Michael O’Lehane: a tribute to the founder of Mandate Trade Union on the 100th anniversary of his death

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100 years ago today (1st March 1920), the founder of what is now known as Mandate Trade Union died at the tender age of 47. During his lifetime, Michael O’Lehane left an indelible mark on the Irish trade union movement as he battled low pay, precarious work, poverty, and the living in system, while also helping to expand Irish trade unionism beyond the industrial field and into the political arena.

O’Lehane was born in Macroom, Co. Cork in 1873 but moved to Limerick to take up a role in Cannocks as a draper’ assistant in 1898.

The harsh living conditions resulted in O’Lehane contracting typhoid fever from which he almost died. After a few months of recuperation, he travelled to Dublin and took up a role in Arnotts on Henry Street.

While in Dublin, O’Lehane met with other drapery workers and together with 17 of his fellow drapery workers, founded the Irish Drapers’ Assistants’ Benefit and Protection Association (IDAA) in 1901. He was immediately installed as General Secretary at the relatively young age of 28.

His vision, strategy and discipline revolutionised the Irish trade union movement, with many of his contemporaries including James Connolly and Jim Larkin learning much from O’Lehane.

In 1902, O’Lehane went on a speaking tour across Ireland. Branches were established in Galway (1902), Tuam (1903), Sligo (1904), Ballinasloe (1905), and later on set up branches in many parts of Mayo including Ballina, Castlebar, Ballinarobe, Ballyhaunis, Claremorris and Westport. He also established branches in Derry and Belfast. The popularity of the union across the west coast was largely down to O’Lehane’s lifelong commitment as a Gaelic Leaguer, and he used the Gaelic revival movement as an opportunity to expand the union in the early part of the 20th century.

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A Union for Women

Within 4 years, the new Union had more than 3,000 members. What was so unusual about the IDAA was its acceptance of women on an equal footing. Only one other union in Ireland accepted women at the time, the Irish National Teachers’ Association (INTO). By 1914, of its 4,000 members, 1,400 were women. The encouragement and prominence the IDAA gave to women under O’Lehane led to the emergence of the suffragette Cissie Cahalan from Arnotts who became the unions’ first female president in 1921.

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Innovator

O’Lehane was the first trade unionist in Ireland to edit and publish a newspaper. The Drapers’ Assistant was published in 1904 in order “to change the thinking of the shop assistant, make him alive to his rights and stimulate and, where necessary, shame him into fighting for the principles of trade unionism.”

The first edition of the newspaper laid out the priorities for the IDAA.

To secure a national minimum wage, sick benefits, fixed hours and payment for overtime, the eradication of arbitrary dismissals, as well as the abolition of the living-in system.

The Living-In System

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At the time many drapery outlets forced employees to live on the premises – an early form of Direct Provision. The workers were under close surveillance 24 hours a day. If they kept a photograph of a loved one nearby, they were fined. If they weren’t in their bedroom on time, their wages were cut. They weren’t even allowed to marry in some cases, leading to the “thou shalt not marry” dispute between the IDAA and Switzers of Grafton Street where a worker was dismissed for seeking leave to marry a woman who worked in a small drapery outlet in Drumcondra.

As reprehensible as the disciplining system associated with living-in was, it also raised serious health and safety concerns. The small, overcrowded dormitories were a breeding ground for infection diseases like typhoid fever. Worse still was the dangers of fire.

In 1905 Grennell’s of Camden Street caught fire and five workers were burnt alive inside. When the fire broke out, the workers found themselves locked inside the building. Those who escaped did so through a small window and onto a roof coated in broken glass which ripped open their feet. This wasn’t unique.

There were fires reported in Arnotts, Todd Burns in Dublin, Revingtons, Tralee, and Duggans in Kilkenny, as well as Cannocks in Limerick. O’Lehane, innovative as ever, recognised that the system would not be abolished through industrial campaigning alone and so he helped bring the trade union movement into the political sphere.

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Published by The Irish Times, July 27th, 1905

Politics

O’Lehane was a republican socialist who was close to the independence movement in Ireland. He served as President of the Dublin Trades Council from 1909–1911, was elected to Dublin Corporation for the Independent Labour Party in the Kilmainham ward, and at the trades union congress in 1911 he was elected Chairperson of the ITUC Parliamentary Committee (the ruling body of Congress) when it met in Clonmel that year.

“During the proceedings, he played not an insignificant part in helping James Connolly’s motion setting up an Irish Labour Party,” explained Dermot Keogh in Saothar in 1977.

When there were objections, mostly from Belfast trade unionists, to the establishment of an Irish Labour Party (the argument was generally that a British Labour Party already served the needs of workers on the island) O’Lehane responded:

“Why didn’t they advocate affiliation with the Labour Party in Belgium, Germany or elsewhere? Why were they so enamoured of the Labour Party of England?”

He was a nationalist, but also a true socialist, believing in equality and fairness, not only in the industrial sphere, but in society generally. He explained to William O’Brien in June 1909 that “he was becoming a more convinced socialist every day” as a result of his trade union experience.

Building a class-conscious trade union

One of the great obstacles faced by O’Lehane in his role as a union organiser was snobbery among drapery workers who often saw themselves above the level of a shop assistant or clerk:

O’Lehane explained in 1918:

“Many of them (drapers assistants) did not know at the time the difference between the term trade unionist and anarchist. They were steeped in false notions of respectability, and as John Burns at the time so epigrammatically described them: ‘they have to be eternally young and infernally civil; had to dress like dukes on the wages of a dustman; and had to maintain the polish of a cabinet minister on the salary of a footman.’”

This snobbery made it difficult to recruit drapery workers because they considered trade unionism “vulgar.” It also led to resentment from shop assistants and clerks who would regularly pass pickets and become strike breakers to antagonise the drapers. O’Lehane set about organising the workers as a class, breaking down the artificial barriers constructed by employers to divide workers.

When he established the IDAA, he set it up not only as a trade union to negotiate pay and conditions of employment, but also as a protection and benefits society. At the time, there was no such thing as social welfare from the state. His vision was to help remedy that and members now had access to sick benefit, unemployment assistance and pensions. It also served as a decent recruitment tool.

He was known as a “cool head” but never one to shirk an ethical challenge. In 1906 when Boyers teamed up with the employers’ federations across Dublin to teach the fledgling union a lesson in manners and obedience through an 8 month lockout, he organised a series of monster meetings, established an independent public defence committee, implemented a sympathetic strike at another location owned by the same employer, published and distributed flyers to inform the public about the dispute and he garnered much support from other trade unions in Ireland who held rallies and even provided bands to play music and keep the strikers and their supporters entertained. The attendance at one rally was estimated at 20,000. The workers won the dispute and they all received reinstatement.

O’Lehane maintained that a strike was the concern of the entire trade union movement and that there is a responsibility to a locked-out colleague that goes above the payment of a levy. Workers should engage in public demonstrations and actively support workers in dispute.

A giant of the trade union movement

Michael O’Lehane was a pioneer and a visionary. He was known by his contemporaries as a skilled propagandist and an engaging speaker who utilised those skills to the benefit of his union and its members.

He built a union which began with only 18 workers in Dublin in 1901 into a national union with more than 7,000 members at the time of his death on this day in 1920.

His commitment to equality and fairness were second to none. He wasn’t bound by laws, and often risked arrest. His sharp intellect changed how unions operated, modernising them, engaging alternative strategies for winning disputes and increasing membership.

He shattered boundaries so that future generations could have better lives. He didn’t allow naysayers to determine how far he or his union could go in terms of improving pay and living conditions for members.

O’Lehane was a skilled writer and had a keen intellect. When employers argued that his aspirations were too ambitious, he wrote:

…No doubt we will be told “competition is keen,” “we cannot afford to pay any more,” “our neighbours are underselling us,” etc., etc. This is all very fine for traders who have consistently adopted the cut-throat system of competition, whose sole object is to make money for themselves at the expense and to the detriment of their employees, but we say in reply to these, and to all whom it may concern that if the public are to be granted privileges by grasping, greedy employers, this must not be done at the expense of the workers, at the cost of cheap, sweated, and in many cases unpaid labour.’

Michael O’Lehane raised class-consciousness; raised expectations; he convinced workers that if they were organised, there are no limits to what they could achieve.

Through solidarity and collective action they could build a better world for themselves and their families.

We need more like him today.

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