In 1893 Larkin became a foreman dock-porter for T. & J. Harrison Ltd. The following year he was sacked when he went on strike with his men. Larkin remained active in the union and in 1906 he was elected General Organizer of the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL).
Bertram D. Wolfe, who worked with Larkin, later recalled in his book, Strange Communists I Have Known (1966): "James Robert Larkin was a big-boned, large-framed man, broad shoulders held not too high nor too proudly, giving him an air of stooping over ordinary men when he was speaking to them. Bright blue eyes flashed from dark heavy brows; a long fleshy nose, hollowed out cheeks, prominent cheek bones, a long, thick neck, the cords of which stood out when he was angry, a powerful, stubborn chin, a head longer and a forehead higher than in most men, suggesting plenty of room for the brain pan. Big Jim was well over six feet tall, so that I, a six-footer, felt small when I looked up into his eyes. Long arms and legs, great hands like shovels, big, rounded shoes, shaped in front like the rear of a canal boat, completed the picture."
In January 1907 Larkin was sent by his union to Belfast and in his first three weeks recruited over 400 new members. The dock employers became concerned about this development and on 15th July 1907 decided to sack members of the NUDL. This action resulted in a long and bitter industrial dispute.
Larkin was now sent to Dublin to organize casual and unskilled workers in the docks. On 11th August 1907 Larkin formally launched the NUDL in the city. Over the next twelve months Larkin recruited 2,700 men to the union. He also led three strikes and the NUDL, concerned by the costs of these industrial disputes, suspended Larkin on 7th December 1908.
Larkin now established his own union, the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU). As well as Dublin the union had branches in Belfast, Derry and Drogheda. The ITGWU also had a political programme that included a "legal eight hours' day, provision of work for all unemployed, and pensions for all workers at 60 years of age. Compulsory Arbitration Courts, adult suffrage, nationalisation of canals, railways, and all the means of transport. The land of Ireland for the people of Ireland."
As well as organizing strikes he also became involved in the temperance campaign. According to one friend: "He neither drank nor smoked himself, engaging in a one man crusade against the drunkennes which was taken for granted among the rough, poor dockworkers over whom he acquired influence. No one ever heard foul language from his lips. He could be as hot tempered as any man, indeed hotter, but the temper expressed itself in withering repartee, angry condemnation, and scorn, sputtering, unforgettable epithets, never in obscenity."
Larkin became a Christian Socialist: "There is no antagonism between the Cross and socialism! A man can pray to Jesus the Carpenter, and be a better socialist for it. Rightly understood, there is no conflict between the vision of Marx and the vision of Christ. I stand by the Cross and I stand by Karl Marx. Both Capital and the Bible are to me Holy Books."
His belief in industrial militancy upset the leaders of the Irish Trades Union Congress and he was expelled from the organization in 1909. In June 1910 Larkin was found guilty of misappropriating money while working for the NUDL and was sentenced to "one year's hard labour". One local newspaper complained that "Larkin was convicted by a packed jury which excluded Catholics and Nationalists." Many members of the union believed that Larkin had been convicted on false evidence and following a petition from the Dublin Trades Council he was released.
Larkin now established his own left-wing newspaper, The Irish Worker. In its first month, June, 1911, it sold 26,000 copies. In July it was 64,500, in August, 74,750, and in September, 94,994. Considering that Dublin only had a population of 300,000, these were impressive sales figures. It was a campaigning newspaper that named bad employers and corrupt government officials.
In 1912 Larkin joined with James Connolly in forming the Irish Labour Party. Later that year he won a seat on the Dublin Corporation. His success was short-lived as a month after the election he was removed on the grounds that a convicted felon had no right to be a member of the Corporation.
Constance Markievicz heard Larkin speak in 1913: "Sitting there, listening to Larkin, I realised that I was in the presence of something that I had never come across before, some great primeval force rather than a man. A tornado, a storm-driven wave, the rush into life of spring, and the blasting breath of autumn, all seemed to emanate from the power that spoke. It seemed as if his personality caught up, assimilated, and threw back to the vast crowd that surrounded him every emotion that swayed them, every pain and joy that they had ever felt made articulate and sanctified. Only the great elemental force that is in all crowds had passed into his nature for ever."
By 1913 the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union had 10,000 members and had secured wage increases for most of its members. Attempts to prevent workers from joining the ITGWU in 1913 led to a lock-out. When the police lined up to seek an excuse for breaking up one of his mass meetings he turned to his audience and said: "Look at them, well-dressed, well-fed! And who feeds them? You do! Who clothes them? You do! And yet they club you! And why? Because they are organized and disciplined and you are not!"
Larkin was arrested and sentenced to seven months in prison. Protest meetings in England led by James Keir Hardie, Ben Tillett, George Bernard Shaw, Robert Cunninghame Graham, Will Dyson and George Lansbury, resulted in Larkin being released.
However, some leaders of the Labour Party were opposed to Larkin's tactics of trying to encourage other union members to provide industrial support for the workers in Dublin. After railway workers in Liverpool, Birmingham, Derby, Sheffield and Leeds refused to handle traffic from Ireland, Larkin was denounced as the man responsible for introducing revolutionary syndicalism into Britain. In an article published in The Labour Leader, Philip Snowden wrote: "The Old Trade Unionism looked facts in the face, and acted with regard to commonsense. The new Trade Unionism, call it what you will - Syndicalism, Carsonism, Larkinism, does neither."
However, despite raising funds in England and the United States, Larkin's union eventually ran out of money and the men were gradually forced to return to work on their employer's terms. On 30th January 1914, Larkin admitted: "We are beaten, we will make no bones about it; but we are not too badly beaten still to fight."
On the outbreak of the First World War, Larkin called on Irishmen not to become involved in the conflict. In the Irish Worker he wrote: "Stop at home. Arm for Ireland. Fight for Ireland and no other land." He also organized large anti-war demonstrations in Dublin. Leaving James Connolly in charge of the ITGWU, Larkin left for a lecture tour of the United States in October 1914 in order to raise funds to help in the struggle for Irish Independence. In an interview in the New York Call, Larkin argued "that this war is only the outcome of capitalistic aggression, and the desire to capture home and foreign markets."
While in the USA Larkin joined the Socialist Party of America. A close friend of William Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Larkin also became involved in the activities of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In November 1915 Larkin joined other socialists in attending the funeral of Joe Haaglund Hill.
Larkin was influenced by the writings of Bouck White, especially his book, The Carpenter and the Rich Man (1914): Larkin told one audience: "I belong to the Catholic Church. I stand by the Cross and the Bible and I stand by Marx and his Manifesto. I believe in the creed of the Church, apostolic, Catholic, and Roman. I believe in its saints and its martyrs, their struggles and the sufferings of my people. The history of Ireland is full of the same spirit, the same struggles, the same sufferings, the struggles and sufferings of my people. In my land this is not held against a socialist. It speaks for him. I defy any man here or anywhere to challenge my standing as a Catholic, as a socialist, or as a revolutionist. We of the Irish Citizen's Army take communion before we ge into battle. We confess our sins. We seek absolution. If a bullet strikes, we hope to have the last rites administered to us before our souls leave our bodies. We do not let the Church stand in the way of our struggle, but neither do we let our struggle stand in the way of the Church."
Larkin also mourned the death of his friend, James Connolly, after the Easter Rising in 1916. On 17th March, 1918, Larkin established the James Connolly Socialist Club in New York City and it became the centre of left-wing activities among the Irish socialists in the city. One of the first people to speak at the club was John Reed, who gave a talk on the Russian Revolution.
Impressed with what he heard, Larkin joined the campaign led by Norman Thomas and Scott Nearing, to persuade the American government to recognize the new Soviet government. On 2nd February, 1919, Larkin spoke at a memorial meeting for the German left-wing leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who had been executed following the Spartacist Rising in Berlin. Larkin upset a large number of people when he claimed that in 1919 "Russia is the only place where men and women can be free".
The right-wing leadership of the Socialist Party of America opposed the Russian Revolution. On 24th May 1919 the leadership expelled 20,000 members including Larkin. Some of these people, including Jay Lovestone, Earl Browder, John Reed, James Cannon, Bertram Wolfe, William Bross Lloyd, Benjamin Gitlow, Charles Ruthenberg, William Dunne, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Louis Fraina, Ella Reeve Bloor, Rose Pastor Stokes, Claude McKay, Max Shachtman, Martin Abern, Michael Gold and Robert Minor, decided to form the American Communist Party. Larkin, concerned about a party that appeared to be under the control of a foreign government, refused to join. Larkin still supported the idea of parliamentary government and was critical of the tendency of its leaders to use "long words and abstract reasoning which went over the brows of the masses".
The support by radicals for the Russian Revolution worried Woodrow Wilson and his administration and America entered what became known as the Red Scare period. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the revolution, Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Wilson's attorney general, ordered the arrest of over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists. This included Larkin who was charged with "advocating force, violence and unlawful means to overthrow the Government".
Larkin's trial began on 30th January 1920. He decided to defend himself. He denied that he had advocated the overthrow of the Government. However, he admitted that he was part of the long American revolutionary tradition that included Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also quoted Wendell Phillips in his defence: "Government exists to protect the rights of minorities. The loved and the rich need no protection - they have many friends and few enemies."
The jury found Larkin guilty and on 3rd May 1920 he received a sentence of five to ten years in Sing Sing. In prison Larkin worked in the bootery, manufacturing and repairing shoes. Despite his inability to return to Ireland, he was annually re-elected as general secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union.
In November 1922, Alfred Smith won the election for Governor in New York. A few days later he ordered an investigation of the imprisonment of Larkin and on 17th January 1923 he granted him a free pardon. Larkin returned home to a triumphant reception. However, the new leader of the ITGWU, William O'Brien, was unwilling to step aside and managed to get Larkin expelled from the union in March 1924.
Larkin now established a new union, the Workers' Union of Ireland (WUI). He also became head of the Irish section of the Comintern and visited the Soviet Union in 1924. According to Bertram D. Wolfe he was not impressed with the communist system: "In 1924, the Moscow Soviet invited Larkin to come to its sessions as a representative of the people of Dublin, but he found nothing there to attract him, nor could they see their man in this wild-hearted rebel. I met him then, in the dining room of a Moscow hotel, where he was raising a series of scandals about the food, the service, and the obtuseness of waiters who could not understand plain English spoken with a thick Irish brogue... The Moscovites were glad when this eminent Dubliner returned to his native land."
Larkin successfully built up the WUI and in February 1932 won the North Dublin seat in the Dáil Éireann. However, he lost the seat in January 1933. Larkin was also forced to close down The Irish Worker. Later he started another radical newspaper, Irish Workers' Voice. He also served on the Dublin Trades Council, on the Port and Docks Board and the Dublin Corporation.
In the next election he won the North-East Dublin seat. However, in 1944 he was once again defeated at the polls. The following year his application to join the Irish Labour Party was finally accepted. James Larkin died in his sleep on 30th January, 1947. At his funeral Sean Casey said that Larkin had brought to the labour movement not only the loaf of bread but the flask of wine. Bertram D. Wolfe added: "James Larkin had outlived his time. He did not fit into the orderly, constructive, bureaucratized labour movement any more than he was suited to be a puppet of Moscow."