Stop the Trams!

In #rabble12, Highlights, History, Politics, Print Editionby Donal FallonLeave a Comment


While Luas Cross City work continues apace in Dublin, there was a noticeable absence of Luas trams at times. The just settled industrial dispute between tram drivers and their employer grew proper bitter at times, yet as Donal Fallon finds it’s certainly not the first major strike involving Dublin’s tram drivers.

While much has changed in recent decades, some things haven’t – there was nothing new about some of the discourse around the recent Luas dispute, depicting workers as overfed and underworked.

If anything would surprise Dubliners of old about the current dispute, it is perhaps the fact there are tramlines at all. When the last Dublin United Tramways Company route closed in July 1949 (the No.8 to Dalkey, for any pub quiz aficionados) many believed they were waving goodbye to a form of public transport for ever.

In the Sunday Independent, one writer made it clear that “I am sorry for the demise of the trams, but as a motorist I just cannot weep for them. They had become an incorrigible block to modern traffic, holding always, as they did, the middle of the road…Yet, the trams are dead, and it is time for them to lie down.” By the 1940s, the tram seemed a relic of the past.

In Irish labour history, the tram will always be synonymous with the most iconic and defining labour dispute to date. It was the men of the Dublin United Tramway Company who walked away from their posts at 9:30am on 26 August 1913, pining the red hand badge of their union to the uniforms. Newspapers decried the radical ‘syndicalism’ of James Larkin, and his attempts to build a radical general union, yet the employers of the city demonstrated a grá for syndicalism of their own kind.

One after the other employers followed the lead of William Martin Murphy, the owner of the tramway system, until a point where four hundred employers were locking out their workforce until they consented to leave their union. Not unlike the contemporary dispute, Murphy’s DUTC attempted to present the workers as being in conflict with the public, by inconveniencing the masses.

He stated his hope “that the public will help us by assisting in giving into custody anyone interfering with the company’s men or damaging their property”, before boldly predicting “a stampede of the strikers to get their jobs back before it is too late.” That stampede never came, and the bitter dispute dragged into 1914, before a crushing defeat.

Post-independence, the tram strike of 1935 witnessed eleven weeks of unrest in the city, when three thousand workers from the DUTC walked away from the trams and buses of the city. The DUTC operated both services with a virtual monopoly, a private enterprise controlling a vital public service.

On paper, the dispute emerged from the unfair dismissal of a single bus driver, though in reality there were longstanding issues of bitterness and contention in the workplace, with one conductor complaining that “you could be sent home if you turned up without shaving, thus losing a day’s pay.” The presence of William Lombard Murphy on the board of the DUTC certainly wouldn’t calm tensions.

Son of the 1913 tycoon, the younger Murphy retained interests in many of the same industries (print media and transport among others) that had helped his father prosper. For Seán Lemass, Minister of Commerce and Industry, the dispute proved something of a nightmare. He accused the drivers of “deliberately embarking on a policy of causing the maximum degree of public inconvenience”, though effective industrial action by its nature causes inconvenience.

Lemass attempted to circumvent the dispute, with the state providing alternative transportation. Lorries driven by army personnel appeared on the streets, and so did the chalked slogan “don’t use the army lorries – you’re scabbing if you do.” In an ill-conceived form of sympathetic action, IRA Volunteers were ordered to fire on the wheels of these lorries – a highly dangerous act, which transport historian and trade unionist Bill McCamely has rightly noted “turned out to be a liability and hurt the workers’ cause.”

Newspapers filled up with advertisements for bicycles, and Gardaí complained that the theft of bikes was reaching epidemic levels. The 1935 tram drivers ultimately succeeded in winning concessions from the DUTC, something which their predecessors could not boast.

If Larkin was the shadowy figure responsible for disputes in the early twentieth century, the finger of blame didn’t move too far as the twentieth century progressed. During a transport dispute in 1962 which saw Dublin Bus drivers on the picket lines, the Sunday Independent pointed towards Communist Party infiltration, believing that in Ireland there were a thousand active communist agitators, who were “led by some 20 Moscow-trained exports.”

While the Spanish Civil War veteran and committed Communist Michael O’Riordan was a bus conductor at the time, rumours of a red coup on the Dublin transport system were greatly exaggerated. No doubt he and his comrades could only dream of a day when such a news report was true!

Industrial action, for any worker, is the last course of action. While Luas drivers may enjoy relatively good working conditions and wages, such conditions are won over time, and defended. The tramlines laid down in recent months may be new, but the industrial dispute on the sidelines is anything but.

Illustration by Luke Fallon.

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