The Irish in Labor

In 1913, John Murphy fired all his employees who had joined the Irish Transport and General Worker’s Union led by James Larkin and James Connolly and urged other Dublin employers to follow suit.  Larkin and Connolly knew this lockout was a death threat against the Union, so they led the workers in a general strike signaled by the walkout of the Tram workers at 10 AM on August 26.  It was a daring move for, although labor unions were not new, they had never succeeded in Ireland where government troops often supported employers.

It is ironic that 33 years earlier the Land League had introduced a ban on work and services against the landlords which was so successful it became a standard tactic.  Named for the first landlord’s agent against whom it was used, the Boycott was essentially a strike, and Connolly, – a student of Land League tactics – knew that well.  He had been a union organizer ever since he was blacklisted in Scotland for trying to organize workers against the captains of industry in that country.  After that he went to America as a paid organizer for the American labor union movement; he also founded a monthly newspaper called The Harp specifically for the Irish in labor movement.

It is therefore strange that formal labor unions started so late in Ireland since the Irish were so active in the fight for workers rights and the formation of labor unions in other countries so many years earlier.  In America, for example, there had been associations of journeymen in colonial times, but they were primarily craft guilds to maintain standards.  When the industrial revolution came in the 1800′s, a demand was created for a labor force that was unskilled and highly exploitable.  The abuses that accompanied the growing industries led to a cry for a protective force for workers and a few groups were formed.  Unfortunately, the financial panic of 1837 reversed any progress made. It wasn’t until 1866 – after the Civil War – that the first major labor union was formed; however its main goals were to eliminate cheap convict labor and restrict immigration.  The first major activity with worker’s rights as the focal point took place in 1874 as a strike paralyzed the Pennsylvania Coal Fields for a year.  Frank Gowan, President of the Reading RR which controlled the mines, called in the country’s leading Union Buster – Alan Pinkerton, who ran a detective agency specializing in “industrial protection”.  Pinkerton’s spying, deception and prejudicial testimony before a stacked jury led to the hanging of 20 men.  The Workingmen’s Benevolent Assn was beaten, and the mines reopened; management had won, but organizing continued.  In 1877 a nationwide strike over wage cuts crippled the railroads and Federal troops were called out.  Over 100 were killed and 300 injured by U.S. troops before the strike was broken, but the picture of strikers being killed to protect the profits of millionaire railroad owners at last moved the public.  Their anger was evident at the next nationwide election and many railroad politicians fell.  The labor movement began to flex its new political muscle.

Then, on Sep 15, 1882, a handful of laborers, organized by Peter McGuire,  began a march uptown through lower Manhattan, carrying signs that read Agitate, Educate, Organize  and  Less Work, More Pay.   Mocked by fashionable New Yorkers they continued their trek as more and more laboring men, women, and children joined them.  By the time they reached what is now called Union Square, there were over 10,000 strong and cheered by thousands more in the Square.  It was the first real Labor Day.  Since that day, organized labor has never looked back.  By 1894, when Labor Day was declared a national holiday, there were 22 national trade unions and 5 states were already celebrating Labor Day as a state holiday.

The laborers who dared to organize and confront the bosses were a courageous group and we are proud of the significant contributions of the Irish to that movement.  They were the Irish immigrants who came after the Great Starvation of 1845 and beyond; farmers who crowded into cities and took jobs as unskilled laborers in factories, mines and construction.  Poor and uneducated in a strange land, they were highly exploitable, and when abused, the banded together. Herb Gutman. the late American Labor Historian pointed out that it was the immigrants who supported the organization of labor in large numbers.  The Irish had seen their people and economy destroyed in Ireland and were determined that it would not happen here.  From the very beginning of the unions as a workers protective society, the Irish were there.  The 20 men hanged in the Pinkerton Union busting in the Pennsylvania coal fields were all Irish; they were members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians who were given the label: Molly Maguires.  They made it possible for men like John Mitchel to give the Mineworkers the solid union they have today.  Irish women did their share too.  Unlike other immigrant women, many Irish women came alone and immediately entered the work force having no one to depend on.  They worked in textile mills, telephone companies, and domestic help; later moving to clerical and shop work.  Unable to work in the field of politics which denied them voting privileges, they became active in union organization.  Mary Harris Jones from Co Cork organized for the United Mine Workers; Lenora O’Reilly went from child laborer to member of the Knights of Labor and co-founder of the Woman’s Trade Union League; Aunt Sara McLaughlin rose to the top of the Textile Mill Union as organizer; and Julia Sarsfield O’Connor became the first female office in the Woman’s Trade Union League when she was elected President.  The story was repeated again and again.

The late John Lawe of Co Roscommon once told me how he started at the 5th Ave Coach Co which ran a fleet of green buses in New York.  It was called Ireland’s gift to America since most of its employees were Irish, and John began as a sweeper cleaning out the buses.  In May 1985, when he became President of the Transport Workers Union of America, he joined a respected Irish-American labor fraternity that included Teddy Gleason, head of the Int’l Longshoremen; Paschal McGuiness head of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters; John Sweeny, head of the Service Employees Union; John Kelly of the Professional Employees Int’l; Jack Gannon of the Firefighters; Richard Kilroy of the Railroad Men; and Jimmy Duffy, head of the Int’l Brotherhood of Operating Engineers.  These are only some of the leaders in a long tradition that goes back through Tipperary’s Bill Treacy, Kerry’s Mike Quill, and Matt Guinan, and on and on.

Back to the beginning, the Irish were not only involved, but led the way.  It took years to succeed in America because of severe anti-union forces; but it took longer in Ireland where Crown opposition was much more severe. That is why Ireland’s labor leaders like Larkin and Connolly remain heroes to this day.  And that is also why the Tram Workers Strike in 1913 was such a watershed in Irish history.  It was the first major labor confrontation on Irish soil; it was copied from the success of the American movement, which in turn was copied from the Irish Boycott.  And the wheel just keeps on turning.  Enjoy your Labor Day.

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