Johnson, Thomas Ryder (1872–1963), labour leader, was born 17 May 1872 in South Hunter St., Liverpool, only child of Thomas Johnson, foreman in a nearby sailmaker's yard, and Margaret Johnson (née Boardman). In 1876 he enrolled in an elementary school conducted by the nonconformist British and Foreign School Society; at the beginning of 1885 he left school to start working life as a messenger boy. In 1892 he secured employment with Hugo Flinn, a fish merchant of Kinsale and Liverpool, for whom he acted as a buyer of fish in Ireland, spending most of his time in Dunmore East and Kinsale. Johnson's attraction to socialism began with his experience of living conditions in working-class Liverpool, which caused him to loathe unemployment and poverty. His interest in social problems was encouraged by his father and the preaching in the local church they attended. He read avidly; the pamphlets of Robert Blatchford, Robert Owen, and William Morris convinced him that only socialism could deal with the injustice so evident in Liverpool. In 1893 Johnson joined a Liverpool branch of the Independent Labour Party; a year later he was secretary of the branch. At this time he also joined a local branch of the Fabian Society, attended night classes at the Liverpool Polytechnic, and became a proficient public speaker through his membership of the Liverpool Parliamentary Debating Society.
In 1903 Johnson joined a London firm dealing in veterinary medicines and animal feeding stuffs, with branches in Ireland. Soon afterwards he moved his family to Belfast; for the next sixteen years he travelled for his firm throughout the northern half of Ireland. He became a member of the Belfast trades council (1904) as a delegate from the National Union of Shop Assistants and Clerks, and ensured the council's backing for James Larkin (qv) when he arrived in Belfast to organise the dockers (1907). Johnson helped Larkin organise a strike in the port, and watched in dismay as the strike, which had led to remarkable solidarity between labour, Orange, and nationalist supporters, collapsed in sectarian rioting. He was a member of the committee that arranged for the return of James Connolly (qv) from the USA to Ireland (1910); subsequently he and his wife were closely associated with Connolly – then secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in Belfast – in his attempt to unionise various categories of workers in that city. In 1912, with Connolly and William O'Brien (qv) (d. 1968), Johnson established the Irish Labour Party and was elected vice-chairman of its executive. Because of the political climate, Johnson had avoided the topic of home rule when he stood unsuccessfully in the 1908 Belfast municipal election (though in 1925 he wrote that he ‘had been a supporter . . . on general principles since about 1890’). But by 1912, like most leaders of the labour movement in Belfast, he publicly supported home rule. At the beginning of 1913, when Larkin and Connolly were directing the widespread strike in Dublin, Johnson and his wife came to help them, and toured the north of England to raise funds for the strikers and locked-out workers. By the end of 1913 Larkin, by a campaign of abuse, had alienated the support of the British Trade Union Congress. In an unsuccessful attempt to reverse this trend, Johnson compiled a detailed account of the Dublin labour troubles for the Daily Herald.
In 1914–16 Johnson was president of the Irish Trades Union Congress and Labour Party. By temperament a pacifist, he campaigned against Ireland's involvement in the first world war, and both before and after the outbreak of war he actively opposed recruitment. The 1916 rising took him unawares. Many of his friends and colleagues in the labour movement were arrested and imprisoned, and he lost little time in concerning himself with their plight. Later that year, in his presidential address to Congress, he set out what was generally regarded as the charter of the Irish labour movement, and ensured that different attitudes to the rising did not lead to disunity. In 1918 Johnson took part in the anti-conscription campaign and was dismissed by his employers. He moved to Dublin, became secretary of the Mansion House anti-conscription committee, called a general strike on its behalf, and published A handbook for rebels: a guide to successful defiance of the British government, detailing ‘the victorious but bloodless rebellion in Ulster’ in 1911–14. Johnson agreed that Labour should not contest the general election of December 1918, so as not to split the Sinn Féin vote. He was the chief author of the democratic programme adopted by the first Dáil Éireann (1919). As secretary (1918–28) of the ITUC & LP he was one of the most influential persons in the labour movement, played a crucial part in its contribution to the struggle for independence (1919–21), and supported the Anglo–Irish treaty. He was returned as Labour TD for Dublin county (June 1922) and voted against W. T. Cosgrave (qv) in the election for president of the executive council. He continued to represent Dublin county until 1927; in a dáil bereft of Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil abstentionists, he ensured the survival of constitutional politics and democratic institutions in the Free State by his courageous and constructive leadership of the opposition. Widely admired for his dedication, honesty, integrity, and high-mindedness, he came within one vote of being president of the executive council in August 1927.
The return of Larkin from the USA signalled the beginning of a struggle for power within the ITGWU and ultimately for control of the Irish labour movement. Subsequently Larkin believed, with some justification, that Johnson was one of those chiefly responsible for having him marginalised, and bitterly attacked him even on the hustings. This ended when Johnson won a libel case against his tormentor (1925). In the general election of September 1927 he lost his seat; he was succeeded as leader of the Labour party by Thomas J. O'Connell (qv), TD, and in the following year resigned as secretary of the party. In December 1928 he was elected to Seanad Éireann, where he served as leader of the Labour senators until the upper house was abolished (1936). In 1930 he assisted in the establishment of the Labour party as a distinct body from the ITUC. Johnson was a key figure in the Labour–Fianna Fáil alliance of the 1930s: he and his colleagues strongly supported the Fianna Fáil administration during the economic war with Great Britain and in handling the threat posed by the Blueshirts. He served on a housing board and a number of commissions of inquiry, was a delegate to the imperial economic conference of 1938, and was regularly consulted by members of the cabinet. In the 1940s he remained aloof from the internecine struggle for control of the Irish trade union movement. However, he acted as secretary to the ITUC when Cathal O'Shannon (qv) vacated that position to take up a similar appointment in the rival Congress of Irish Unions. Johnson served as one of the two workers’ representatives on the labour court from its establishment (1946) until 1956. He died 17 January 1963. His portrait by Sarah C. Harrison (qv) hangs in Dáil Éireann; his papers are in the NLI.
In 1896 he met Marie Tregay (Maire Johnson (qv)), then teaching in St Multose's national school, outside Kinsale. A native of Truro, Cornwall, she held remarkably advanced political views and was a lifelong socialist. They were married (1898) in St Philip's Anglican church, Liverpool. Their only child, Thomas James Frederick, who became a well-known actor, was born in 1899.