Founded in April 1911 at a public meeting attended by Constance Markievicz, Jim Larkin and his sister, Delia, who was to become its first general secretary, the Irish Women Workers’ Union was soon at the heart of the battle being waged with some of Dublin’s most powerful employers for better pay and conditions.
It won an early success for its many members at the Jacob’s biscuit factory in Dublin when their terms were dramatically improved after a short strike. A couple of years later the IWWU played a major role in the Lockout.
Over the years that followed, the union organised women workers across a fairly wide range of trades and occupations: nursing, the printing trade and, in particular, laundries. It was as a result of a laundry strike in 1945 that the entitlement of all Irish workers to two weeks’ annual paid holidays was established.
In addition to its role in traditional industrial relations, however, the IWWU was a progressive social force; fighting initially to get the vote for women, then on a succession of issues that affected women’s daily lives.
On the night the union was founded Constance Markievicz said: “Without organisation you can do nothing and the purpose of this meeting is to form you into an army of fighters . . . As you are all aware, women have at present no vote, but a union such as has now been formed will not alone help you to obtain better wages, but will also be a great means of helping you to get votes . . . and thus make men of you all.”
The Irish Women Workers’ Union Commemorative Committee has commissioned, with the support of Siptu, a plaque by the artist Jackie McKenna to commemorate the founding of the union in 1911. It will be unveiled at Liberty Hall on March 8th, 2013, which is International Women’s Day.
The aim now is to raise the funds required for a more substantial piece of public art that will highlight, publicise and celebrate the union’s contribution to Ireland’s labour and women’s movements.
Considerable work has also been done to document the history of the IWWU, but the names of many of the members and activists captured in photographs have been lost over the years. Delia Larkin (front row, centre, captioned number 18) is pictured here with 20 members whose identities the committee would very much like to know. If you can help, email, by Monday at 1pm, email@example.com