The Irish Women Workers’ Union was founded at a public meeting held on September 5th 1911 in the old Antient Concert Hall on Great Brunswick (later the Academy cinema on what is now called Pearse Street ).
Amongst those to address the meeting was Constance Markievicz who said that the union would not only give women a greater voice in the workplace but would also help to win them the vote and improve their status in society. Jim Larkin became the union’s first president with his sister, Delia, its first Secretary.
Within weeks the new organisation, which was initially effectively a semi autonomous branch of the ITGWU, was involved in a successful dispute over pay with Jacob’s, then the largest employer of women in Dublin .
Two years later a move by management at the same firm to force three young women to remove their union badges played an important part in starting the 1913 lockout. By the end of the day more than 1,100 women had lost their jobs and the dispute took on a wider significance when their cause was taken up by dockworkers who refused to handle Jacob’s goods.
Helena Molony, an Abbey actor and nationalist, was a key figure in those early years and through the lockout she and Markievicz helped to organise soup kitchens at Liberty Hall that were run by the union’s members.
Molony subsequently approached the pacifist and pacifist, Louie Bennett to become involved and they, along with Helen Chenevix and Rosie Hackett became key figures in the establishment of a reorganised, independent IWWU after 1916.
By 1918 they had around 5,500 members and mainly organised what were described as general, unskilled workers. What is now the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation was part of the union through its first decade and psychiatric nurses continued to be organised by the IWWU. Its main areas of activity included the box making, printing and laundry trades while an effort to organise domestic house staff was largely unsuccessful.
While many of its battles centred on traditional attempts to win improved pay and conditions, its particular role as a voice for women was also at the heart of its work and so it often found itself fighting for parity with male workers or, as in the printing trade, the right to apply for the same jobs and be accorded the same status.
They met with resistance at almost every turn and during one meeting with owners, Bennett observed that “the attitude of the employers would make Bolsheviks of us all”. The laundries became a key area for the union and it fought hard to improve what were terribly tough conditions, a struggle made harder by the way in which commercial firms were consistently undermined by competition from the Magdalene Laundries and their effectively slave labour.
In 1945, however, the union organised a successful three month strike for improved conditions and won the entitlement, subsequently enjoyed by all Irish workers, to two weeks paid annual holidays. On the political front, the union was also an effective lobbying organisation that sought to make progress on a range of issues of direct relevance to Irish women by working to influence the wider trade union movement as well successive governments.
Between 1957 and 1982 the union was led by Kay McDowell and then Maura Beslin and over time it sought not only to influence legislation as it was being formulated but also actively pursued the implementation of both Irish and European law as it related to women’s right to fair and equal treatment. With the help of determined lawyers like Mary Robinson the union won a number of landmark cases (most notably Murphy v Bord Telecom and Breda Nathan v Bailey Gibson) that were to force both the government and employers to stop dragging their heels on change.
Under its final General Secretary, Pádraigín Ní Mhurchú, the union continued to fight for its members on a number of fronts but a decline in its traditional manufacturing base and the 1983 closure, in particular, of the De La Rue printing operation in Clonskeagh where around 200 members had been employed, undermined the union’s viability as an independent entity.
The following year a merger with the Federated Workers Union of Ireland was agreed with the IWWU retaining a good deal of autonomy although its longtime base at 48 Fleet Street was eventually to be sold. The FWUI was, in turn, subsumed into SIPTU and the union’s name and identity finally passed into Irish labour history.