James Larkin is best known for being an organizer and labor activist who founded General Workers’ Union and the Irish Transport. The former became largest union of the region after the collapse of the ITGWU.
Larkin was born in Liverpool, England in 1876 and grew up in the area’s slums. As a result, he had very little formal education. However, he worked very hard to contribute to his family’s income and was eventually promoted to foreman at Liverpool’s docks. He was also a political socialist and Marxist from a very young age believing that workers tended to be treated unfairly.
By the time he was 30, he joined and became a full-time organizer for the National Union of Dock Laborers (NUDL). However, his tendency to lean to militant ways made the NUDL very nervous. As a result, he was transported to Dublin, at which time he founded the General Workers’ Union.
The main mission of the General Workers’ Union was to combine all skilled and unskilled Irish industrial workers alike instead of being discriminative between the two. At that time, only 10 percent or less of the total industrial employees of Ireland were unionized.
He also founded the Irish Labor Party, which led to a series of strikes, the most well-known one being the Irish Lockout. In the Irish Lockout, over 100,000 employees went on strike for eight months until fair employment was won.
Jim Larkin is also known for the anti-war demonstrations that he led during the outbreak of the First World War. At that time, he traveled to the U.S. in an attempt to raise funds to fight against the British. However, it is also believed that he was trying to become a globe-trotting public speaker.
However, he was never one to think things through and didn’t plan it very carefully. As a result, he ended up being legally accused of communism and criminal anarchy in 1920 and imprisoned at Sing Sing for three years.
Following that, he was pardoned and deported back to Ireland. After going back to Ireland, he established the Workers’ Union Ireland and won recognition from Communist International in 1924.
Larkin wed Elizabeth Brown in 1903 and they had four sons. She and the two youngest joined him in Chicago in 1914. However, Elizabeth wanted a simpler, quieter life and refused to support the campaign to release him from jail in 1922. The two separated with the rumor that the ITGWU President, Tom Foran had caught Elizabeth’s interest.
Larkin was a very clever entrepreneur but, again, was never one to think things through very well. In the end, he lost both his marriage and the General Workers’ Union after venting about his enemies too publicly and too often.