NEW YORK CITY — In a year when the questions of union power and the responsibility of governments to their employees have taken center stage, St. Patrick’s Day is taking on dual meaning for many Irish-Americans, with their rich ties to the labor movement.
The struggles their famine-worn ancestors faced as new arrivals — the slurs from their neighbors, the “Irish need not apply” signs — still echo through the generations, as does the avid union support that helped lift them to positions of power, influence and ultimately acceptance.
“Union jobs, civil service jobs have always been the ladder out of poverty for working people in this country,” said Patrick J. Lynch, leader of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the union that represents New York police. “The faces may have changed. The countries they’re coming from may have changed. But the ladder is the same.”
In Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere, public workers face threats to collective bargaining rights, and Irish-American legislators backing the proposals are being accused of betraying their heritage. In the nation’s largest city, the fond subject of songs such as “When New York was Irish,” a tight budget has led to a battle over municipal pensions.
Lynch this week recalled joining his father on the picket line in the New York transit strike of 1980, when he was a teenager. He had grown up listening to his dad, a longtime motorman, speak frequently of the legendary Mike Quill, founder of the Transport Workers Union of America and a native of Kilgarvan, Ireland.
Remembering Irish-American labor struggles is “especially important this year when unionism is under attack across the country,” Lynch said.
While many Chinese immigrants laid train tracks from the West Coast, it was largely Irish immigrants who laid them from the East. Many Irish immigrants went to work in the mines of the South. And in New York, they joined the police force and firefighters in great numbers, said Peter Filardo, an archivist at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.
So many Irish-Americans once worked in the city’s transit system, the joke went, that the IRT subway line was known as “Irish Rapid Transit.” Irish-American workers were key in the rise of powerful political machines in the 19th and early 20th centuries. AFL-CIO presidents have included names like George Meany, Thomas Donahue and John Sweeney.
“We have gained our place through labor activism and political activism all across the United States,” said John Kilbane, a native of Ireland and business manager of the Laborers’ Local 310 in Cleveland.
“The old adage goes, ‘A rising tide floats every boat,'” Kilbane said. “If collective bargaining is attacked and collective bargaining rights are weakened, or lessened or obliterated, it certainly is the beginning of a race to the bottom economically, not only for union people but for those who are not fortunate enough to be represented by a union.”
In Dublin, Ohio, state Rep. John Carney said people at a St. Patrick’s Day parade last weekend gave him an earful on legislation nearing approval that would limit collective bargaining by public workers.
“If I had taken a straw vote, I would have said that it was overwhelmingly ‘no’ based on the people along the parade route, that’s for sure,” said Carney, an Irish-American and a Democrat from Columbus, who said he understands how the immigrants’ union activism was borne out of discrimination.
“I think it should be a point of pride,” he said.
Some Irish-American leaders, though, have come down on the other side of the present-day labor debate.
In Wisconsin, where the governor last week signed a law that ends most collective bargaining rights for public workers, the effort to pass the bill was led by two brothers of Irish descent — Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.
As thousands of protesters swarmed the Capitol, the brothers were accused of betraying their heritage. One protest sign read: “Fitzgerald isn’t Irish.”
Some Irish-Americans say their heritage is irrelevant when it comes to labor activism and politics, especially because they and their ancestors are now thoroughly integrated in American society.
Jim Cavanaugh, president of the South Central Federation of Labor, which helped organize opposition to the Wisconsin bill, noted that Irish families have been in Wisconsin for generations. He said he would give his perspective only as an American, not an Irish-American.
“What’s going on in this state right now is not like anything any of us alive today have seen before,” he said. “It’s very different and more dynamic.”
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an Irish-American, hasn’t forgotten answering the phone as a girl and hearing a young voice hurriedly asking for her father, an electrical engineer and shop steward. Hours later, he reported saving the young man’s job from an attempt to fire him.
“I remember just thinking how remarkable that was: A, that somebody would try to wrongfully fire somebody. And B, that there was a structure in place that my father was a part of, that could actually go and save somebody’s job,” Quinn said.
Now Quinn, a Democrat, is among the politicians grappling with budget shortfalls, and she has called on labor leaders to negotiate changes to pension and benefits, even while she has protested the legislative action in Wisconsin.
“Do we need to make savings? Do we need to restructure pensions? Do we need to look at job rules? Those are all fair questions to ask. And I don’t think the labor movement is unwilling to participate in asking and answering those questions,” she said. “That’s quite different than trying to union-bust.”
Quinn’s grandfather was an original member of the Transit Workers Union after Quill founded it in 1934, and today’s transit workers haven’t forgotten Quill.
Union members, many of them Irish-Americans, gathered Wednesday evening at a yearly event in his memory and that of Irish labor leader James Connolly.
For brothers Peter and John Vaughan, both members of the iron workers’ union, their Irish-American heritage is tied up with their pride in what they, their father and their grandfather have built.
Their older brother’s ashes are scattered at the Statue of Liberty, where he had proudly worked on the icon’s restoration.
“We built this city,” said Peter Vaughan, 52.
Today’s labor concerns are complex, he said, and as he’s watched the battle over some municipal workers’ benefits, he doesn’t always come down on the side of the unions — siding with independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his bid to tie teachers’ job security to their performance.
Still, he says, some traditions remain untouched.
“Labor has been good for the people, the masses,” he said. “We’re not going back to the old ways.”