The year 1981 was a time of anguish for Irish America. Every day the mass media reported the republican hunger strikers’ worsening health and agonizing deaths. Their heroic self-sacrifice was met by the cruel intransigence of the Thatcher government.
Community outrage spurred something new in 1981. Top union leaders of Irish background or birth concluded that pious resolutions about non-discrimination and re-unification, passed at trade union conventions, were no longer enough.
They wanted political action. They created an independent committee working within the U.S. trade unions, not taking its lead from any political party.
Thus began the Irish American Labor Coalition. At the beginning, its leading lights, some now not with us, included, in New York, Teddy Gleason of the Longshoremen, Bill Treacy with the operating engineers, Dan Kane of the Teamsters – who generously supplied office space, and much wisdom on tactics – Jim Devine of the CWA, Mike Maye of the Teamsters, Paul O’Dwyer, who would be our legal counsel, Paschal McGuinness of the carpenters, Michael Mann of AFL-CIO and who had been born into Dublin’s Jewish community, and Ed Cleary of the building trades.
In Washington, there was John Sweeney of the SEIU, Tom Donahue of the AFL-CIO and Michael Brennan of the Ironworkers.
Soon enough there were committees in Chicago (Margaret Blackshere, teachers); in Detroit, Mike Kerwin, (UAW); in Boston, Marty Foley (Mass. AFL-CIO); and in San Francisco, Jack Henning (California Labor Federation).
The committee had differences on many political questions, American and Irish. Its first united campaign was against the U.S. corporation, Allegheny-Ludlum.
The Pittsburgh manufacturer made plastic bullets, lethal in all too many cases, when used by the British on crowds in the Six Counties.
Not long after this initial foray, a brilliant campaigning idea, ideally suited to the new labor committee, came to light. The years 1984-1994 would mainly be a decade of work on the MacBride principles, a set of fair employment guidelines for U.S. companies operating in the North, guidelines that prohibited discrimination against underrepresented groups, mostly nationalist.
Friends across the Atlantic in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions were candid about how feeble existing “fair employment” legislation was. The South African struggle was reaching fever pitch in the 1980s. The Sullivan Principles were familiar. The idea was in the air.
Others deserve credit for giving birth to the MacBride Principles but union political clout, in most state and local jurisdictions, made the difference between the principles becoming law or not.
From about 1984 until 1994, MacBride legislation expanded and made it into law in 17 states in the end. Those states were all the big ones and MacBride bills were additionally passed in most large U.S. cities.
The IALC developed a close working partnership with a dynamic trade unionist from Belfast, Inez McCormack, who is still a leading equality campaigner.
In the 1970s the dominant U.S. media narrative had been that Northern Ireland was a security issue, a battle against terrorism. In the U.S., the MacBride campaign redefined the conflict as a struggle for justice and equality. It could not be squelched by a British embassy phone call to the White House or Congress.
Formally, the campaign was a non-partisan pension reform driven one, focused on the pension policies of state and local governments.
In reality, it framed the problem of anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland in terms understandable to U.S. public opinion. Support for it came from unconventional places. In state capitals from Montpelier Vermont, to Tallahassee Florida, African American and Latino legislators, as well as other non-Irish and non-Catholic ethnic groups, became supporters as enthusiastic as those of Irish background.
VISA PROMISE AND PEACE PROCESS
A new stage began in the presidential race of 1992. In the New York Democratic primary, candidate Bill Clinton was in a close contest with California governor Jerry Brown.
Clinton made a number of promises at an Irish-American forum on appointing a special envoy, giving Gerry Adams a visa, support for the MacBride principles, an end to deportations, immigration reform and so on.
Many activists worked for Irish-Americans for Clinton-Gore. After Clinton’s election, IACG morphed into Americans for a New Irish Agenda, a wider coalition to press the Clinton administration to honor its campaign promises.
Ironically, the breakthrough began with another denial of a visa to Gerry Adams in Dec 1993 by a Bush holdover appointee at the National Security Council. It triggered a struggle to reverse the decision and make the Clinton administration honor its pledge.
Adams had been invited to talk about his new book in at a bookstore in Littleton, New Hampshire. An irate New Hampshire bookstore owner, Ned Densmore, a pillar of the Democratic Party in the state – every four years of course an exceedingly important place in American politics – called every contact he had in the new administration. He had quite a few. In January, 1994, after weeks of intense lobbying, the administration reversed its stand. Soon we activists, those in the IALC included, found ourselves talking to the NSC.
In the summer of that year, in the wake of the triumphant Adams visit to New York city, we learned that Sinn Féin leaders were working on a package of proposals to take to IRA to justify a permanent ceasefire, and a strategic turn to the political road.
This writer, and co-worker Bill Lenahan, became members of what came to be called the Connolly House Group, which represented constituencies (business, labor, politics, journalism) who had worked for the visa victory, constituencies which, in Sinn Féin’s view, had some influence with Clinton administration.
LINKS TO COMMUNITY
The IALC is a labor committee linked to a community. It seldom has worked by itself. For more than a decade, Teamster Mike Maye worked tirelessly, all summer, convening Irish community organizations to build Irish Solidarity Day, a day of protest outside the United Nations building in Manhattan focused on injustice in the Six Counties.
RECOVERING OUR HISTORY
In the Mike Quill era, James Connolly, icon of socialist republicanism, was honored each year on May 12, this to politically educate a mostly Irish TWU. Cold War politics ended that.
In 1987, with the TWU’s John Lawe elected grand marshal of the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade, the IALC revived the tradition. Thanks to the work of Jim Devine of CWA, in 1987 Connolly’s statue was unveiled in Troy, New York, a city where Connolly had lived and organized.
The large Connolly banner has become a regular sight in the St. Patrick’s Day and Labor Day parades, led by the Local 3 Electricians Sword of Light pipe band. Back in Ireland, meanwhile, The IALC, along with Irish and Scottish unions, funded a statue of Connolly outside Liberty Hall in Dublin.
Classical republicanism has not been neglected by the labor coalition. The family of Wolfe Tone is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-wood Cemetery. In 1997 the IALC restored the family gravesite, with the president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, headlining the ceremony.
These are just a few snapshots and reminiscences, a far from a full account. Much is left out. Nevertheless, what of the future? Thirty years on, there is unfinished business. Sectarian inequality still exists in the North. The Good Friday Agreement needs to be fully implemented. It took seven years to go from the agreement to devolved government, this in May 2007.
Since devolution, and since normal party politics resumed, it has not been so clear how Irish America can help. But if history is a guide, new tasks will become clear soon enough, in ways perhaps impossible to foresee.
Irish American political activism will certainly revive if the next stage involves the biggest question: Irish reunification.
What we do know is that real change entails struggle. Governments have to be pushed. Not only that. A gigantic economic crisis has engulfed Ireland. It may well result in a new surge of Irish emigration, or dramatic realignments in Irish politics.
Unions, meanwhile, are under attack in the U.S. Nothing new in that. They will survive the onslaught of the Neanderthals, and they will thrive.
The workers’ struggle for economic justice, and the Irish struggle for unity and independence, are both democratic struggles.
As long as there are Irish people in the U.S. working class and its unions, there will be space for an Irish-American Labor Coalition, or something like it. For, as Connolly said: “the cause of labor is the cause of Ireland.”
Joe Jamison is president of the Irish American Labor Coalition.