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Monday, 17 November 2014

The Petrol Strike of 1959

Fifty-five years ago this week, in November 1959, 1,500 petrol workers went on strike for 11 days, leading to the disruption of petrol supplies. Queues developed at petrol stations, and the situation became so bad that Dublin Airport was shut down due to lack of supplies.


However, the strike committee put arrangements in place to make sure that doctors had an adequate supply of petrol to be able to carry out their work. Two Dublin petrol stations were designated as the stations for doctors, with special pumps reserved for them. Union officials would check the credentials of doctors before they were supplied with petrol.

A petrol pump is reserved for doctors only during the 1959 petrol strike
17 November 1959
This strike came at the end of a long series of payment disputes and agreement. The seventh round of pay increases took place in 1959, but on a firm by firm basis, which gave between 10/- (50p) to 15/- (75p) extra to adult male workers. The Congress of Trade Unions was also set up in February of that year, which resolved the split in the trade union movement.

In 1956, William Norton, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, had started a campaign to end unofficial strikes. The remit of the Labour Court was expanded to make its services available to lower-level local authority staff by the 1955 Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act. Both of these steps saw more strikes being dealt with by the Labour Court.

Rebels without petrol
15 November 1959
The Labour Court was instigated by Lemass in 1946, and was part of his efforts to industrialise the Irish economy. The petrol strike came at the beginning a period of sustained economic growth and at the end of the depression of the 1950s. The Labour Court failed to resolve the petrol workers dispute, and it also failed to resolve three other major strikes in 1961: CIE bus workers, the cement industry and ESB.


All of these strikes had a strong impact on the general public, and damaged the reputation of the Labour Court, despite the fact that it had successful resolved many more issues during that time period. It was unfortunate to come into the spotlight right at the beginning of “the Decade of Upheaval”. It was the start of major changes for the Irish economy as well, which led to major improvements in living standards, health, education and the expectations of Irish people. “The Decade of Upheaval” was an apt moniker, indeed.