Trade unionism and sectarianism among Derry shirt workers 1920-1968 : with special reference to the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers
The problem at the heart of this study is: to what extent and in what ways was the development of trade unionism in the Derry shirt industry influenced by sectarianism? This problem and my approach to it were elaborated in contradistinction to existing theories of trade unionism in Northern Ireland. According to the main theory, developed most cogently within traditional Irish Marxism, trade unionism was thwarted by sectarianism. I suggest that this theory has more to do with the reductionist and evolutionist assumptions of its authors than with social reality and argue that the relationship between trade unionism and sectarianism is better understood with an approach in which it is recognised that both of these institutions are constituted through the actions of concrete individuals who are themselves constituted by society, and in which priority is given to the meanings which individuals ascribe to their actions and predicaments. My study is based on interviews with a sample of retired union officials and activists. My respondents were keenly aware of the Catholic-Protestant dichotomy, but, contrary to what traditional Irish Marxists would lead one to expect, they did not regard sectarianism as a significant problem until the 1950s. My analysis of union growth and structure 1920-1952 largely confirmed this view: union densities compared favourably with clothing workers in Britain, and the main factors underlying fluctuations in membership were more or less the same as elsewhere in Britain. Conflict between Protestant and Catholic shirtmakers only became a problem as a result of inter-union rivalry which followed the formation of a breakaway union in 1952. Sectarian conflict was activated by a specifically trade union power struggle, not vice versa, Thus, this study does not merely contradict the prevailing view of the relationship between trade unionism and sectarianism - it inverts it.