Larkin, James (1904–69), trade unionist and politician, was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England, eldest of four sons of James Larkin (qv), trade union leader, and Elizabeth Larkin (née Brown), daughter of a baptist lay preacher from Co. Down. After the family's move to Dublin in 1909, James was educated at St Enda's school, Rathfarnham, the only school that would accept the young Larkins owing to the reputation of their father. James endured much hardship as a child during the period of his father's intense union activity, including eviction from the family home in Auburn St.
After working in a variety of labouring jobs in Dublin city, he became involved in trade union activity and militant politics. In June 1924 his father applied for visas for himself and James to travel to Russia for the International Communist Congress, and although visas were refused, the two insisted on travelling. In the general election of September 1927 James was nominated by the Irish Worker League to contest a seat in Co. Dublin, and although he failed to be elected he succeeded in depriving Tom Johnson (qv) of his seat by splitting the Labour vote. Larkin had fiercely criticised Johnson in a newspaper article in 1924, leading to a court case in which his father took responsibility for the article, but refused to pay the £500 damages awarded to Johnson, leading to a declaration of bankruptcy, which meant he could not take the dáil seat he won in 1927. The younger James was later reconciled with Johnson. In 1928 he again travelled to Moscow, where he spent a year studying as one of twelve graduates of the Connolly Workers Club, which Marxists had reopened in Dublin, and briefly embraced communism. He succeeded in winning a seat on Dublin corporation in 1930 as a member of the Revolutionary Workers' Groups; conducted an anti-clerical campaign when standing unsuccessfully as a communist candidate in Dublin South in the general election of 1932; and was chairman of the founding conference of the Communist Party of Ireland in 1933. From the early 1930s to 1947 Larkin was assistant general secretary of the WUI and a fierce critic of the social and economic policies of successive governments. After the introduction of the trade union act of 1941, James and his father applied for membership of the Labour party, and he was active in the council of action that was formed to oppose this measure, which withdrew from trade unions the legal protection of the Trades Disputes Act, 1906.
First elected to the dáil in 1943 for the Dublin South Central constituency, he was reelected in 1944, 1948, 1951, and 1954, as well as being for a time chairman of the parliamentary Labour party. In 1947 he was elected general secretary of the WUI, and served till his death. Intellectually, he was probably the outstanding trade unionist of his generation and was regarded as ushering in a new era of trade unionism, insisting that one of the conditions of his undertaking the new responsibility was to make teamwork, rather than individual work, a priority. Organisation was extended to new areas and methods of negotiating were adapted, with Larkin presenting on behalf of workers the first case heard by the new Labour Court. A convinced socialist, astute political operator, and effective administrator, he was unlike his father in temperament, eschewing his flamboyance and rhetoric in favour of a more thoughtful and measured approach to industrial relations. Spoken of at one stage as a possible future Labour party leader, he insisted: ‘There will only be one Jim Larkin in history and that's my father’ (In the footsteps, 131). Working closely with his brother Denis (qv), also a trade unionist, he had exceptional analytical ability in dealing with local or national issues, and was regarded by employers as an honourable negotiator. At one stage he commented that ‘a strike is an admission of failure on the part of a union official’ (ibid., 132), an illustration of how he sought to achieve his aims through moderation.
Following the death of his father in February 1947 he made an impassioned public plea for unity in trade union ranks to honour the memory of his father, in the aftermath of the split between the ITGWU and ITUC. He was a member of the national executive of the ITUC (1945–59) and twice served as president of congress (1948–9, 1951–2). Authoritative in debate, his speeches were regarded as well structured and original in conception, and he frequently spoke about agricultural workers, industrial democracy, poverty, and neutrality. A valuable contributor to Labour party policy, he believed that criticism of the capitalist system was too constrained and limited, though his views on the Labour party joining coalition governments were pragmatic; he believed the important question was not whether they joined but what they did once in government. Nonetheless, his position within the Labour party was always difficult to define. In 1951 he insisted the working class had benefited from Labour's participation in government, particularly with regard to the repeal of Fianna Fáil's supplementary budget and advances in social welfare schemes. However, by 1955 he was attacking, as secretary of the Provisional United Trade Union Organisation, the Labour party's performance in the Costello-led government formed in 1954. Although he did not contest the 1957 general election, he remained active in the party, and in 1959 ideological and personal antipathy erupted between himself and William Norton (qv): with Norton criticising his communist past and Larkin suggesting that the party was in danger of becoming a mere collection of individuals motivated by self-interest rather than a commitment to a distinct ideological outlook. Although no longer a member of the parliamentary party, he appears to have played a significant role in the subsequent leadership struggle, supporting the candidature of Brendan Corish (qv). Along with John Conroy (qv), general president of the ITGWU, he was chief architect of unity in the inauguration of the new Irish Congress of Trade Unions (1959), after which he served on ICTU's executive council (1959–69), and as ICTU president (1959–60). He died at his home in Bray, Co. Wicklow, 18 February 1969, survived by his wife Josie and their three daughters and a son.