Irish Women Workers' Union

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Irish Women Workers' Union

After a summer of labor unrest, the Irish Women Workers' Union (IWWU) was launched in Dublin on 5 September 1911, with James Larkin as president and his sister Delia as general secretary. James Larkin had decided that membership in the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU) was reserved to men; the IWWU was formed on the principle that women workers needed their own union, and it was supported by suffragists. The union claimed 1,000 members in 1912. Subsidized by the ITGWU, it suffered financially from the 1913 lockout, and Delia Larkin left her position to work in London in 1915. She was refused readmission to the union on her return in 1918.

Following the 1916 Rising, the ITGWU president Thomas Foran invited Louie Bennett (1870–1956), a socialist and suffragist from a prosperous Dublin Protestant merchant family, to reorganize the IWWU. The union expanded to represent members in nursing and some twenty other industries, chiefly traditionally feminine industries such as printing, papermaking, and laundering. It also issued a newspaper, An Bhean Oibre (The woman worker), from 1926 to 1928. Dublin-based, with a few provincial branches, IWWU membership varied from 5,300 in 1918 to 3,300 in 1932, peaking at 6,782 in 1949.

Bennett served as general secretary of the IWWU from 1917 to 1955 and was also prominent in the Labour Party and Irish Trade Union Congress. While committed to equal rights and equal pay for women and critical of the Conditions of Employment Act (1936) and the role prescribed for women in Bunreacht na hÉireann for providing a legal basis for the belief that a woman's place was in the home, she accepted the prevailing trade-union view that employment of women endangered family life and the wage rates of male workers. As a pacifist, she disliked conflict, though the IWWU led strikes, notably an action by laundry workers in 1945, and its moderate industrial policy was partly dictated by the weak bargaining power of its members.

Despite internal modernization, the IWWU failed to cope with industrial transformation from the late 1950s. Its new, more strident feminist rhetoric merely reflected changing social values, and the union became less distinctive. Membership declined steadily to 2,654 in 1980. In 1984, concluding that they no longer had the resources to be proactive in the fight for wage equality, IWWU members voted 1,086 to 182 in favor of merging with the Federated Workers' Union of Ireland.

SEE ALSO Conditions of Employment Act of 1936; Larkin, James; Trade Unions; Women and Work since the Mid-Nineteenth Century


Cullen Owens, Rosemary. Louie Bennett. 2001.

Jones, Mary. These Obstreperous Lassies: A History of the Irish Women Workers' Union. 1988.

Emmet O Connor