Troy jpg
THe memorial to James Connolly in Troy, New York

Irish American Labor Coalition Marks Four Decades

The four words in the acronym hint at the endurance and success. Irish, American, Labor, Coalition.

The first three words are descriptive. The fourth denotes the binding together of the other three.

The Irish American Labor Coalition is an organization bound together as a result of the pioneering work of some of the greats of Irish American Labor, of American Labor.

And it has been working for peace, justice and a reunited Ireland for four decades.

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As Belfast-born and IALC co-founder Jim Devine of the Communication Workers of America recalls: "At the Concord Hotel Resort in the Catskill Mountains I attended a New York State AFL-CIO meeting for all the NY unions. The organizations represented about two and a half million workers and they had a foreign policy statement which they wanted supported.

"It was similar to the one I opposed successfully with the Communications Workers of America at their conference in Detroit so I decided I would oppose it and speak on Ireland and justice. A few AFL leaders heard what I had planned to do and they took me aside and asked me not to address the issue openly at the conference. They said if I was willing to hold off, I would be invited to address the executive council in a private session after the main event. I took a chance and agreed.

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"After the conference everyone had left the hotel in a rush to get home and I sat alone in a room in an almost empty hotel for over an hour waiting for my chance to address the council. Eventually they called me in to a very large meeting room with the leaders of all the major unions in the state. I knew nobody and didn’t know what to expect but I thanked them for the opportunity. I spoke of the struggle for justice in Ireland and spoke of the oppression of my own family. The reception I got was extraordinary and a group of the leaders asked me to join with them to form an organization to challenge British oppression in Ireland. Together we formed the Irish American Labor Coalition with a board of directors made up of the most fiercely serious and active pro-Irish labor leaders.”

Those early board members included Teddy Gleason, president of the International Longshoreman’s Association, Bill Treacy of the Operating Engineers, John Lawe, national president of the Transport Workers Union, Danny Kane of the Teamsters, and Mickey Maye of the Teamsters.

Teddy Gleason took on the presidency of the new organization and the IALC was on its way.

It would be the 1981 Hunger Strikes that would propel the IALC into the broader consciousness of the Irish America, and indeed Washington, D.C. Paul O'Dwyer was now legal counsel, Paschal McGuinness of the carpenters, Michael Mann of the AFL-CIO, and who had been born into Dublin's Jewish community, and Ed Cleary of the building trades were by now reinforcing the ranks.

In Washington, there was John Sweeney of the SEIU, Tom Donahue of the AFL-CIO and Michael Brennan of the Ironworkers.

This was a coalition to be reckoned with and it was quickly spreading its wings. In short order 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 early years found the coalition in the front lines of the MacBride Principles Campaign which was aimed at ending employment discrimination in Northern Ireland. By the 1990s the issues on the front burner included a visa for Gerry Adams and the appointment of a U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland.

At an Irish American Presidential Forum in Manhattan in April, 1992, Democratic presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown promised a visa, an envoy, and if elected president, to support passage of federal MacBride Principles legislation.

The IALC was one of the leading organizations in what would be the campaign to ensure that these promises would be kept. That campaign would ultimately be directed at the administration of President Bill Clinton.

After the first Adams visit to the U.S. in February, 1994, the IALC and others learned that Sinn Féin leaders were working on a package of proposals to make possible an IRA ceasefire.

The IALC's Joe Jamison, along with Bill Lenahan, became members of what became the Connolly House Group, which represented U.S. constituencies and organizations that had worked for the visa victory, constituencies which, in Sinn Féin's view, had some influence with the Clinton administration.

The rest, as they say, is history. But history rolls on. The IALC, now the James Connolly Irish American Labor Coalition, together with other leading Irish American organizations, has yet much work to do. The peace and political process is itself troubled. Brexit, to put it mildly, has been a giant spanner in the works. Ireland is still divided, even if the border is no longer immediately obvious to the eye. 

IALC President Joe Jamison, writing in the Irish Echo to mark the IALC's 30th anniversary, described the coalition thus: "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.

"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.

"Irish American political activism will certainly revive if the next stage involves the biggest question: Irish reunification.

"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."

And indeed there is.