Five Labor Leaders with Irish Roots
March 17, 2014
Each St. Patrick’s Day, we honor North America’s Irish heritage.
Often overlooked, one of Ireland’s most important contributions to the United States and Canada is the labor movement. Millions of Irish immigrants settled in the growing industrial areas of North America following the great famine in the 1840s.
Predominantly unskilled blue collar workers, the earliest Irish settlers faced dangerous working conditions, low pay and on-the-job discrimination.
As journalist Harold Meyerson wrote in 2009:
When the Irish began arriving en masse in the 1840s, they were met with savage hostility by America's largely Protestant native-born population and shunted into ghettos … In their occupational ghettos, laying railroad track and working on construction crews, they became America's first distinct paid ethnic working class.
Some of those immigrant workers starting organizing, helping to form the first labor unions.
Terence Vincent Powderly
One of the most noteworthy efforts was the Knights of Labor, led at its height by Terence Vincent Powderly.
Powderly, born in Carbondale, Pa., to Irish immigrants in 1849, was a machinist by trade and a labor organizer from early on. In 1878, he was elected mayor of Scranton on a pro-labor platform, overseeing the creation of a board of health, a sewage system, street paving, a new police force and fire department.
In 1879, he became leader of the Knights of Labor, the U.S.’s first major labor federation, representing nearly a half-a-million workers at its height. The Knights declined in the 1890s, facing competition from the newly formed American Federation of Labor.
For nearly a half-of-a-century one name was nearly synonymous with unions in the public’s mind: Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. Born in Cork, Ireland in 1830, she emigrated to the U.S. at the age of five. Losing her entire family to yellow fever in 1867, she devoted her life to the labor movement, helping to organize coal miners for more than 30 years.
Known for the saying, "pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” she continued to fight for working people and for the end to child labor up until her death in 1930 at the age of 93.
One of Chicago’s larger-than-life labor leaders, Local 134 Business Manager Mike Boyle helped lead the IBEW in the Windy City through the worst year of the Great Depression.
Born in 1879 to Irish immigrants, Boyle was a tougher than nails negotiator, taking on employees, city officials and even the underworld during the lawless days of the Prohibition to get the best deal for his members.
And at a time when much of the union movement was segregated, Boyle took steps to integrate Local 134, recruiting its first black member in 1919, and then appointing the first black business representative in building trades history a few years later.
Click here to read more about Boyle. (Scroll to Page 30).
No one at the time could have guessed that an Irish-American plumber from Bronx, N.Y. would become one of the most influential men in America. Born in 1894, George Meany served as President of the AFL-CIO for more than a quarter of a century, presiding over the largest expansion of the labor movement in the organization’s history.
Helping to lead the merger between the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1952, Meany was instrumental in lobbying for Medicare, Medicaid, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
He died in 1980.
While there was substantial Irish immigration to Canada before the Great Famine, most Irish Catholics chose to go to the United States in the second half of the 19th century.
However, Irish-Canadians (Protestant and Catholic) have played an important role in the Canadian labour movement. One of their best known leaders is Bob White. Born in Northern Ireland, his family moved to Ontario when he was 12. Going to work in the auto industry a few years later, he became an active organizer for the United Auto Workers.
Leader of the UAW’s Canadian section, in 1984 he helped form a new union, the Canadian Auto Workers. (today known as Unifor after its merger with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union.)
In 1992, he became president of the Canadian Labour Congress, retiring in 1999.