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Hard pressed yes, but unions still have a mission

James Connolly


By Larry Kirwan

The Irish Echo Labor Awards is always one of the best nights of the year.

And let it not be said that union members don’t know how to have a good time, for The Edison Ballroom was throbbing on a recent Friday night, much as it used to when David Bowie and Elvis Costello rocked the joint back in the 90s.

However, if we were all there to celebrate the achievement of the current leaders and awardees of the Irish-American Labor movement, we were never less than aware of the men and women who made it all possible. For it was a rare speech where James Connolly and Big Jim Larkin were not saluted or quoted.

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How these two names still resound today!

Both were children of the diaspora born to abject poverty in Edinburgh and Liverpool; each spent time in New York City.

Connolly organized for the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) until he returned to Ireland and was defeated in successive major strikes and lockouts in Belfast, Wexford, and Dublin.

Despairing of meaningful change he led his Irish Citizen Army in the 1916 insurrection and was executed for his troubles.

Larkin got stranded here during the First World War and ended up in Sing Sing on a charge of “criminal anarchy.”

But he never stopped exhorting workers that, “The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!”

The spirit of these two legendary revolutionaries electrified not only the Edison but speakers like Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and Christine O’Connor.

And when Terry O’Sullivan, President of LiUNA, and John Samuelson, President of the Transport Workers Union, took to the stage they brought the assembly to its feet.

Unfortunately, these are not great days for unions.

Membership continues to dwindle and the “bosses” have definitely won the propaganda war. How many times have you heard it trumpeted that unions wrecked this or that industry with excessive demands – and nary a voice raised in protest?

Yet unions helped tame the exploitative heart of this country by demanding decent wages and working conditions for immigrants, including the Irish. In so doing they laid the foundation for a civilized society and a vibrant middle class.

Alas, as union influence has waned so too has the size and vitality of the middle class. And there’s a lot worse in store as the “gig economy” takes root.

Can you imagine what Connolly and Larkin would have thought of this new scam? Hard as it is dealing with an employer – try arguing with an APP!

You have to hand it to these bosses, they really have their game down!

But it’s not just them. Inflation-adjusted compensation for most workers has barely increased over the last forty years. Still, the boot was really put in during the “great recession” of 2007.

Even though the “recovery” began in 2009, the psychological impact of the brutal layoffs is still being felt. Think about it. When was the last time you asked for a raise?

Corporate profits, on the other hand, have been rising at a steady rate since 2000 and are near an all -time high.

With unemployment touching 4.3 percent, one would imagine that wages would be skyrocketing, but after nine years of near stagnation the corporate credo is still – “live horse ‘til you get grass.”

Little wonder, considering that only 11 percent of American workers now belong to a union. Compare that to the 35 percent of the 1950s – a time of steadily rising prosperity for all.

Then again the startling news that 43 percent of members of union households voted for Donald Trump last November gives one pause. Despite copious lip service, this president has never been a friend of unions or workers.

Unions obviously have a lot of work to do getting their own house in order. But we should wish them well. They provide a bulwark against a diminishing middle class, and they can once again offer a ladder into it, as Mike Quill, and other 20th Century diaspora union leaders did.

Connolly and Larkin fought mighty battles in their day.

O’Sullivan, Samuelson, and the many inspiring union leaders at the Edison Hotel have a war ahead of them.

But they have history, statistics, and right, on their side.