POLICE RIOTS — THE BIRTH OF THE IRISH CITIZEN ARMY

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 2 mins.)

The Dublin police played a fundamental role in the creation of the first workers’ army in the world, the Irish Citizen Army.

The Dublin employer syndicate’s offensive against the working-class “syndicalism” of the Irish Transport & General Worker’s Union1 began with the 1913 Lockout, in turn triggering strikes on August 26th, when workers were presented with a document they were to sign declaring that they would leave the ITG&WU or, if not a member, would refuse to support it in any action2. Most workers of any union and none refused to sign and 20,000 workers were confronted by 400 employers.

However, the employers’ numbers were added to by the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the Royal Irish Constabulary, backed up by the judiciary. Morally and ideologically the Irish Times and Irish Independent (the latter owned by W.M. Murphy, leader of the employers) backed the employers as, to a large extent, did the Irish Catholic Church hierarchy3.

Workers’ demonstration with newsboys (WM Murphy owned the Irish Independent newspaper). (Source image: Internet)

The national (non-workers’) movement was divided in its opinion: many of Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party representatives were employers or landlords and their sympathies were naturally not with the workers. But for example Seán Mac Diarmada, a republican and national revolutionary, organiser for the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood4, opposed the strike on the basis that foreign business interests would profit by the paralysing of Irish business concerns5. On the other hand, Mac Diarmada’s mentor and head of the IRB in Ireland, Tom Clarke, was sympathetic to the strikers.

POLICE RIOTS

Unlike the gendarmerie6 British police force throughout Ireland of the Royal Irish Constabulary, at this time the constables of the DMP were unarmed except with truncheons but even with those they managed to kill people. On 30th August 1913 the DMP baton-charged a crowd in a street meeting on Eden Quay, outside Liberty Hall, HQ of the union7. Among the many injured were James Nolan and John Byrne who died 31st August and 4th September respectively, both in Jervis St. Hospital. (see also other riots and police attacks in Sources & Further Reading below).

On the 31st Jim Larkin went in disguise to address an advertised public meeting, banned by a magistrate, in Sackville (now O’Connell) St., Dublin. In view of the behaviour of the police, most of the IT&GWU activists went instead to their rented facilities at Fairview but a large enough crowd of the committed and the curious were assembled in O’Connell Street, along with large force of the DMP. Larkin, disguised as an elderly Protestant minister arrived by horse-drawn carriage and, as befitted a man made infirm by age, was assisted by Nellie Gifford8 into the Clery’s building which housed the Imperial Hotel restaurant, which belonged to W.M. Murphy (as did the Dublin Tram Co.). In order that Larkin’s strong Liverpool accent should not give him away, Nellie Gifford did all the talking to the staff inside. Shortly afterwards Larkin appeared at a restaurant window on the first floor and, top hat removed, spoke briefly to the crowd below but, as DMP rushed into the building, tried to make his getaway.

The arrest of Jim Larkin on 31st August 1913, being removed from the Clery’s building (see plinth of the Nelson Pillar behind and to the left) in O’Connell Street, just before the Dublin Metropolitan Police attack on the crowd. (Source image: Internet)

The DMP arrested Larkin and when the crowd cheered him (led by Constance Markievicz), the DMP baton-charged the crowd, striking out indiscriminately, including knocking unconscious a Fianna (Republican youth organisation) boy Patsy O’Connor who was giving First Aid to a man the police had already knocked to the ground. Between 400 and 600 were injured and Patsy suffered from headaches thereafter; though active in the Republican movement (he was prominent in the 1914 Howth guns collection9) he died in 1915, the year before the Rising. Among those beaten were journalists and casual passers-by. Those caught in Princes Street10 between DMP already in that street and the police charging across the main street were beaten particularly savagely.

The police attack became known as “Bloody Sunday 1913” (though two workers had been fatally injured on Eden Quay the day before and are often wrongly listed as having been killed on that day).

A photo of the police riot taking place on 31st August 1913 in O’Connell St; police can be seen striking with their truncheons even those on the ground. (Source image: Internet)

Also on that day the DMP attacked the poor working-class dwellings of Corporation Buildings (in “the Monto”, off Talbot St11), beat the residents and smashed their paltry furniture. The raid was a revenge attack for the reception of bottles and stones they had received on the 30th, when they were chasing fleeing workers from Liberty Hall (others crossed Butt Bridge to the south side and a running battle took place along Townsend Street and almost to Ringsend.

Protest march goes past closed-down Clery’s to the left in 2016 while Larkin looks down from his pedestal to the right. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

THE IRISH CITIZEN ARMY 1913 AND 1916

Very soon after those attacks, Larkin and Connolly each called publicly for the formation of a workers’ defence force, which became the Irish Citizen Army. Around 120 ICA, including female members fought with distinction in the 1916 Rising and raised their flag, the Starry Plough on the roof of WM Murphy’s Imperial Hotel on the upper floors of Clery’s building, opposite the GPO13. A number of its Volunteers were killed or wounded in action and two of the ICA’s leaders, Connolly and Mallin, were executed afterwards; another, Constance Markievicz, had her sentence of death commuted.

Irish Citizen Army on parade at their facility in Fairview. (Source image: Internet)

A much-diminished ICA took part in the War of Independence.

The end of August 1913 on Eden Quay and in O’Connell Street may be seen as the period and birthplaces of the ICA, the “first workers’ army in the world” and the first also to recruit women, some of whom were officers.

The Jim Larkin monument stands opposite the Clery’s building, which is now under renovation but without a mention on the monument or on the building of Bloody Sunday 1913 or its background and result. Sic transit gloria proletariis

end.

Today’s DMP, Garda Public Order Unit guarding far-Right gathering in O’Connell Street in 2020 (facing them, out of photo view). The Larkin monument can be seen in part at the top right-hand corner. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

FOOTNOTES

1The ITGWU was formed in 1909 by James Larkin, former organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers after his bitter departure from that union. Most of the members Larkin had recruited for the NUDL, with the exception of the Belfast Protestant membership, left the NUDL and joined the IT&GWU.

2The provision in the declaration for members of unions other than the iT&GWU was necessary for the employers because of the general credo in Irish trade unionism that one did not cross a picket line, whether of one’s own union or of another, a credo that persisted in Ireland until the 1980s when the Irish Trade Union Council joined the “Social Partnership” of the State and the employers’ Federation. In addition, Larkin had added the principle that goods from a workplace on strike, even if strike-breakers could be got to bring them out, were “tainted goods” and would not be handled by members of the IT&GWU, nor should they be by any other union either.

3 Apart from any statements by bishops and priests, the religious charity organisation, the St. Vincent de Paul, refused assistance to families of strikers.

4 The IRB was founded simultaneously in Dublin and New York on 17th March 1858 and became known as “the Fenians”. In 1913 the movement had declined but was being rebuilt under the leadership of Tom Clarke, who went on to become one of the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence, all of which were executed b y firing squad after surrendering, along with another nine. Both were signatories of the Proclamation of Independence.

5It is one of the many ironies that on May 12th 1916, the last of the of the 14 surrendered leadership executed in Dublin (another two were executed elsewhere, one in Cork and the last in London) were Mac Diarmada and James Connolly, shot by British firing squads in Kilmainham Jail; the one an opponent of the workers’ action and the other one of its leadership.

6The gendarmerie is a particular militarised type of police force, armed and often operating out of barracks, like the Carabinieri of Italy, Gendarmerie of Turkey and Guardia Civil of the Spanish State. It is an armed force of state repression designed to control wide areas of potentially rebellious populations and it is notable that the parallel of the RIC did not exist in Britain, where the police force was mostly unarmed except by truncheon.

7Liberty Hall is still there today but a very different building (the original was shelled by the British in 1916) and SIPTU is a very different union too.

8Nellie was one of 12 children of a mixed religion marriage and was, like all her sisters (unlike the six unionist boys), a nationalist and supporter of women’s suffrage. Her sister Grace married Volunteer Joseph Plunkett hours before his execution and is, with Plunkett, the subject of the plaintive ballad “Grace” and Muriel married Thomas McDonagh, one of the Seven Signatories of the Proclamation, all of whom were among the 16 executed after surrendering in 1916. Nellie Gifford was the only one who participated in the Rising; she was a member of the Irish Citizen Army and was active in the Stephen’s Green/ College of Surgeons garrison, jailed and continued to be active after her release.

926th July 1914, when the yacht Asgard, captained by the Englishman Erskine Childrers, delivered a consignment of Mauser rifles and ammunition to the Irish Volunteers.

10Those may have been heading for Williams Lane which even today leads out from Princes Street to Middle Abbey Street (the junction of which is where James Connolly received the impact to his ankle in 1916).

11Corporation Buildings as one might expect housed working class people and the “Monto” (Montgomery Street) was a notorious red light district.

12The police station is still there, staffed by the Garda Síochána but in 1913 it housed also a British Army garrison.

13This flag, one of at least four different flags flown during the Rising, is now in the Irish National Museum at Collins Barrack. Shortly after the Rising it was noted by a British Army officer still in place upon the gutted Clery’s building and taken by him as a trophy to England. In 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Rising, the officer’s family returned the flag to the Irish people.

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING

Nellie Gifford: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nellie_Gifford

The Fianna boy who suffered a head injury: https://fiannaeireannhistory.wordpress.com/2014/12/

http://multitext.ucc.ie/…/Report_of_the_Dublin

1913 Ringsend Riot: http://comeheretome.com/…/04/07/1913-the-riot-in-ringsend/

GUNSHIPS IN THE MERSEY, ARMED TROOPS ON THE STREET — LIVERPOOL 1911

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 6 mins)

As part of a general rise in workers trade union militancy in the UK (including then Ireland), a general transport strike was called in August 1911. This involved train operators, dockers, sailors, carters and other types of worker. At one point the British State drafted extra police into Liverpool and, eventually, armed soldiers (as had been done against striking miners in the Rhonda Valley, Wales) and Royal Navy gunboats were sent up the Mersey river. On 12th August a massive police charge on workers attending a rally in Liverpool resulted in nearly two hundred injuries and became known as the city’s Bloody Sunday1.

BACKGROUND

1888 is seen by many labour historians as the point at which the weight of importance in the trade union movement shifted from the craft unions with their guild traditions, to the general workers, the “unskilled” (sic) and “semi-skilled” and when trade union actions began to be more militant and sustained. Over the following years, the working class built up its strength through many industrial struggles, many of which it lost but the general impetus was forward.

The great areas of need for capitalism were coal extraction for power, factory production for producing commodities and machines, along with transport to convey the coal to the factories and the commodities from the factories to the country and to the world. In 1911 transport involved trains and shipping, as well as horse and cart (motor transport had yet to generally oust the horse), the unions being those of train workers, ship-builders, carters and sailors. Factory workers were in engineering, textile and other unions. Miners unions recruited the coal-diggers and sorters. Construction workers were needed to build housing for workers, factories for them to work in, roads, railways and canals to transport goods and fuel.

In general, workers were becoming more militant and more politicised, more aware of ideas about the situation of their class and its future. Increasingly, workers in one union would support those of another on strike (although it was not until 1914 that three unions formed the Triple Alliance: The Miners Federation of G. Britain, The National Union of Railwaymen and The National Transport Workers’ Federation).

LIVERPOOL

In Liverpool on May 11th 1911 there was a huge demonstration in the port city of Liverpool as part of the seamen’s strike led by the Transport Workers Federation. The strike being total and with difficulty in employing trained scabs, the employers were obliged to agree new terms with the union.

Mass workers meeting, Liverpool August 1911 (Sourced photo: Gunboats article)

“Hearing of the victory of the seamen, 4,000 dockers immediately walked off the job on June 28 demanding improved pay and conditions. The dockers, many of whom had refused to load ships during the national strike, were quickly followed out by the scalers and coal heavers, and by the end of the day 10,000 men were on strike. Seeing this, the seamen walked out on strike again purely in support of the dockers. Mass meetings were held, and the largely un-unionised dock workers began to flock to the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL2).” (Libcom)

“It was the Transport strike during August that was to see matters escalate even further and near pushed the country to revolution. This incidentally was a national dispute with the railways going out on strike. This in turn was supported by dockers and other transport workers that saw the transportation of goods being brought to a grinding halt.

“Tensions were rising with the shipping companies stating that the dockers were in breach of their contract and declaring a lockout. To add fuel to the fire they also tried to call the military in as strike breakers.” (Gunboats up the Mersey)

As the rail strike began to spread across the country, a mass demonstration in Liverpool was declared as a show of support.

Support for the strike cut across the sectarian lines existing in Liverpool. “Reading Fred Bower’s account of workers marching from all over Liverpool must have shaken the establishment. ‘From Orange Garston, Everton and Toxteth Park, from Roman Catholic Bootle and the Scotland Road area they came. Forgotten were their religious feuds. The Garston band had walked five miles and their drum major proudly whirled his sceptre twined with orange and green ribbon.’

‘Never in the history of this or any other country had the majority and might of the humble toiler been so displayed. A wonderful spirit of humour and friendliness permeated the atmosphere.’ ” (Gunboats etc)

Tom Mann addressing a mass meeting in Liverpool August 1911 (Sourced photo: Gunboats article)

“Taking place on August 13 at St George’s Plateau, 100,000 workers came to hear speeches by workers and leaders of the unions, including Tom Mann. The demonstration went without incident until about 4 o’clock, when, completely unprovoked, the crowds of workers suddenly came under attack from the police. Indiscriminatedly attacking bystanders, the police succeeded in clearing the steps of St George’s Hall in half an hour, despite resistance from strikers who used whatever they could find as weapons. Fighting soon spilled out into nearby streets, causing the police and troops to come under attack as workers pelted them with missiles from rooftops. Becoming known as Bloody Sunday, the fighting resulted in scores of injuries on both sides.” (Libcom)

Mounted Police escorting material with armed troops marching behind them, Liverpool August 1911 (Sourced photo: Gunboats article)

“There are no records of why the Police decided to charge a peaceful crowd which resulted in a mass panic with 186 people being hospitalised and 95 arrests. Fred reports how after the carnage caused by the Police that it resembled a battlefield with wounded men, women, and children, lying singly in heaps over a vast area.” (Gunboats etc)

(Police with prisoners, Liverpool August 1911 (Sourced photo: Gunboats article)

“Fighting across the city continued for several days, coming to a head when a group of workers attacked a prison van carrying some arrested strikers. Two workers were shot dead by troops during the ensuing struggle, one a docker and the other a carter.

“A general strike of all transport workers in Liverpool was arranged for the night of August 14, and the next day saw the city come to a complete halt. Any movement of goods was closely guarded by troops, most of whom were drafted in from outside of Liverpool as the territorials of the city had largely been confined to barracks, the authorities wary of their loyalty3.” (Libcom)

Liverpool August 1911 (Sourced photo: Gunboats article)

“Following Bloody Sunday a convoy of prisoners who had been arrested on that day were being escorted by thirty-two soldiers of the 18th Hussars on horseback fully armed with live ammunition along with mounted Police. A magistrate was also present carrying a copy of the riot act. However before it could be even read a disturbance broke out on Vauxhall road with troops opening fire, injuring five people, two fatally. The victims were John W. Sutcliffe and a twenty-nine year old docker Michael Prendergast. Five days later, on the 19th August two more civilians were shot by troops in Llanelli. These are the last occasions in history when British soldiers have killed civilians on the streets of mainland Britain.” (Gunboats etc)

Troops ride a lorry load of material, Liverpool August 1911 (Sourced photo: Gunboats article)

“However, the strike’s days were numbered. Under intense pressure from the government to end the dispute, the railway employers and moderate leaders of the railwaymen’s union began a series of talks. A deal was struck ensuring that all strikers would be reinstated, and the railwaymen returned to work on August 21, with a general return to work ordered for the next day. Sporadic rioting occurred in working class districts throughout the end of August.” (Libcom)

Troops bearing rifles, Liverpool August 1911 (Sourced photo: Gunboats article)

“The show of strength displayed by the transport workers of Liverpool in 1911 clearly demonstrated the material gains that could be won through cross-industry solidarity. Paving the way for the massive industrial revolts by British workers during 1910-1914, the strike movement inspired similar action throughout the pre-war years.” (Libcom)

COMMENT:

Some historical commentary from the Left criticises the union leadership for their actions in settling the strike but I find it hard to see the justification for this. They got reinstatement of all sacked and locked-out workers (which is a lot more than the union leaders did in 1926 as, under the influence of the Labour Party, they scrambled to call off the General Strike). The alternative would seem to have been to go for revolutionary insurrection (which would certainly have impeded the later carnage of WWI 1914-1918) but: a) is it reasonable to expect revolutionary leadership from trade union leaders and (b) were conditions such that a significantly large section of the workers in Britain would have answered the call to revolution?

A different question is perhaps that of preparation for a possible police charge, of which there had been enough examples. Workers could have been encouraged to prepare pieces of timber as placard holders and staffs as flag and banner-poles. A defeat of a police attack is both a welcome defensive action as well as a confidence-building one for oppressed people.

The role of Churchill is striking in this period, particularly in the midst of recent disputes about his racism in general and his encouraging the setting up of the terror units of the Auxiliary Royal Irish Constabulary (Black and Tans) and the Auxilliary Division in Ireland. Although it must be remembered that Government Ministers generally act as representatives and in the interest of the ruling class, Churchill was a particularly imperialist and capitalist reactionary and had in January of that same year sanctioned the burning of an East End building in which anarchists had taken refuge in the Siege of Sidney Street.

In fact, Churchill was so reactionary and bellicose that during the 1926 General Strike he was kept away from any operational control in the Cabinet and entrusted with editing and producing eight editions of the virulent anti-striker British Gazette. The challenge to the adulation of the British ruling class and sycophantic historical cheerleaders of the historical person of Churchill does not lack for material to justify that challenge.

The fact that local troops in Liverpool could not be trusted by the ruling class is interesting and occurred again during the Glasgow General Strike in 1919 when, arguably a revolution should have been called for. By then the soldiers had been conscripted into a horrific imperialist war and were being prevented from demobilisation because they were going to be needed to suppress the national liberation struggles breaking out across the Empire. And one of those struggles was the War of Independence in Ireland which one can confidently predict would have allied with a British insurrection both from class solidarity and from opportunism. One of the leaders of the Glasgow workers, Willie Gallacher, of Irish descent (so was Tom Mann, by the way), member of the Independent Labour Party and later a Communist, commented later that the workers were ready but that the leaders were not. A revolutionary outlook should alert one that if the ruling class does not trust a part of their repressive forces, the least revolutionaries should do would be to call on those to join the struggle.

Liverpool’s son Jim Larkin was already in Ireland as an organiser for the NUDL and by 1911 leading the breakaway Irish Transport & General Workers Union, with the great struggle of the Lockout still to come in 1913. Then with Edinburgh-born-and-raised James Connolly, he went on to initiate the first workers’ army in the world, the Irish Citizen Army.

The 1911 martyrs of Sutcliffe and Prendergast were recorded as being A contingent of Liverpool city’s Irish diaspora would join the Irish Volunteers and embark for Dublin to take part in the 1916 Rising, when a Royal Navy gunboat would sail up a different river and open fire on what was considered a British city. Later, sailors and dockers operating from Liverpool would be sending consignments of arms to the IRA for their War of Independence.

But in Britain, the workers of Liverpool fought some great battles and those of August 1911 were a harbinger of others to come.

End.


FOOTNOTES

1 (NB: I remember reading about this many years ago and as the anniversary is with us decided to write it up however briefly. I have used material from some articles rather than the articles themselves because some lacked detail, others were more general or I did not agree with descriptions of workers’ motivations being solely about wages and good working conditions. However I hope this article encourages people do their own reading on the events or at the very least raises their awareness of the history of the working class and of its enemies.)

2This was the trade union that employed Jim Larkin as an organiser and also sent him to organise in Belfast. Subsequently Larkin was sent to Dublin where he led the building up the NUDL up very successfully with a number of successful strikes. Subsequently Larkin and the NUDL’s Irish leader, Sexton, parted company after the latter had Larkin tried in court. After that, Larkin founded the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union and most of the Dublin members of the NUDL left that union to join the ITG&WU, of which James Connolly also became a leader.

3This is similar to the situation of the 1919 Glasgow General Strike, when the locally-garrisoned troops were confined to barracks for fear they’d support the workers.

REFERENCES AND SOURCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1911_Liverpool_general_transport_strike

https://libcom.org/history/1911-liverpool-general-transport-strike

https://chbenj23.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/send-the-gunboats-up-the-mersey/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple_Alliance_(1914)

Workers being hit during crisis — a harbinger of post-Covid19 austerity?

“Mandate Trade Union members employed by Arcadia (Topshop, Topman, Burton, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Outfit, Wallis and Evans) held a socially distanced protest on Kildare Street yesterday (Tuesday, December 22nd) where they handed a letter into the Dail demanding stronger protections for workers losing their jobs due to liquidation scenarios.

Members of Mandate trade union employed by Arcadia protest at Leinster House 22nd December 2020. (Photo source: Mandate website)

“We’ve seen workers in Debenhams, Clerys, the Paris Bakery, La Senza, and many more other companies lose their jobs while their employer abandoned their obligations. The government commissioned its own report on this issue in 2016 (Duffy/Cahill) and for more than four years has refused to implement it.Every day workers are losing their jobs while our government procrastinate and sit on their hands. We need action, and we need it now.” (Mandate, on their website)


Members of Mandate trade union employed by Arcadia protest at Leinster House 22nd December 2020. (Photo source: Mandate website)


Comment:


The ruthless action of capitalists in sacking workers — often without even paying agreed redundancy pay — to safeguard their rates of profit during the Covid19 crisis is a harbinger for the austerity they will force on working people with the collusion of the government as soon as this pandemic has been quelled.

End.



SOURCE:

The Red Joan of Arc — Elizabeth Gurley Flynn ( 1890- 1964)

By Geoff Cobb

(Reading time: 3 mins.)

Few Irish American women have led a more controversial life than Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. A fiery orator with a passionate dedication to social justice, Flynn dedicated her life to the working class. A militant’s militant, Flynn was arrested dozens of times fighting for the causes she espoused and served a prison term for her political beliefs. Flynn became one of the most influential labor organizers of the early 20th century, while also becoming the first female leader of the American Communist Party. Famed international journalist Eugene Lyons praised her intelligence saying she was “the most brilliant woman I had ever met.”

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was born in Concord, New Hampshire on August 7th, 1890. The family moved to New York’s impoverished South Bronx in 1900,where Flynn attended the local public school. She later recalled, “I hated poverty. I was determined to do something about the bad conditions under which our family and all around us suffered.” Influenced by her parents to become a socialist, Flynn was kicked out of high school for giving her first radical speech, What Socialism Will Do for Women , at the Socialist Club of Harlem.

Not yet eighteen years of age, Flynn became a full-time organizer for the radical labor group The Industrial Workers of the World, or as they were more commonly known, the Wobblies. A passionate devotee of free speech, she led the first of three free speech fights in 1909 as an I.W.W organizer and over the course of her life Flynn remained a dedicated advocate for free expression, freedom of the press and assembly, and the right to a fair trial for all labor activists, regardless of their political affiliation. In 1907, Flynn met a much older Minnesota local I.W.W. organizer, J. A. Jones. Flynn later stated in her autobiography, “I fell in love with him and we were married in January 1908. She had two children with Jones, one who died as an infant and her son Fred who was born in 1910. The marriage broke up and Flynn returned to her family.

Her first major involvement in an I.W.W. job action was at the famous Lawrence, Massachusetts Textile Strike of 1912, which began when the American Woolen Company there tried to reduce the wages of its largely immigrant workforce. The workers walked off the job and the I.W.W. formed a strike committee with two representatives from each of the striking nationalities sitting on the committee. The strikers demanded a 15 per cent wage increase, double-time for overtime work and a 55 hour week. Using her powerful oratory, Flynn became one of the leaders of the strike, which became very violent. Reporters from around the country covered the strike and filed stories on the violence and the poverty of the Lawrence workers. Eventually, after management realized that it was losing the publicity battle, they settled with the strikers, giving Flynn and the I.W.W a great victory.

The following year Flynn gained even more fame for her role in the famous Patterson, N.J. Silk strike, which saw three hundred silk mills shut down by thousands of striking workers, many of whom were female. Flynn set up weekly women’s meetings on the issues. Flynn wrote in her autobiography of her experience in Paterson: 

“Sunday after Sunday, as the days became pleasanter, we spoke there to enormous crowds of thousands of people — the strikers and their families, workers from other Paterson industries, people from nearby New Jersey cities, delegations from New York of trade unionists, students and others. Visitors came from all over America and from foreign countries. People who saw these Haledon meetings never forgot them.”

1913 Patterson Silk Workers’ strike. L-R Patrick Quinlan, Carlo Tresca, Flynn, Adolph Lessig, Big Bill Heywood. (Source photo: Wikipedia)

Unfortunately for the workers, management was able to drive them back to the mills without achieving their strike demands. Flynn continued to organize restaurant workers, silk weavers, garment workers and miners across America. She was often arrested, but never convicted. She became such a celebrated labor activist that leftist songwriter Joe Hill wrote a 1915 song, reputedly dedicated to Flynn, called The Rebel Girl. A feminist, she began to write articles and make speeches criticizing labor unions as being male dominated and deaf to the needs of female workers.

1915 song sheet cover for ” The Rebel Girl” by Joe Hill, dedicated to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. (Source photo: Wikipedia)

She later became romantically involved with Carlo Tresca, a fellow I.W.W labor organizer and writer. When Flynn discovered that her sister was also romantically involved with Tresca, she suffered a mental breakdown that prevented her from working for eight years. During this period Flynn lived in Portland, Oregon with birth control activist, suffragette, and I.W.W activist Marie Equi.

Returning to politics, Flynn joined the Communist Party of the United States in 1936 and began to write a women’s column for the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker. She quickly was elected to the party’s national committee, but as a result of her party membership she was ejected from the American Civil Liberties Union as part of a pre-World War II red scare. During the war, she played a central role in the campaign for equal economic opportunity and pay for women, as well as the establishment of day care  centers for working mothers. She ran for Congress in New York and received an astonishing 50,000 votes in a losing effort. In the Red Scare that followed the war, Flynn was arrested under the Smith Act, which made it a crime to support a violent overthrow of the American government. She was convicted and sentenced to a three-year term. Flynn served her sentence in the Alderson Federal Penitentiary  in West Virginia. During her incarceration she wrote a memoir entitled, in The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner (1955). That same year she published her memoir, I Speak My Own Piece: Autobiography of “The Rebel Girl.

Flynn became national chairman of the Communist Party of the United States in 1961. She made several visits to the Soviet Union and died there unexpectedly in September 1964. She was given a state funeral in Red Square. In accordance with her wishes, Flynn’s remains were flown to the U.S. for burial in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of I.W. W. Members Eugene Dennis and Big Bill Haywood.

End.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s gravestone in Waldheim, Chicago. (Source photo: Wikipedia)

Rebel Breeze comment:

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was indeed an Irish UStater and made a point of her background, keeping the surnames of both mother (Gurley) and father (Flynn) and stating it in her autobiography.

Her ashes being taken to Waldheim Cemetery near the grave of Big Bill Heywood can be viewed as something of an irony as in 1916 she had a major rupture with Big Bill over a plea bargain that she and another organiser, Joe Ettor, had counseled three innocent miners to accept when Heywood thought they could beat the charges. In addition, the one year jail time part of the plea bargain somehow ended up as 20. According to some accounts, she and Ettor were expelled from the IWW but according to others, Ettor left and Flynn remained but generally avoiding Heywood from then on.

During the years of Flynn’s labour organising in the USA, employers often hired company thugs (including the (in)famous Pinkerton Detective Agency) to beat up those they considered agitators or union organisers, who were also targeted by reactionaries including racists and fascists. Many worker organisers were killed or permanently disabled. In addition, many were jailed by the UStater legislature or even executed, as were the Molly Maguires, Saccho and Vanzetti, five of the Chicago Eight and Joe Hill. Being even a moderate union organiser in those years required courage and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was far from being a moderate.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speaking from a public platform. (Source photo: Internet)

POWER REDISTRIBUTION — French electricity workers redirect power away from the rich to workers’ homes

Click on link to read the article in English or in Spanish: https://thefreeonline.wordpress.com/2019/12/26/electricity-strikers-in-france-light-up-poor-homes-this-christmas-cut-power-and-gas-to-bosses-and-police/

French electricity workers switching low-cost electricity to workers’ homes (Photo source: The Free)
“For Christmas, the CGT lowers the price of electricity”: words on banner on French electricity generating station or routing installation (Photo source: The Free)

Irish Founder of the Transport Workers Union of America — “Red” Mike Quill (1905-1966)

(Reading time: 7 mins.)

By Geoff Cobb (with addendum from Rebel Breeze)

Michael Quill forever changed labor relations in the USA. The founder of the powerful union representing New York City’s bus and subway workers, Quill’s numerous achievements helped transform the lives of millions of workers by his setting national standards for equal pay for women and minorities, health benefits and paid medical leave. However, it was his leadership of the 1966 Transit Strike that made “Red Mike Quill” a celebrity, famous for defying the Mayor and a jail sentence, when Quill shut down public transportation in the nation’s largest city.

Michael Quill photographed during mass meeting of the union. (Image source: Internet)

Born in 1905 into a humble, Gaelic-speaking family in rural Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, which was restive under British rule, Quill inherited his desire to fight for justice from his father. “My father,” recalled Quill, “knew where every fight against an eviction had taken place in all the parishes around.”

During the War of Independence, the fifteen-year-old Quill fought in the 3rd Battalion, Kerry No. 2 Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. On a solo scouting mission, Quill stumbled on a patrol of Black and Tans asleep in a ditch. Instead of fleeing, he quietly stole all their ammunition, gleefully returning home with his stolen loot.

During the war, Quill fought bravely and met almost all the top military leaders, providing him the rare opportunity of personally knowing many of Ireland’s most famous patriots. The war also started in Quill a lifelong animosity towards the Catholic Church. While on the run, Mike and his brother were gutted when their parish priest refused their request for temporary amnesty to attend their mother’s funeral.

Opposed to the Treaty creating the Free State with a partitioned British colony, Quill fought against Michael Collins’ National Army and in the conflict Kerry Republicans suffered greatly, especially at Ballyseedy, where 23 anti-Treaty fighters were murdered with dynamite by Free State soldiers. That fight’s unbelievable brutality and injustice never left Quill.

EMIGRATION

Being on the wrong side of the Treaty, Quill, unable to find work, left for America, arriving in New York the day before St. Patrick’s Day in 1926 with just $3.42 in his pocket. Through his uncle who was a subway conductor, Quill got a job on the Interborough Rapid Transit company (which ran the original subway system in New York), first as a night gateman, then as a clerk or “ticket chopper”. The IRT quickly employed many of Quill’s comrades who were also ex- anti-Treaty fighters. Moving from station to station, Quill got to know many IRT employees. He learned they craved dignity and wanted to be treated like human beings, but Quill knew this meant fighting. He said, “You will get only what you are strong enough to take. You will have to fight for your rights—they will never be given to you. And you cannot win if you fight alone.”

James Connolly was a life-long inspiration to Michael Quill (Image source: Internet)

While working night shifts, Quill, who had only attended national school, used dead time to read labor history, especially the works of James Connolly. To fight the low pay, terrible working conditions and long hours of I.R.T workers, Quinn used Connolly, the leader of the Transport Workers Union in Dublin, executed by the British for his role in the 1916 Rising, as his inspiration, and Connolly’s ideas guided Quill throughout his life. Like Connolly, Quill believed that economic power precedes political power, and that the only effective means of satisfying the workers’ demands is the creation of an independent labor party, which creates and supports strong unions. He would honor Connolly by also calling his American union the Transportation Workers Union and years later, as president of the TWU, Quill only had two pictures on his office wall, Abraham Lincoln and James Connolly.

In his union-organizing activities, Quill got the cold shoulder from many established Irish-American organizations. “When we first started to organize the union, we asked for help from the Knight of Columbus and the Ancient Order of Hibernians”, he said. “We were booed and booted out. The Irish organizations did nothing for us, and the Church campaigned actively against us.”

Rejected by mainstream Irish Americans, Quill was embraced by the American Communist Party, which helped him obtain the money, the mimeograph machines and the manpower to launch the Transport Workers Union. Quill, though, merely used the Communists, while knowing he wanted no part of them. When they thought he should attend “Workers School” for indoctrination, Quill told them he needed no indoctrination and soon left the party.

Fearing anti-union informers, Quill organized the TWU, using the methods of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret Fenian society dedicated to a violent rising against British rule. Employing cells of five so that no man knew the names of more than four other workers in the organization, messages were also sent in half-Gaelic and half-English to confuse company spies, known as “beakies.” One night, the “beakies” attacked Quill and five other activists in a tunnel as they were returning from picketing the IRT’s offices. Falsely arrested over the incident for incitement to riot, Quill gained huge notoriety amongst his fellow workers and the charges were eventually dismissed. On April 12, 1934, fighting back against 12 hour days, six days a week, at 66 cents an hour, Quill and six other men formed the T.W.U.

Quill soon became union President and succeeded in getting his union into the American Federation of Labor. He then began unionizing the other transportation companies of New York. In January 1937, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Coorporation dismissed two boiler room engineers from their power plant in Brooklyn for their union activity. Quill immediately called a successful sit-down strike and the BMT had to reinstate the men, which further raised Quill’s standing amongst the rank and file.

ANTI-RACISM

At a time in American history when bigotry and discrimination were commonplace, Quill became famous for fighting prejudice. An ardent opponent of the pro-Fascist Fr. Coughlin, Quill said, “Anti-Semitism is not the problem of the Jewish people alone. It is an American problem, a number one American problem.” He also fought for African Americans against the prejudice of many in his own union. He explained, “The bosses hired you and the same bosses hired the blacks. You are on one payroll; you come to work and leave through the same gate; you punch the same time clock. Unless there is one union to protect all of you, the employer will train these men and use them to displace you—at half your wages.”

Quill became an early ally of Martin Luther King who referred to Quill as “a fighter for decent things all his life” who “spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man.” Quill once asked, “Do you know what I’m most proud of? That in TWU we have eliminated racial discrimination in hiring and in promotions and within the union’s ranks. Blacks, Hispanics, Orientals, American Indians and women are holding appointive and elective office.”

STRIKE AND JAIL

Perhaps Quill’s finest hour was during the Transit Strike of 1966. Newly-elected patrician Mayor john Lindsay wanted to get tough with Quill and the TWU. Journalist Jimmy Breslin summarized the conflict succinctly: “…[Lindsay] was talking down to old Mike Quill, and when Quill looked up at John Lindsay he saw the Church of England. Within an hour, we had one hell of a transit strike.”

TWU strike picket 1st Jan 1966 Transit Strike. (Image source: Internet)

Quill attacked the Mayor just as if he were a British soldier, chiding Lindsay for his “abysmal lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of labor relations.” He castigated Lindsay as “a pipsqueak, a juvenile” and jested: “We explored his mind yesterday and found nothing there.” To add insult to injury Quill intentionally repeatedly mispronounced the mayor’s name as “Linsley,” proving that even in the heat of battle Quill never lost his sense of humor.

Then Lindsay made a fatal mistake, jailing Quill, who defiantly said, “The judge can drop dead in his black robes!” While in prison, Quill suffered another heart attack and was sent to the worst of city hospitals. The only person who called Mrs. Quill asking if he could help was Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. No other politician inquired about the stricken Quill. While Quill was in the hospital a deal was reached granting the TWU a 15% wage increase along with improvements in the health, welfare and pension systems. In all, it was a great victory. The strike over, he was released from police custody, but just three days later Quill died at age sixty with many claiming that the stress of the strike led to his premature passing.

Quill tearing up the court order banning the strike. (Image source: Internet)

Mike Quill left an enduring legacy. Today the Transport Workers Union is composed of an estimated 60 percent minorities and Quill is still revered within it. He had an inclusive vision of labor, which minority workers respected, strengthening the movement. Pete Seeger dedicated a ballad to Quill and producers Macdara Vallely and Paul Miller have made a biographical film about Quill entitled Which side are you on?

(Image source: Internet)

(Image source: Internet)
Aerial view Mike Quill Centre with feature in the shape of Ireland.
(Image source: Internet)

End.

POSTSCRIPT: Mike Quill and Vice-Admiral Nelson

In the Dublin City Centre, in the middle of its main street, is a curious steel erection which most people call “The Spire”. But from 1809 until 1966, something else stood there: a granite column with the English naval hero Nelson atop it, very much in the style of the one that stands in London’s Trafalgar Square today.

British soldier standing beside ruined GPO building (left) and Nelson’t pillar is visible (right), post-Rising 1916. Quill’s offer to Dublin City Council to demolish he Pillar and replace it with a monument to an Irish national hero was refused but the dissident group Saor Éire blew it up in 1966 in advance of the annual Easter Rising commemorations. (Image source: Internet)

About 50 metres away from what was colloquially called “The Pillar” stands the General Post Office building, which operated as the command HQ of the 1916 Easter Rising and is therefore a traditional gathering place for State and other commemorations of the Rising.

As the 50th Anniversary of the Rising drew near, Mike Quill contacted Dublin City Council and offered to have the statue removed for free and replaced with a more suitable monument. Quill’s first choice was a statue of Jim Larkin, who led his and Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union in resisting the 8-month Dublin Lockout – the tram crews had walked off their vehicles once they reached the Pillar and Dublin Metropolitan Police had run riot against the people in O’Connell Street shortly afterwards on Bloody Sunday 1913. But Quill offered the Council other options too. A private trust and not Dublin City Council owned Nelson’s Column, he was informed and there the matter rested. Until, on 8th March 1966, the Pillar was blown up by Saor Éire, a socialist split from the Irish Republican Movement, in advance of the 50th Anniversary commemorations.

The Jim Larkin monument in O’Connell Street today (Photo: D.Breatnach)

POLITICAL AGITATOR INTERVIEW PART III

Mick Healy of the Irish Marxist History Project was kind enough to interview me about some of the issues about which I have been active.  Parts I and II were published together a couple of months ago and here’s Part III now.

Mostly its snippets about the founding of the Irish in Britain Representation Group, my involvement in the foundation of the Lewisham branch of IBRG in SE London and from there, the Lewisham Irish Centre.  Also my participation in Kurdish solidarity and a trade union delegation to Turkish-occupied Kurdistan (the YPG placard photo is of me in Trafalgar Square, London a couple of years ago when I was over visiting kids & grandkids) and the anti-water charge campaign in Ireland.

FRONTLINE ESSENTIAL WORKERS – VULNERABLE BUT NOT CONSIDERED

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 5 minutes)

We hear talk from time to time about essential frontline workers, a discussion the origins of which can be traced to the call on the Government to shut down all non-essential work. That of course raised the issue of what is essential work and therefore, who are the essential workers. High among the category considered essential were health practitioners and their rate of infection, when statistics were published, was exceeding 25%. But there is another group of workers who are essential and vulnerable and although most members of the public are in contact with them on a weekly basis at least, nevertheless they are given little protection and rarely mentioned.

          Essential workers include, apart from healthcare workers, those maintaining our supplies of clean water, electricity and gas, sanitation, agriculture, production of necessary equipment, public transport, transport of essential supplies, fire-fighting, telecommunication (but not commercial call centres), postal services …. All of these should be in the first rank of consideration for protection from the Coronavirus-19, because they are vulnerable and for the selfish reason that we need them. But much more exposed on a daily basis to a greater number of people are the shop and supermarket workers.

Customer and staff both wearing mask and gloves in a foreign supermarket
(Photo source: Internet)

They are the most numerous of the essential workers in daily contact with the public, which puts them at risk and, if they become infected, puts the general public, the shopping customers at risk too. And yet, their levels of protection organised by their employers are very poor overall. Despite this, we rarely hear them mentioned in public discourse, they do not receive particular attention from the Left and even their own trade unions are inactive on the issue.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE

          Let us take a moment to consider what should have been the measures put in place for these workers and for the public coming into contact with them:

  1. Immediate training program in prevention for all staff, with regular refresher or reinforcement measures

  2. Immediate supply of protective clothing, disposed/ washed after each break and shift, this to include face-mask and gloves

  3. Hand-sanitiser at every work station

  4. Wrap-around screens at all checkout points

  5. Disinfection routines for all work stations at shift changes

  6. No shelf-filling during hours open to the public or non-essential interaction between public and staff inside of six feet distance

  7. Staff in necessary close proximity to members of the public, including security staff, to be given special protection in clothing and in shift arrangements and testing

  8. Safe social distances enforced by restrictions on numbers of customers in store at one time

  9. Safe social distances marked for queues and enforced

  10. Regular disinfection of automatic checkout machines

  11. Supply of hand-sanitiser at all entrances/ exits and checkout machines for the public

  12. Prevention informational visual and audio prompts for public and staff

  13. All companies obliged by Government to publish their protocols so as to educate staff and public and also give a point of correction if either feel that the protocols are not being adhered to.

Some readers may protest that management had no previous experience of a pandemic, that some of these measures were implemented but a delay was inevitable and some measures are too extreme. I would respond that any group of reasonably intelligent people, knowing the danger and typical transmission routes, sitting down to think of precautions, would come up with a similar list. Companies are supposed to carry out risk assessments of their procedures.  Trade union officials and representatives would be trained in how to assess levels of risk and how to employ measures to eliminate or reduce the level of risk as much as practicable.

Should anyone consider any of those measures excessive, they should be able to point out which and to say why. Or likewise justify the claim that late implementation was unavoidable.

Notice on screen in one shopping chain.
(Photo source: Internet)

WHAT WAS DONE

          Let us now take a moment to review which of those measure have been implemented, how and when.

  1. I am not in a position to give a definite answer on whether staff were given intensive training in avoiding infection or not but from my observation while shopping of staff in a number of supermarkets I would feel confident in saying that they had not or, if they had, that the required practice was not being monitored by management.

  2. Even to the day of writing this piece, in only one workplace, Eurospar in Fairview, have I seen all the staff wearing face masks. Workers in a number of other companies have told me that they are not supplied with them.

  3. Hand-sanitiser was supplied to work-stations in some supermarkets (possibly all) but weeks after the pandemic hit Ireland (though it had been raging abroad for many weeks before that and covered in news reports).

  4. No screens were in place at work-stations until weeks after the arrival of the virus and even now are rudimentary in many places. Single screens with spaces between permit staff and customers to position themselves in the open spaces, which I have seen both do at times. A number of cashier screens with an open section for customers to receive and load their checked-out purchases are well inside six feet of the staff member.

  5. Whether there are any such shift-change disinfection routines at any supermarket I cannot say but in some supermarkets I have seen staff leave or take up work at a station without any evidence of its disinfection.

  6. I have seen frequent shelf-filling during-open-to the-public hours in Dunnes, Tesco, Centra and Aldi (I have not been in a Lidl since the virus arrived) and even without gloves; also unprotected staff moving among customers on other pieces of work, including stacking and removing empty baskets. Even this evening in a Tesco outlet, although at least they were wearing orange (?) gloves, staff were attending to shelves (and without face-masks, as was the staff member stationed near the automatic machines).

  7. In addition to the above, staff maintaining queue lines, including security staff: every single one without masks and all being passed by customers at distances inside of six feet. The most shocking case was of a security guard in Tesco Drumcondra being passed by customers at distances of between one and three feet – he had no mask and only his company uniform, which he probably takes home to his family and puts on again next day. As to testing, given the long waiting times reported for testing and even longer for results, along with the general level of care for employees shown by the companies, how likely is any are being regularly tested?

  8. Yes but in at least one case, I saw that the security guard on the door monitoring numbers was absent for awhile. Of course, there are calls of nature but shouldn’t the protocols require the temporary replacement of the person at this post? Would we wish to be the ones who were infected because this probability had not been foreseen and provided for?

  9. The safe social distances for queueing customers – but not among staff — are now being enforced in most supermarkets, weeks after the arrival of the virus (but I noticed today that the separation is actually less than the advertised two metres).

  10. I have very rarely seen disinfection of automatic machines.

  11. In a local Centra, the first I saw to erect perspex screens, there was a sanitiser dispenser at the entrance with instructions. On at least one occasion it was empty and I have seen customers pass it without using it or having it called to their attention. I saw none in any other chain supermarket, although in Aldi a spray was provided by the baskets with instructions to use it on the basket handles.

  12. Prevention information posters may be seen but usually of the most generalised kind (like those from the HSE) and asking for staff to be treated with patience; graphic posters very rarely, film and audio prompts never. In other words, the means supermarkets use when they really want something, like mood enhancement, customers aware of bargains or special promotions, urgent attention to a checkpoint machine or stores about to close – are precisely those that they are not using for promotion of infection prevention.

  13. The Government has not obliged companies to publish their protocols (not even suggested that they should do so) and the companies have not done so themselves.

Customers in a supermarket (none seem to be taking any precautions other than perhaps social distancing. (Photo source: Internet)

CONCLUSION

          This is a serious lack of care provision for a large section of essential workers and with a potential collateral effect on most of the public. First in line of responsibility for this failure must be of course the companies but their main motive has always been profit. Next in line must be the Government, which has the power to implement emergency measures (and used it recently with giving extra power to Gardaí an courts to employ against individuals) but our governments have always been primarily in the service of capital. Who do I personally blame most for this area of neglect? Those whose very publicised reason for existence is the protection of workers and the promotion of a just society – the trade unions and the Left.

Among the statistics that are published on rates of testing positive and deaths attributed to the virus, there are breakdowns into age and gender groups and, at least in the earlier days, of healthcare workers. We never see, among those statistics, any for shop workers. Or for those who might in turn have been infected by them. The largest statistic given for route of infection is that of “social contact” and presumably that’s where they are, hidden. We remain uninformed and the low level of protection continues, with no real effort being made to change the situation.

End.

PS: Readers may wonder at the absence of information directly from the workers themselves.  The reason is that personally I am unaware of anyone in my acquaintance working in this sector and did not wish to cause the workers more stress than they have to deal with already.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

For focus on steps trade unions and the Left failed to take, see article titled WHAT DID NOT HAPPEN in Rebel Breeze.

Death of a cashier: https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-health-coronavirus-france-supermarket/after-death-of-a-cashier-french-supermarket-staff-work-in-fear-idUKKBN21K1VH

 

Diarmuid Breatnach Political Agitator Part 1

Mick Healy interviewed me about a number of my experiences in revolutionary work over the years and this is Part 1 (Part 2 will shortly be published), nearly all about some of my three decades in London. It contains a number of errors by me, for example the apartheid rugby team was South Africa’s one which were not called the “All Blacks”, that being New Zealand’s. Also I believe the giant Hunger Strikers solidarity march in London was to Michael Foot’s home, not Tony Benn’s. Still, here it is for what it’s worth with many thanks to Mick.

irishrepublicanmarxisthistoryproject

Diarmuid a long time political agitator was active in London from 1967, in interview part one, he talks about his involvement with Marxism-Leninism-Anarchism. His involvement in the Vietnam and Rhodesia solidarity campaigns, Anti-fascist mobilisation, solidarity Ireland, family squatting. In addition the campaign against the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the 1969 Peoples Democracy march from Belfast-Dublin.

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WHAT DID NOT HAPPEN

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 10 mins.)

One of the clerical staff knocked on the door of Patrick, the boss of the Irish health worker’s union. “Come in!” called out the latter.

Eh, Boss, lookit this here,” he said, waving a computer printout.

Why don’t you summarise it for me,” suggested Patrick.

It’s about that epidemic in China.”

Coronavirus-19,” replied Patrick, who prided himself on keeping up with world news. “What about it?”

It’s coming here,” replied the clerical worker.

What! Who says? Where does it say that?”

Boss, it’s spreading all over Italy and ….”

Yes, well but Italy is far away from here!”

Not as far as China is from Italy.”

Patrick thought about that but the clerical worker continued: “And the Ireland rugby team is playing there and nobody stopped Irish fans going there …. or coming back.”

Patrick sat silently, the enormity of the situation dawning upon him, then reached out for the computer printout. Among other things, it showed the steep climbing graph of confirmed cases of the virus in Italy.

Badge design of the FÓRSA union, the largest public service union in Ireland.
(image sourced: Internet)

After the clerical worker had gone, Patrick rang Michael, the President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Then he rang a number of union general secretaries: Brigid, of the shop and distributive workers, Barry of public transport, Jim of post and telecommunications, Josie of the clerical municipal workers, Colm of the manual municipal workers, Jan of construction ….

Two days later they all met in Liberty Hall, Dublin – thirty people, including chiefs of all the main trade unions in Ireland and of a few sub-divisions, along with their note-takers or advisers. By the end of three hours they had a position statement, including demands of the Irish Government, ready to go the moment the first case of the virus was confirmed in Ireland. They had ruled out issuing it until then because they feared it would not have enough effect.

A delegation was chosen to meet the Ministers of Health and of Industry. And pieces of work including research and requirements specific to some branches of the workforce had been distributed, with those responsible noted in the minutes and deadlines given. It was nearing the end of February.

The following day, the first case was notified in Ireland, a person returning from Italy.

Logo of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, to which most Irish trade unions are affiliated
(image sourced: Internet)

ICTU PUBLIC STATEMENT

          That afternoon, the President of the ICTU phoned the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish Government to alert him to the joint trade union statement and to push for an early meeting with the Ministers of Health and of Industry.

By midday four days later, the 1st of March, the updated statement had been emailed and faxed to all union branches, newspaper, radio and television news media and to a number of bloggers, most of which displayed it prominently, especially as that day the second case in Ireland had been diagnosed:

The Coronavirus-19 epidemic in Italy has now reached 1,694 confirmed cases of contagion with 34 deaths and only four months ago the first case of this virus was diagnosed in China. It has now reached Ireland and more cases will soon be reported here. As trade unions representing workers including those in front-line services of healthcare, food sales and distribution, public transport, post and communications, municipal services …. We call on employers and Government to ensure the following steps are taken as a matter of great urgency.

  • All front-line workers in essential services be issued with HSE information on the known dangers of the Coronavirus-19 and be updated regularly

  • Those workers to be issued with hand-sanitiser gel, gloves and face-masks

  • The term “essential services” to be applied to the following (the list is not exclusive):

  • general health workers and auxiliary services with special emphais on those to the elderly, disabled etc

  • emergency services in health, fire-fighting, public order, rescue services

  • workers in production and maintenance of power supplies for heating, lighting and cooking
  • workers in water purification and supply
  • workers in food production

  • workers in outlets providing food and essential supplies

  • delivery workers to the above and of these to homes

  • public sanitation workers

  • postal and essential telecommunications workers (i.e not commercial call centres)

  • Those workers to be where possible isolated from members of the public by appropriate measures such as withdrawal from duties requiring contact with the public, placing of transparent screens between staff and the public, recourse to audio and video communication, etc.

  • All covered public spaces, in particular those supplying essential services such as food shops, to be supplied with hand-sanitiser dispensers and notices exhorting the public to use them to prevent or restrict the spread of the virus

  • All companies to publicly display the measures they have taken to protect staff and the public

  • The closure of borders, airports and ports to travel to or from abroad, quarantine measures being enforced wherever arrivals are currently taking place

  • Should the virus continue to spread, all non-essential services should cease. This measure is not only for the protection of staff and public at the place of work but also in the travelling of workers from their homes to the place of work and back again

  • The above measure to be announced by the Government through public statements and to be enforced strictly wherever non-compliance should be observed

  • The Government to urge the public through repeated public announcements to self-isolate and to remain indoors where possible, urging responsible adults to ensure the same with children

  • The Government to freeze by decree all evictions, all actions for non-payment or arrears of rent or mortgages

  • likewise with actions pursuing non-payment of bills for utility services
  • The Government to oblige all companies that can afford it to pay workers they lay off

  • and to supply all smaller companies and businesses that cannot afford in full such payments, the necessary assistance to meet their obligations to the workers

  • The Government to set aside an adequate sum to pay all unemployed or on pensions a weekly sum sufficient to meet normal weekly expenses

  • The Government to propose for Oireachtas approval an emergency law authorising the appropriation of any buildings, private facilities, companies and property necessary for healthcare, production of prevention materials, production and distribution of food etc. 

Wherever we find the necessary measures are not being taken, we will instruct our members to take appropriate action, including withdrawal of their labour, picketing of the offending company or service along with providing comprehensive information to the public on the reasons for our actions and the risks to which they are being exposed through failure of the companies or services to take the appropriate action. We will not be negligent in the face of danger to our members and to the general public.”

View of the title of SIPTU, the largest union in Ireland, on its Liberty Hall HQ.
(image sourced: Internet)

ACTION

          Two days later, after the employers and Government had failed to respond in the manner considered necessary by the trade unions, strikes, walkouts and pickets were called at many branches of all supermarkets, postal service depots and public outlets, call centres, public transport depots, construction sites, local authority manual and clerical services, pubs and hotels. The unions of the health service workers, a workforce under-staffed, under-funded and under huge pressure already, maintained a rota picket with placards and leaflets in front of major hospitals and the Department of Health in Dublin. Lawyers and barristers picketed the courts, calling for them to close. All pickets wore surgical-type face masks and disposable gloves, and had with them a mobile stand with a hand-sanitiser dispenser.

Workers on successful 10-day strike against the Stop & Shop supermarket chain in the USA last year.
(image sourced: Internet)

(image sourced on Internet and cropped)

By the end of that week, the public pressure on the supermarket chains was such that all had provided sanitiser dispensers for staff at work stations and for customers at entrances and exits, glass screens separated all staff work-stations from customers, staff needing to work in the public area were all wearing face-masks and gloves and a big badge asking people to keep a safe distance. Shelf-filling and price-tagging duties were confined to hours when no public were present. Queue lines were marked out with spacing between customers and periodic announcements instructed

(image sourced: Internet)

customers on safety precautions. Numbers of shoppers inside were restricted at any one time and lines outside marked required spacing for people queuing outside. All staff were being given health precautionary instructions for a half-hour daily through interactive screens.

Furthermore, all main employers had published a list of their precautionary measures and were updating them in response to representations from unions, the general public and Government instructions or recommendations.

Workers in all main public services had been issued precautionary instructions, face-masks, disposable gloves and hand-sanitiser and workers in some particular conditions had protective suits.


CONCLUSION

          That is what could have happened and would have had an early restrictive impact on the spread of the virus to the public and to workers who provided a public service. The unions had the organisational and communication capacity to to do that. They didn’t do it – it didn’t happen.

Many of the measures indicated above – but by no means all – were taken but weeks later — and none at trade union initiative: unofficial workers’ action, voluntary company action and government order were the means by which they came into being. By that time, many front-line workers and members of the public had been infected.

The trade unions in Ireland, having already failed their members and the working class in general through two decades of “social partnership” (when a healthy “social distancing” would have been more appropriate!), followed by failure to resist (and collusion with) austerity measures, failed once again in anti-virus protection of their members and of the public.

Some left-wingers say we should not mention these shortcomings since average trade union membership is low and this kind of discourse will hardly help union membership recruitment. But if unions cannot or will not respond adequately and in timely fashion to the needs of their members in particular and to working people in general, why should people be expected to join them? Trade union membership is falling for a reason.

Perhaps these left-wingers feel that the current unions should not be criticised, without a viable alternative having being put in place first. But what are they doing to provide that viable alternative? The answer is clearly nothing, or as near to that as makes no effective difference.

Logo of Unite the Union, operating in Ireland and in Britain.
(image sourced: Internet)

THE FORBIDDEN DISCUSSION

          There is silence on this question from the broad Left, including those parties claiming to be revolutionary. When individuals raise the issue, it is not addressed or the individual is censored.

It is time to end this self-censorship on the Left and to proclaim loud and high that the trade unions in Ireland, despite the presence of many genuine activists, are generally not fit for purpose. What do we do instead? First, admit the problem and its scale – then we can discuss possible remedies. The patient cannot be cured if we refuse to admit the illness and the stage it has reached.

(image sourced: Internet)

Some of the left-wingers are now saying that this crisis has exposed the unsuitability for society of the capitalist system and that when it is over, that lesson must be put into practice and essential services become national public services. Apart from the weaknesses in this solution, one must ask: who is going to make this happen? If the capitalist system opposes this change, how will the capitalists and their State be overcome? A social revolution without a mass working class organisational base is not possible.

 

End.

APPENDIX

Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU)

There are currently 55 trade unions with membership of Congress, representing about 600,000 members in the …. (Irish state). Trade union members represent 35.1% of the Republic’s workforce. This is a significant decline since the 55.3% recorded in 1980 and the 38.5% reported in 2003. In the Republic, roughly 50% of union members are in the public sector. The ICTU represents trade unions in negotiations with employers and the government with regard to pay and working conditions (from Wikipedia)

Main trade unions

SIPTU: “… is the largest Union in Ireland with over 180,000 members.

SIPTU represents workers in both the public and private sector in almost every industry in Ireland and at virtually every level. SIPTU caters for full-time, part-time, permanent, contract and temporary workers, as well as retired and unemployed members.” (from SIPTU website)

Fórsa is Ireland’s newest trade union with over 80,000 members. …. represents members in the public service, as well as the commercial sector, state agencies, some private companies and in the community and voluntary sector.

Fórsa is the second largest union on the island of Ireland and by far the largest trade union voice in the Irish civil and public service.” (quoted from Forsa’s website)

The Connect Trade Union is the largest Engineering Union in Ireland and the second largest in manufacturing representing up to 40,000 workers.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), founded in 1868, is the oldest and largest teachers’ trade union in Ireland. It represents 40,633 teachers at primary level in the Republic of Ireland and 7,086 teachers at primary and post-primary level in Northern Ireland. Total membership is 47,719 (August 2019).

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland represents over 17,000 teachers and lecturers in Ireland engaged in Post-Primary, Higher and Further Education. The Union is made up of 62 branches in 19 areas. (quoted from TUI website).

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. ….. connecting trade unions from 147 countries …. We are the voice for 18.5 million working men and women across the world” (ITF website).

Mandate is a union of over 40,000 workers across Ireland.” (Wikipedia)

Unite the Union, commonly known as Unite, is a British and Irish trade union, formed on 1 May 2007, by the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union. With just over 1.2 million members, it is the second largest trade union in the UK (Wikipedia).