalism under the vision of Marx and the Holy Bible. His strong beliefs in industrial combativeness got him expelled from the Irish Trades Union movements in 1909. He was jailed for one year under the suspicion of misappropriating union money, but the members petitioned for his release which was granted.

In 1911 Larkin established his own newspaper entitled “The Irish Worker.” The newspaper became the main voice for union workers because it named bad employers and corrupt government officials. In 1912, Larkin helped form the Irish Labour Party.

In the meantime, the ITGWU was fraught with police lock-outs and protests. Larkin was in the middle of all the trouble which landed him in jail for seven months but under English protests which included George Bernard Shaw, he was released.

Larkin campaigned against his Irish union workers joining World War I. He felt that the war was the outcome of capitalistic ideals. Larkin was invited to lecture in the U.S. in 1914 to help raise money for his beleaguered union led Irish independence movement. While in the U.S. he joined the Socialist Party of America, as well as other socialist-based organizations.

In 1918, Larkin formed the James Connolly Socialist Club in New York City after the memory of his ITGWU co-founder. Its foundation was based on left-wing activity of the Irish socialists throughout the city.

Lecturers who were invited to speak at the Club spoke about the advancement of the Russian Revolution. Larkin supported this movement to persuade the American government to recognize the new Soviet government. Read more: The Definite Biography of Big Jim Larkin and Jim Larkin – Biography

The Socialist Party did not support Larkin’s movement and expelled he and his members. President Woodrow Wilson was concerned with the Russian supported movements and Larkin et. al., were arrested and jailed in Sing Sing.

Despite Jim Larkin’s absence from the ITGWU in Ireland, the members always voted him as their General Secretary. In 1924, Larkin was released from jail and returned to Ireland.

His campaign to win seats on the new Dublin Trades Council and the Workers’ Union of Ireland, and to begin a new newspaper the ‘Irish Workers’ Voice’ all proved fruitless. Finally, he was allowed to join the Irish Labour Party, but in 1947 Larkin passed away quietly in Dublin, Ireland.