1st February 1919
The Belfast Strike
For the young men of Belfast that did not join the Army, they may have been spared to horrors of life in the trenches. However, they did not escape gruelling hardship at home as they were forced to work 60-hour weeks in the shipyards and factories of the city. Low pay, and poor working conditions exacerbated the angst of the workers and small-scale wild cat strikes were becoming commonplace towards the end of the war.
In anticipation of further unrest once the war ended, the Trade Union Congress negotiated a 47-hour working week to come into effect in January 1919. This was not satisfactory to the Belfast workers, and they rejected this in favour of a 44-hour week. The idea of the 44-hour week stemmed from a meeting held in August 1918 in the Ulster Hall which was addressed by James Baird, of the Boilermaker’s Society. At this meeting he said;
This meeting has been arranged by a number of the rank and file trade unionists who realising that some time must elapse before the various trades organisations could be put into motion, had determined that a beginning should be made. The committee responsible for the demonstration were not trying to usurp the position of the trade union officials, but they believed that the great meeting would help to create a public opinion which would assist the movement for an eight-hour day. Our proposal is that work should commence at 8.30am, cease at 5.30pm, with one hour for dinner, for five working days, and at 8.30am till 12.30pm on Saturdays, making it in all a 44-hour week.
Throughout December and into the New Year there was much discussions with the various employers who refused to yield to a 44-hour week, instead demanding a 47-hour week. This lead to the decision of workers to ballot for strike action. The ballot took place on 14th January. 97% of workers voted to strike if their terms were not met. The deadline was set for noon on 25th January.
As the deadline approached, there was much anxiety in Belfast over whether or not the strike would proceed. As most premises closed at noon on a Saturday anyways, it was not going to be immediately clear what the impact of a strike would be. However, as thousands of unofficial flyers were distributed to workers all over the city announcing that the strike should commence, it became clear that some form of labour strife was about to commence.
That night chaos ensued as the street lights went out as workers in electricity and gas works downed tools. By Monday morning, tens of thousands of workers were put out by the closure of their employment, and every citizen of the city acutely felt its impact. The industries mainly affected were;
- Electric lighting
- Gas supplies
- Post Offices
- Telegraphs and Telephones
By Monday morning, sympathy strikes in many other industries began. Even gravediggers working for Belfast City Council downed their shovels in protest. Hospitals stockpiled on candles as it was realised by workers that their concession to light hospitals would not be possible, as they could not separate lighting hospitals with lighting the streets.
By Tuesday, strikes were spreading across the Kingdom with large scale disruption beginning in Glasgow and London. In Manchester, 4,000 men halted work because a single docker refused to join a trade union.
By Wednesday night, looting and rioting were breaking out in the darkness of Belfast. All Belfast newspapers were out of print on that day, bar the Northern Whig, which managed a single sheet.
Labour unrest began to spread across Ireland by the end of the week with issues reported in Derry, Lurgan, Donegal, Limerick, Dublin, Dundalk, Monaghan, and Maryborough. Meanwhile, by week’s end in Glasgow, hundreds of people were injured in widescale rioting that forced troops to be deployed to the city to quell tensions. The main clashes took place around the George Square area of the city and the unrest became known as Bloody Friday.
 Belfast Newsletter, 22nd August 1918