DEATH OF A RETIRED WARRIOR

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 12 mins.)

In mid-April (2022) Gardaí, the police force of the Irish State, broke down the door of Mick Plunkett’s home. They would not have been able to claim he resisted their entry or arrest (the usual explanation for injuries on the detained individual) – he was already dead. To be fair to them, this time they were forcing entry in response to concerns from people that Plunkett had not been seen and wasn’t answering calls. Still, Mick Plunkett’s door had been forced by police a number of times before – by the Special Branch, at least once by the Garda ‘Heavy Gang’ and another time by the special ‘anti-terrorist’ Paris police.

Mick was born into a working class family of ten siblings in Dún Laoghaire, in Kelly’s Avenue in the small area of council houses built for rent to the seaward side of the town’s main road (without however overlooking the sea itself, a view reserved for the big houses and hotels, later somewhat ruined by the DART wires and towers). Dún Laoghaire1, long-imagined as a area in which only the affluent or at least comfortably-off lived, nevertheless contained such council (formerly ‘Corporation”) houses in the nearby bottom of York Road, also Cross Avenue, Glasthule, Carriglee Gardens, Monkstown Farm and Sallynoggin areas.

As many of that era, especially among manual workers, Mick’s father died relatively young which left his widow Lilly to care for ten children with all siblings able to work and find employment contributing to the care of the rest.

Mick followed his father Oliver into a skilled manual worker trade, trained and qualified as a gas fitter-plumber and, by reputation, a good one; later he would often carry out repair jobs for neighbours free of charge or in exchange for fish caught nearby or by trawlers that docked in the harbour. “We saw and ate fish that many other people never saw,” said one of his sisters at his funeral reception in the evening.

Amidst the student and youth upsurge of the 1960s around the world, of which Ireland was also a part, many Irish youth of the time became rapidly politicised. The Vietnam War, Black struggles in the USA and South Africa, Civil Rights in the British colony, lack of sufficient housing in the Irish state (just as today!) were issues that engaged lively interest and which to people like Plunkett, called for solidarity and, in Ireland, direct action. At his funeral, Niall Leonach2, formerly of the IRSP, related how Plunkett, at the age of 17, had resisted the neglect of the young apprentices by his union and won improvements by organising a sit-in at the union’s office.

April 1991 article Evening Mail on conditions in the Glasthule Housing Estate (Source image: CATU)

HOUSING AND HISTORY

The Dublin and Bray Housing Action Committees were campaigning for an end to slums and affordable rental housing around the city and Dún Laoghaire soon had its own Housing Action Committee too. Nial Leonach, former comrade of Plunkett’s told the mourners at Mount Jerome that a large public housing building program was initiated as a result of this campaigning, a program that not only replaced derelict inner city tenements but created large new housing areas such as that in Ballybrack in south county Dublin.

The Housing Action campaigns not only squatted homeless families, they also fought evictions, held marches and public meetings. And in at least one case, became involved in a struggle for historical building conservation.

A Dún Laoghaire IRSP public agitation and information post pictured in the IRSP’S Newspaper (Source image: CATU).

The Dún Laoghaire group joined with conservationists wishing to save Frescati House, a large derelict building on acreage of the property planned by Roches Stores to demolish and convert into a shopping centre. The original building dated from 1739 but had been purchased by the largest landowning family in Ireland at the time, the Fitzgeralds and had wings added and the grounds planted with exotic shrubs. The house had been the childhood residence and favoured retreat of Edward Fitzgerald3, a much-loved leader of the first Irish Republican revolutionary movement, the United Irishmen, as late as 1797, the year before their Rising.

The figures heading the campaign were not only conservationists but fairly conservative too (Desmond Fitzgerald, son of a father of the same name who was Minister in a number of Fine Gael governments, was its chairperson). But it was of course the activist supporters of the DHAC who occupied the building in protest at plans for demolition and were subjected to a baton-wielding police attack to evict them.4

Niall Leonach told the crowd in the Mount Jerome chapel that the criminal charges against the arrested were serious but that as a result of Plunkett’s stratagem of issuing a subpoena for Liam Cosgrave5 to appear as witness for their defence, for the politician had been part of the conservation campaign, the more serious charges were dropped and, on the lesser ones, the penalties were lower-scale fines.

Much of DHAC soon became the Markievicz Cumann of Sinn Féin6, then a very socialist Irish Republican party, particularly in Dublin. The Civil Rights campaign in the British colony of the Six Counties became a focus for activity and Leonach told his audience that Plunkett had been particularly affected by the colonial police killing of a child by indiscriminate fire from machine-guns at a nationalist housing estate, the Divis Flats.

In 1969 the IRA, the military wing of Sinn Féin, was caught unprepared and largely unarmed to face the pogroms in the British colony, which was one of the reasons for the 1970 split in the party, out of which emerged the Provisional IRA and Provisional Sinn Féin.

Plunkett and others in the Markievicz Cumann, the three Breatnach brothers for example7, viewing the Provos as socially conservative, remained in what was now known as “Official Sinn Féin” but tried to change their party’s direction. Failing in that, they split, along with others such as the charismatic Séamus Costello8 and formed the Irish Republican Socialist Party in 1974.

It seems clear that the ruling elite of the Irish State viewed the IRSP and the associated INLA as a threat and decided to go beyond the standard and regular harassment, intimidation and petty and medium arrests9 with which they had been treating all Irish Republicans and some socialist activists.

FRAMED IN DUBLIN AND IN PARIS

On 31st March 1976 the Cork-Dublin mail train was stopped near Sallins, Co. Kildare and around £200,00010 was netted by armed men. The State decided to believe, at least officially that the operation had been carried out by the INLA and armed police raided the homes of 40 members of the IRSP and their families. The Gardaí beat up their victims and obtained “confessions” from a number of them – however, some who gave self-incriminating statements could not have been present and their prosecutions were dropped.11 Eventually, a trial in the political Special Criminal Court proceeded against Plunkett and another three IRSP members: Osgur Breatnach, Nicky Kelly and Brian McNally.

Poster supporting the four framed and on trial for the Sallins Mail Train Robbery, depicting Mick Plunkett on far right of images. (Source image: Internet)

After many abuses of the legal system and the longest judicial procedure in the State, three of the four were convicted on the basis of their tortured “confessions” which they had denied. Forensic “evidence” was provided against the only one who had refused to sign a “confession” – an alleged lock of Plunkett’s hair12 was claimed to have been found at the scene of the robbery; that was insufficient and Plunkett was finally discharged. The others were released after years of campaigning13 and were paid a financial compensation but an official enquiry into the arrests, trials and convictions was never held and currently a campaign for such is underway.14.

Mick Plunkett remained politically active but after his arrest in the vicinity of an armed training camp was charged with “membership” and scheduled to appear before the Special Criminal Court. Plunkett, knowing the chances of acquittal in “the Special” were next to nil, decamped to France.

In Paris he and Mary Reid, a poet-activist and also formerly of the IRSP, shared accommodation. In the summer of 1982, their door was kicked down by armed police of the new special “anti-terrorist” French unit. Both were arrested, along with another Irishman Stephen King and charged with possession of automatic weapons and explosives. This followed the bombing of a delicatessen in the Jewish quarter of the city which was later revealed to have had police complicity.

Plunkett, Reid and King were accused of being part of an Irish-Palestinian cell, a figment of the special unit’s imagination. All three denied the charges and the accusation and the existence of such a cell, insisting that if any weapons and explosives had been found in their accommodation, it had been planted there by the police. Niall Leonach commented to the mourners in Mount Jerome that Plunkett had gone from being involved in the greatest miscarriage of justice in the Irish state to being accused in the greatest miscarriage of justice in the French State’s modern history.

Fortunately for the Irish accused, the special police unit was in serious conflict with the main police force and that helped bring to public view the fact that the armaments had, indeed, been planted on the accused by the “anti-terrorist” police unit. All three were released after nine months in jail and Mary Reid’s nine-year-old son Cathal had been taken into care. The whole case was by then such as to convince the Irish state authorities to refrain from severely embarrassing their French counterparts by requesting Plunkett’s extradition to face his charges in the Special Criminal Court.

FRANCE – OCTOBER 05: Michael Plunkett, Mary Reid, Stephen King in Vincennes, France on October 05th , 1983. (Photo by Eric BOUVET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images). Note poster of the Sallins Trial behind them.

Working in London at the time, I read the news about the arrests of Irish political activists in Paris and was shocked to see names I recognised. I remembered the last time I had seen Mick; I had been back in Dún Laoghaire on holiday and with four of my brothers we set off in Mick’s brother Jimmy’s rowing boat from a pier, Mick himself in it too. We had fishing rods and lines and began to fish as we cleared the harbour. Hours later as the sun dropped to the west, we turned back with our varied catch. Once inside the harbour it was quite dark and a large ship entering the harbour appeared to be bearing down on us and we couldn’t find our flashlight. The incident provided more excitement than we had wished for but seemed to give extra taste to the pints in the local pub afterwards.

Mick found happiness for a time with Tracy out of which union came their daughter Natacha. After the Good Friday Agreement Mick felt safe to returned to Ireland but Tracy remained in Paris with their daughter, Natascha visiting him and his extended family by arrangement on occasion. Plunkett seemed to have retired from political activity and had also withdrawn from social contact with many of his former contacts. His health deteriorated significantly but nevertheless his death came as something of a shock to many.

Mick Plunkett’s coffin at the funeral parlour, officiated by his daughter Natacha. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Many came to pay their respects at the funeral parlour where his coffin lay and to watch the wonderful collection of photos collected by his ex-partner, Tracy. His daughter Natacha was there to receive condolences and to offer shots of Irish whisky over the coffin (where tobacco roll-ups were also placed irreverently on the crucifix attached to the woodwork – Mick was reportedly an atheist). Natacha was also at the cremation service in Mount Jerome cemetery with her mother Tracy, where Plunkett’s coffin was covered in the blue version of the Starry Plough flag15 before being removed from the hearse, carried by relations and with the Seamus Costello Memorial Committee, in uniform and white gloves, providing a small ceremonial guard of honour.

Mick’s nephew Karl chaired the event and in turn called Jennifer Holland to give a short talk on Mick and his times followed by Niall Leonach, former General Secretary of the IRSP and close comrade of Plunkett’s, for a longer oration on Mick’s background and activism.

Karl provided many personal anecdotes from his association with his uncle and from within family stories, many of them amusing and some hilarious. He did not however avoid the political and recounted that many of them were kept unaware of the reasons for Mick’s absence and his apparent inability to travel back to Ireland even to visit. It was by going through some papers in his mother’s room that he came across the IRSP pamphlet on the Sallins case and was shocked; confronting his mother, the story began to be told.16

Recollecting the family’s trip to Paris to present two children for baptism in Notre Dame Cathedral which Mick attended, Karl spoke about their warm reception there and being touur-guided around by Plunkett, who had acquainted himself with much of the city’s history. One wonders whether that included the “Wall of the Communards” where in 1871, revolutionaries of the Paris Commune were summarily executed by French firing squads under the command of Marshall Patrice McMahon, descendant of Irish “Wild Geese” refugees from Williamite-controlled Ireland. Plunkett would hardly have been unaware of that history and its irony for the Irish.

The hearse carrying Mick Plunkett’s coffin arrives at Mt. Jerome cemetery, escorted by guard of honour supplied by the Seamus Costello Memorial Committee (the photo is from their FB page).

SOCIAL, SONG AND FLAG

Later that evening in a large reserved section of the Rochestown Lodge Hotel (formerly the Victor Hotel) just above the large Sallynoggin housing estate, mourners and celebrants gathered to eat, drink and talk. Some had not seen one another for decades. Among the many reminiscences of the social and music scene in Dún Laoghaire in the later decades of the last century, including the remark that “our harbour is a marina now”, one of Mick’s sisters spoke of raids by the Special Branch on their family home, where children would be ordered or pulled out of bed and the mattresses and beds tipped over, allegedly searching for weapons.

Strangely perhaps, there was no performance of musicians or singers or even sing-alongs at the event, though the traditional song The Parting Glass was sung to Plunkett’s daughter Natacha and a small unexpecting audience on the covered patio outside. Later inside, by which time some had left and following a query about a ceramic badge of the Starry Plough worn by one those remaining, a whole length of the original green-and-gold version of the flag was unfurled, causing much interest and queues forming asking to be photographed behind it. And a little later, a man sang Patrick Galvin’s Where Is Our James Connolly? to much applause.

Securing the Starry Plough flag to the coffin on the shoulders of relatives of Mick Plunkett, about to be carried into Mt. Jerome’s chapel for a non-religious remembrance event. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

This was fitting for as the mourners had been reminded in Mount Jerome, Connolly17 had been a great inspiration to Mick Plunkett’s political activism and to the IRSP too. But not only that, for a building in Dublin city centre, formerly a hostel but empty for many years and very recently occupied by socialist Republicans in Dublin had been named Connolly House and had that very day witnessed a rally held outside it to resist a threatened Garda operation to evict the occupants.

It seemed to me that something other than the remembrance of a retired fighter alone had happened at the Plunkett memorial events, something more than the appropriate marker of a past and finished period in Irish history, as had been suggested by Holland in her oration. It seemed to me that the history of struggle in Ireland for national self-determination and social justice had to an extent been re-invoked, that it appeared to some extent as the ghost of struggles past but also as the gaining substance of struggles present and, in particular, yet to come. I think Mick would have been pleased and, in any case, in defiance of the declarations of Fukuyama and such idealogues, history is nowhere near finished or dead. As some have commented, it is not even past.

End.

FOOTNOTES

1A harbour town seven miles south of Dublin city centre, in Dublin County but administered by DL-Rathdown Council for some years now.

2Which I heard pronounced as “Lennox”.

3He is more usually referred to as “Lord Edward Fitzgerald” which, apart from being somewhat historically inaccurate, does him a service. He was a republican, renounced his title and his sister Lucy said of him some years after his death in prison that “He was a paddy and no more; he desired no other title than this.”

4The Wikipedia entry on Frescati House and the campaign makes no mention at all of this sit-in, Garda attack or the subsequent court cases, of which there is ample documentary evidence. Hopefully someone will undertake its appropriate updating.

5Liam Cosgrave was a Fine Gael politician, son of the Leader of the Irish parliamentary Opposition from 1965 to 19873 and Taoiseach (Prime Minister) from 1973 to 1977, W.T Cosgrave.

6The Sinn Féin party has gone through many metamorpheses, from being a reformist dual-monarchy party, to revolutionary republican to constitutionalist. Constance Markievicz was a socialist Republican who took part in the 1916 Rising as an officer in the Irish Citizen Army – the name of a socialist revolutionary woman chosen for the cumann (‘association’, a branch of the SF party at the time) indicated an inclination towards revolution, feminism and socialism.

7Osgur, Caoilte and Oisín.

8Séamus Costello (b. 1939) was murdered by the Official IRA in Dublin on 5th October 1977.

9An example of the medium-seriousness was the charge of “membership of an illegal organisation” under the Amendment to the Offences Against the State Act, introduced in 1972 which required only the unsupported word of a Garda officer at rank of superintendent or above for conviction and a virtually automatic jail sentence of one to two years.

10€237,389.81 –without taking into account inflation — for today’s value

11Notably John Fitzpatrick, who years later publicly challenged the State to charge him with the offence to which he had “confessed” – there was no response.

12If it had been Plunkett’s hair, it had to have been planted by the Heavy Gang, since Mick had been nowhere near that scene and, in fact, the robbery had been carried out by the Provisional IRA. In addition, without the later development of DNA testing, all a sample of hair could tell, apart from its natural colour, was the blood-type of its owner.

13Some of those involved at the time, whether as victims or as campaigners, were present at some of the funeral events too, including Osgur Breatnach, Nicky Kelly, Caoilte and Peetera Schilders-Bhreatnach.

14https://sallinsinquirynow.ie/

15The flag with a design in the shape of the constellation known as Ursa Mayor was of the Irish Citizen Army, formed to defend the workers during the strike and 8-month lockout of 1913 and later fought in the 1916 Rising. Originally the design was of the constellation in white or silver overlaid by the depiction of a plough in gold, with sword as the plough-share and all on a green background. A later version was the plain blue one with Ursa Mayor outlined in white stars. That version was the one in use by the short-lived Republican Congress of the 1930s and was for many years later, probably up to the end of the century, the main one displayed and therefore familiar to Republicans and socialists (even for years flown by the Irish Labour Party) but has now been largely supplanted by the original green version.

16This is not at all an unusual experience in Ireland and, whether by desire to protect the young, pain of reminiscence or even disapproval, much of our history has been concealed from generations for a time or even completely lost.

17James Connolly, revolutionary socialist, trade union organiser, historian, journalist, song-writer and one of the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence, was tried by British military court for his leading role in the Rising and executed by firing squad.

SOURCES & FURTHER READING

https://rip.ie/death-notice/michael-mick-plunkett-glasthule-dublin/494040

Edward Fitzgerald a republican: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/praise-the-lord-and-pass-the-egalitarianism-1.1534895

Frescati House (with the curious omission at the time of access of the DHAC sit-in, police attack and subsequent trials): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frescati_House

Call for enquiry into the Sallins case: https://sallinsinquirynow.ie/

Civil and human rights criticism of the Special Criminal Court: https://www.iccl.ie/2022/international-call-for-end-to-special-criminal-court/

Mary Read & Paris frame-up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Reid_(activist)
https://www.irishtimes.com/news/socialist-republican-and-poet-with-a-big-heart-1.349096
https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2020/0325/1126344-1982-irish-republicans-france-mitterrand-vincennes/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sallins_Train_robbery
Sallins frame-up: https://www.rsvplive.ie/news/irish-news/1976-sallins-robbery-saw-nicky-25971809
https://www.thewhistleblower.ie/booking
https://extra.ie/2022/01/17/news/irish-news/hunger-striker-nicky-kelly

A WORKERS’ UNION IS ITS DEMONSTRATED STRENGTH

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 13 mins.)

Arising out of a recent discussion, I was thinking about what makes a workers’ union – when is an organisation a union and when is it not. And what does it have to do to prove that it is a union, as well as can what once was a union become defunct as a union while still not being defunct as an organisation. In the present time of low union activity as well as in higher activity periods, there are some fundamentals worth considering.

Picketers in the 2019 Stop & Shop strike (USA) in the rain in Natucket after their management forced them off company property. The workers won a victory in 11 days. (Photo credit NickleenF)

DEFINITIONS

Searching for definitions on line as to what constitutes a trade union, I came across the following:

Oxford on-line English Dictionary: an organized association of workers in a trade, group of trades, or profession, formed to protect and further their rights and interests.

Citizens Information: A trade union is an organisation that protects the rights and interests of its members. Members are employees in a particular sector or job, for example, teaching or nursing.

A trade union can:

  • Be an important source of information for employees
  • Provide employees with protection on employment issues
  • Negotiate with the employer for better pay and conditions

A trade union must have a negotiating licence in order to negotiate on employee wages and other conditions of employment.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) is the single umbrella organisation for trade unions, representing a range of interests of ICTU members, both in Ireland and in Northern Ireland. ICTU also run the website unionconnect.ie to facilitate people to join a union.

Companies Registration Office (registration as a Friendly Society1): Trade unions are registered under the Trade Union Acts 1871-1990. Trade unions are established to represent workers in their relations with employers or to act as representative bodies for particular interest groupings.

In order to register a trade union, the grouping involved, which must consist of at least seven people, must draw up a set of rules governing the operation of the union. The rules must as a minimum contain the matters required to be provided for by the First Schedule of the Trade Union Act 1871. The rules, together with the prescribed application form and fee are submitted to the Registrar for examination and, once the rules are found to be in accordance with statute, the union is registered.

Registration as a trade union does not guarantee that a union will receive a negotiation licence; this is a matter for the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment in which the Registrar of Friendly Societies has no function. Application form is available by emailing rfs@enterprise.gov.ie.

Wikipedia: A trade union (or a labor union in American English), often simply referred to as a union, is an organization of workers who have come together to achieve common goals, such as protecting the integrity of their trade, improving safety standards, and attaining better wages, benefits (such as vacation, health care, and retirement), and working conditions through the increased bargaining power wielded by solidarity among workers. Trade unions typically fund the formal organization, head office, and legal team functions of the trade union through regular fees or union dues. The delegate staff of the trade union representation in the workforce are made up of workplace volunteers who are appointed by members in democratic elections.

The trade union, through an elected leadership and bargaining committee, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members (rank and file members) and negotiates labour contracts (collective bargaining) with employers. The most common purpose of these associations or unions is “maintaining or improving the conditions of their  employment“.[1] This may include the negotiation of wages, work rules, occupational health and safety standards, complaint procedures, rules governing status of employees including promotions, just cause conditions for termination, and employment benefits.

Unions may organize a particular section of skilled workers (craft unionism),[2] a cross-section of workers from various trades (general unionism), or attempt to organize all workers within a particular industry (industrial unionism). The agreements negotiated by a union are binding on the rank and file members and the employer and in some cases on other non-member workers. Trade unions traditionally have a constitution which details the governance of their bargaining unit and also have governance at various levels of government depending on the industry that binds them legally to their negotiations and functioning. ……………………………

A modern definition by the Australian Bureau of Statistics states that a trade union is “an organization consisting predominantly of employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members.”[6]

Yet historian R.A. Lesson, in United we Stand (1971), said:

Two conflicting views of the trade-union movement strove for ascendancy in the nineteenth century: one the defensive-restrictive guild-craft tradition passed down through journeymen’s clubs and friendly societies, … the other the aggressive-expansionist drive to unite all ‘labouring men and women’ for a ‘different order of things’.

Karl Marx described trade unions thus: “The value of labour-power constitutes the conscious and explicit foundation of the trade unions, whose importance for the … working class can scarcely be overestimated. The trade unions aim at nothing less than to prevent the reduction of wages below the level that is traditionally maintained in the various branches of industry. That is to say, they wish to prevent the price of labour-power from falling below its value” (Capital V1, 1867, p.1069).

We can note, across these definition from different sources, some constants: Trade unions (henceforth referred to by me as “unions” or “workers’ unions”) are

  • representative associations
  • of workers
  • that represent them in negotiations with employers

So, they have to be representative of workers (employers have their own formal associations) and they must, in general represent their worker-members. Well, few would debate the first condition and for the moment we can accept the second (though we will return to discuss this further).

I would argue however that there is another essential qualification which has not been mentioned even though for some it may be taken for granted: A union must be able to call a significant number of workers in a significant workplace, company or industry into industrial action and does so when necessary (whether that be strike, sit-down, go-slow, ban on certain kinds of work, etc.). In stating that I can quote for the moment no authority or source and yet I am adamant that if the association is not able to do so, it is not a union. I base my definition on experience and logic.

THREAT AND NEGOTIATION

We note that the “negotiation” with employers is mentioned in most if not all definitions. Present in every successful negotiation of workers with employers is a threat, that of action by the workers which will reduce or postpone the profits of the employers. This in turn is mediated by the threat of the employer to dismiss or otherwise penalise workers, to starve them into submission or to unleash private or State violence upon them2. The main reason for non-State employers to be in business of whatever kind is to make a profit and a substantial one at that and, in the case of an employer failing to avail of opportunities to do so, other employers, i.e other capitalists, will move in, outcompete and even take over the company3.

State companies have a responsibility to the ruling class to keep systems going, e.g public transport to deliver employees to work for private businesses, power supply to run the private enterprises, water and refuse collection to manage sanitation of working areas and reduce infections of the workforce, etc. So in successful negotiation with a State employer, the threat of workers’ action must be present also.

The threat may be implicit only but cannot remain effective if unrealised forever and every once in a while, employers will test it by a refusal (or procrastination) to accede to the demands of a union. In such a situation, the “negotiation” is ended or at least halted while both sides test the ability to resist of the other. If the employers are resolute and have enough resources but the workers are either not resolute or their resources are insufficient, the employers will win.

If the workers are resolute enough and are well-resourced and their action costs the employers enough so that the latter consider it better in the long run to accede to the demands, the workers will win. However, even when the workers are defeated in one battle, the action may have hurt the employers and next time there is a confrontation, they may be prepared to concede more. Even in failure in some cases, the threat of action has been shown to be a real one.

Picketers in the successful 2019 strike at the Stop & Shop chain by the United Food & Commercial Workers (USA & Canada). The Teamsters’ union instructed their members to respect the picket lines. After protracted negotiations failed, the strike began on 11 April 2019 and ended on April 21, 2019, after the company and the striking workers reached a tentative agreement, which preserved health and pension benefits and raised employee pay. The 11-day strike cost the company $224 million in lost sales and $90–100 million in lost profits. The tentative agreement was viewed by the union as a “powerful victory”.
In August 2019, Ahold Delhaize reported the 11-day strike resulted in a $345 million loss in sales, with an estimated 1 in 10 customers not coming back to the store as a regular customer after the strike. (Photo sourced: Internet) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Stop_%26_Shop_strike

If however over a number of years the unions do not exercise their muscle while at the same time enduring reductions in the working conditions and living standards of their members, the workers, they become more and more unions in form but not in content and the employers will pay less and less attention to their demands. Indeed, the only threat perceived by the employers in such situations is that the ineffective unions may be replaced by another or others more effective or lose control of their members to “unofficial” or “wildcat” action. Better the devil that they not only know but can manage, than the one they don’t.

I repeat: A union must be able to call a significant number of workers in a significant workplace, company or industry into industrial action and does so when necessary (whether that be strike, sit-down, go-slow, ban on certain kinds of work, etc.). In that respect, the crucial condition is not whether the organisation is more or less democratic, or socialist, or egalitarian, more or less environmentalist etc, though of course all those attributes are desirable. It must be effective, able to threaten and make good its threat.

Therefore calling an organisation a “union” does not of itself make it one and indeed an organisation may conversely be a workers’4 union without calling itself one, providing it is able to call a significant number of workers in a significant workplace, company or industry into industrial action and does so when necessary.

So I have extended the definition of a union: an organisation consisting predominantly of employees to defend the interests of its members and improve their remuneration and conditions of work and that is able to call a significant number of workers in a workplace, company or industry into industrial action and which does so when necessary.

Workers of the United Auto Workers on strike picket the John Deere Harvester Works facility on Oct. 14, 2021, in East Moline, Illinois.
 Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

But what is a “significant number of workers in a significant workplace, company or industry”? Though this is more open to interpretation, it is nevertheless determined by two things, one of which is its ability to call an effective number of workers in the designated workplace into industrial action and the other is the relative size of the workplace, company or industry concerned. Of course, the workplace may be a shop or small garage or small farm, employing say around 50 people, in which all the workers are able to strike and do so, forcing the employer to accede to their demands or at least a significant (yes, that word again) number of them. The workers’ organisation in that case I would submit qualifies as a union on all grounds except one: the workplace is not a significant one in terms of industry or agriculture. It may go on from that initial success to extend to other workplaces but until it does so, it is a union only in the specific sense of that particular workplace.

However, if the organisation were to represent the majority of workers in one necessary part of a company’s production, willing to exercise its power and able to adversely affect the company’s output and profits, then that organisation would qualify as a union, according to my definition, even though it might represent only a small fraction of the total workforce.

Or if the one workplace in which the workers’ organisation is active is an extended one, for example a chain of stores or a major utility company. Or, as is sometimes the case, the workers’ organisation were to represent workers across an entire industry (“industrial unionism”), or groups of them in a number of different industries ( “general unionism”) or seeking to recruit all workers (“syndicalism”).

WHEN IS A UNION NOT A UNION?

It is important (and I would contend, crucial) also to define what a union is not. It is not

  • an organisation set up by a State and controlled by it
  • an organisation set up by employers
  • or the worker organisation’s offices, officers and other employees

Unions” set up by the State

States have set up “unions”, for example in the case of corporate states, i.e fascism and when they have done so, have banned real workers’ unions.

In Nazi Germany, workers’ unions were abolished. On 2nd May 1933, (after the large annual May Day marches), their leaders were arrested, their funds confiscated and strikes declared illegal. Workers lost the right to negotiate wage increases and improvements in working conditions and all workers had to join the German Labour Front (DAF) run by Dr. Robert Ley. Within two years, under various pressures, 20 million workers had joined DAF but they had no independent rights.5

Italian fascists waged war on the unions between 1920 and 1922 when Mussolini took power, burning trade union offices, and beating and torturing trade unionists. In Turin, the key industrial centre, fascist squads celebrated Mussolini coming to power by attacking trade union offices and killing 22 trade unionists”6.

“The Pact of Vidoni Palace in 1925 brought the fascist trade unions and major industries together, creating an agreement for the industrialists to only recognise certain unions and so marginalise the non-fascist and socialist trade unions. The Syndical Laws of 1926 (sometimes called the Rocco Laws after Alfredo Rocco) took this agreement a step further as in each industrial sector there could be only one trade union and employers organisation. Labour had previously been united under Edmondo Rossoni and his General Confederation of Fascist Syndical Corporations, giving him a substantial amount of power even after the syndical laws, causing both the industrialists and Mussolini himself to resent him. Thereby, he was dismissed in 1928 and Mussolini took over his position as well.

“Only these syndicates could negotiate agreements, with the government acting as an “umpire”. The laws made both strikes and lock-outs illegal and took the final step of outlawing non-fascist trade unions. Despite strict regimentation, the labour syndicates had the power to negotiate collective contracts (uniform wages and benefits for all firms within an entire economic sector).”7

In Spain the communists, anarchists and social democrats had organised trade unions which supported the Popular Front Government and mobilised against the military-fascist coup in 1936. Following the victory of the military and fascists the State, under General Franco, jailed or executed many of the trade union leaders and members and declared their unions illegal.

The Franco regime set up the “vertical union” (i.e controlled from above) officially known as the Organización Sindical Obrera (OSE); industrial resistance was illegal and in any case extremely difficult to organise, due to the defeat of the republican and socialist forces and the massive repression of all democratic and socialist trends.8

Union resistance under fascism

However, when workers of various kinds of socialist thinking joined these state unions either through being forced to do so or in conscious infiltration, many maintained their old allegiances and worked to subvert fascist rule and control of the workers.

“On 5 March 1943, workers at the giant FIAT Mirafiori car plant in Turin walked out on strike. As it became clear the dictatorship could not repress the strike it spread within Northern Italy, involving one hundred thousand workers. Mussolini was forced to grant pay rises and better rations, but in conceding he struck the death knell for the regime.”9

In 1947, eight years after the victory of the military-fascists, metal workers in the Basque province of Bizkaia went on strike in spite of repression by the authorities and a clandestine trade union movement began to organise. “Another historic year in the incipient union movement was 1951, when there were strikes and demonstrations in Barcelona, Madrid and the Basque Country in the early part of the year. These were mainly spontaneous, although the clandestine unions which had grown up since 1947 did support and take part in them. An important role was also played by the Spanish Communist Party PCE, and Roman Catholic workers’ groups.” “In a context of socio-economic change in Spain in the late 1950s, as industrialisation accelerated …. there was a significant growth in the Spanish working class. In 1962 miners and industrial workers began to hold strikes all over the country.”10

The two main trade unions in the Spanish state today, the CCOO (Comisiones Obreras) and the UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores), the first originally under Communist Party direction and the smaller second under the social democratic PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero de España) grew out of that resistance (although the UGT had been in existence prior to the military-fascist uprising). Activists had infiltrated the vertical union and workers began to elect militants to represent them in demands to the employers – this in particular was the origin of the Comisiones Obreras.

Employer-led ‘unions’:

Employers have also set up “unions” in order to undermine an existing union or in order to prevent a real union from organising workers in their enterprises.

These have been called “company unions”11 or “yellow unions”, the latter possibly after the French Fédération nationale des Jaunes de France (“National Federation of the Yellows of France”) which was created by Pierre Biétry in 1902.12

Up to the mid 1930s, ‘company’ or ‘yellow’ unions were quite common in the USA and after the Ludlow Massacre13, John D. Rockefeller had one created to improve his company’s image and to resist the struggles of mineworkers and of the United Mineworkers’ Union in Colorado; he called it the Employee Representation Plan.14

“In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) was passed, dramatically changing labour law in the United States. Section 8(a)(2) of the NLRA makes it illegal for an employer “to dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it.” Company unions were considered illegal under this code, despite the efforts of some businesses to carry on under the guise of an ‘Employee Representation Organization.’”15

Japan has company unions that are not in the RENGO federation of independent unions and the company ones appeal to an ideology of loyalty towards one’s paternalistic employer.16

In the 1930s, unions in Mexico organized the Confederation of Mexican Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores de México, CTM). The state of Nuevo Leon, however, coordinated its workers into sindicatos blancos (“white unions”), company unions controlled by corporations in the industrialised region.

Naturally a “union” of this type is unwilling and indeed unable to call a significant number of workers in a workplace, company or industry into industrial action to defend the interests of its members and improve their remuneration conditions of work (my definition of a workers’ union). Therefore I contend that they are not workers’ unions.

UNIONS INACTIVE IN STRUGGLE TODAY

But there are unions that have built themselves up in membership (and incidentally by union dues revenue) by proving themselves willing and able to call their members out in action to enforce their demands of the employers – but who have not been doing so for some time. We are increasingly seeing these in Western Europe at least and often the reason quoted is that state legislation is making it harder for the unions to organise, or to take action effectively. And rather than jail for union activists as in the past, the threat of the State is sequestration of union funds. The union leaders, officers and clerical support staff view such threats as extremely serious, evoking the possibility of the demise of the trade union or at the very least its inability to maintain its functions and payment for its superstructure of staffing, buildings and equipment.

Those are of course real threats with some states proving their ability to carry them out in the past and consequently union leaders draw back from struggles that might result in such an eventuality – or even attempt to smother them. The union leadership become, in effect, the firefighters of the employers. When they reach that position, they are not really the union any more. The union is not the organisation’s offices, officers and other employees. Its leaders are forgetting that back in the history of this or of many other unions, its organisers and members maintained only a rudimentary bureaucracy while they fought for the gains to be wrenched from the employers — organisers and even ordinary members faced sacking, police baton charges, strike-breaker violence, deportation, transportation, jail, torture and even death. When safeguarding the superstructure of the union outweighs defending and advancing the members’ interests, it is time for the union leadership to retrace its steps – or vacate the spot.

A union may fail to be recognised as such by the employers and/ or the State but (based on my definition) that does not affect its status as a union, so long as it is an organisation consisting predominantly of employees to defend the interests of its members and improve their remuneration and conditions of work and able to call a significant number of workers in a workplace, company or industry into industrial action and does so when necessary.

To be sure, an employer refusing to recognise the right of the union to represent its employees and to negotiate on their behalves does represent an additional challenge. But we should not forget that all workers’ unions once faced that initial obduracy but nevertheless in time became accepted by the employers. And it required a long process for some of those unions, with unsuccessful industrial action and many sacrifices as part of it.

The opposition of the State, acting in the first place for the capitalist class it represents and secondly in its own interests as an employer, is another serious obstacle for unions. Currently in most of Europe and certainly in Ireland, the State does not outlaw unions but it does place many restrictions around them and, in some cases, removes their protections.

The protection received by a union that is recognised by the State exists mostly in exemption from some legal procedures such as being sued for causing loss of profits for a company and exemption from arrest for picketing (“loitering”, “obstruction”, etc). However, the laws of none of the European states exempt workers from arrest for persistently obstructing the entry of strike-breakers or goods to a workplace where the workers are on strike. In most European countries, picketing, boycott and blockade in solidarity by “non-involved” unions – i.e “secondary picketing” etc — is against the law to a greater or lesser degree. Well, such laws are made by the capitalist class to protect themselves and then processed through a parliament where most of the elected public representatives are supporters of that same class. To receive legal protection from capitalist laws the union must be recognised by the capitalist State which entails meeting the necessary requirements in order to be registered as “a friendly association” and receiving “a negotiation licence”.

However, while these provisions affect very deeply the ease or otherwise of the organisation, they do not in my opinion have anything to do with whether it is or is not a workers’ union.

Another hurdle to get over for “recognition” is that of acceptance by the Irish Trade Union Congress. A union not recognised by the ITUC will receive no support from that body in application to the State for a “negotiation licence” and members of other “recognised” unions will be encouraged to cross any picket line of an “unrecognised” union. That is obviously a serious situation for a young union that is “unrecognised” but again, it does not define whether or not it is a union.

Say what the State, employers or the ITUC leadership may say, the reality remains that a union is an organisation consisting predominantly of employees to defend the interests of its members and improve their remuneration and conditions of work and that is able to call a significant number of workers in a workplace, company or industry into industrial action and which does so when necessary. Not whether it is — or is not — recognised or facilitated by those other bodies.

Funeral of James Byrne, shop steward of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union, who died as a result of his hunger strike in protest at imprisonment during the 1913 Lockout (Photo sourced: Internet). The workers were defeated in an 8-month struggle but the union recovered and bounced back. The ITGWU has gone through a number of changes resulting in the largest union in Ireland today, SIPTU. But is it carrying out its responsibilities as a union today, to say nothing of living up to its inheritance?

As the unions in many states have become more and more passive (in the Irish state particularly through the years of “social partnership”17) they have lost much of their accreditation in reality. As they fail further to justify their existence they will be replaced and for example the British-based union Unite is moving into the Irish arena. But the new union, despite its local leaders speaking militantly at rallies of some campaigns and investing some of its effort into building support in the community, is demonstrating the same reluctance to take determined action against the employers, whether private or State. Should that state of affairs continue then that too will fall and be replaced.

But by what and when?

End.

FOOTNOTES

1A friendly society has nothing necessarily to do with being friendly but is is a mutual association for the purposes of insurance, pensions, savings or cooperative banking. It is a mutual organisation or benefit society composed of a body of people who join together for a common financial or social purpose.

2While some readers may be surprised or even dismissive of reference to “private or State violence”, there can hardly be a state which does not at least on occasion – some more often than others — employ police or judicial violence against striking workers. In the past in many countries and perhaps in particular in the USA, companies employed private security staff or company police to act against worker disobedience, in addition to agencies such as the Pinkerton not only to gather intelligence on union organisers but to attack them physically or to prepare cases for their conviction of law-breaking in court. In some parts of the world companies – often with their HQs in the “West” — continue to employ their own security staff against union organising, sometimes with fatal results for the union organisers.

3This applies even if the company should still be making a profit but is not maximising it. The company’s shareholders and investors, including institutions such as banks, trust funds, pension funds etc will begin to desert the company to a competitor offering a higher return on investments and said company may even engage in a “hostile takeover” bid, by bringing sufficient numbers of shareholders to vote in favour of its takeover. This is one of the laws of the operation of capitalism and one reason why it there is little point in appealing to the individual consciences of capitalists.

4Sometimes workers’ unions have called themselves by other names, including “society” and “association” in order to circumvent anti-trade union legislation for example.

5https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zxs2pbk/revision/8#:~:text=Trade%20unions%20were%20abolished.,which%20was%20run%20by%20Dr.

6https://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/19778-why-fascists-hate-trade-unions

7https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Fascist_Italy

8https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Syndical_Organization

9https://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/19778-why-fascists-hate-trade-unions

10https://www.surinenglish.com/lifestyle/201809/14/september-1964-birth-what-20180914090919-v.html

11To be confused with a genuine employee’s union built up within a particular company, for example in a power-generating monopoly or state service company, whether privatised or not.

12https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Company_unions (“Yellow” in opposition to the “Red” of socialism; however “yellow” also exists as a pejorative description of cowardice)

13Massacre by company guards and the National Guard of strikers and their children on 20 April 1914 during the Great Colorado Coal Strike, after which the workers took up arms. It was the subject of a song composed and sung by Woody Guthrie and others, e.g Jason Boland and Andy Irvine.

14Ibid.

15 Ibid,

16Despite this and generally not recruiting part-time workers, membership of workers’ unions in Japan stood at 18.5% in 2010 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_unions_in_Japan

171983-???? In 2010: “Following 23 years of social partnership the Irish trades unions (ICTU) entered the new decade seriously weakened and with union employee density down to 31% compared to a density highpoint of 62% in the early 1980s preceding the series of seven corporatist social pacts.[2] Union penetration is highly imbalanced with a density approaching 80% in the public sector and around 20% in the larger private sector.”

SOURCES AND REFERENCES

Definitions of workers’ union:

https://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/employment/employment_rights_and_conditions/industrial_relations_and_trade_unions/trade_unions.html

https://www.cro.ie/Society-Union/RFS-Trade-Unions

Unions under fascism:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zxs2pbk/revision/8#:~:text=Trade%20unions%20were%20abolished.,which%20was%20run%20by%20Dr.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Syndical_Organization

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Fascist_Italy

https://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/19778-why-fascists-hate-trade-unions

Yellow unions:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Company_union

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/feb/18/boots-defeat-meek-unions

Social Partnership: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Partnership

HOWARD ZINN — US INTELLECTUAL CRITIC AND ACTIVIST

By Geoff Cobb

(Reading time: 3 mins.)

Like many Brooklyn Jews of his generation, Howard Zinn, an icon of the American left, questioned laissez fair American capitalism and American nationalist glorification of country. He was the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” a best seller which sold more than two million copies and inspired a generation of high school and college students to rethink American history. He was also a strong supporter of the civil rights movement and an opponent of the Vietnam war, as well as being a much-loved professor. Proudly, unabashedly radical, Zinn delighted in debating ideological foes, including his own college president, and in attacking conventional ideas, not the least that American history was a heroic march toward democracy.

One of the many different jacket covers for reprints of Zinn’s most famous book — this one abridged for teaching purposes (Image sourced: Internet)

Born Aug. 24, 1922, Howard Zinn grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant. His parents were Jewish immigrants who met in a factory. His father worked as a ditch digger and window cleaner during the Depression. His father and mother ran a neighborhood candy store for a brief time, barely getting by. For many years his father was in the waiter’s union and worked as a waiter for weddings and bar mitzvahs. “We moved a lot, one step ahead of the landlord,” Zinn recalled. “I lived in all of Brooklyn’s best slums.”

“NO LONGER A LIBERAL”

His parents were not intellectuals and Zinn recalled that there were no books in his home growing up. At some point his parents, knowing his interest in books, and never having heard of Charles Dickens, sent in a coupon with a dime each month to the New York Post and received one of ultimately twenty volumes of Dickens’ complete works. He became interested in fascism and began to read about its rise in Europe and to engage in political discussions and debates with some young Communists in his neighborhood. Zinn was radicalized thanks to a peaceful political rally in Times Square, where mounted police charged the marchers, hit Zinn knocked him unconscious. Zinn explained, “From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. . . The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”

After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School, Zinn became an apprentice shipfitter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he and a few other apprentices began to discuss books and strategize about how to improve their dangerous working conditions. Excluded from the craft unions of skilled workers, they formed their own Apprentice Association. On an overnight boat trip he organized to raise money for the association, he met his future wife, Roslyn Shechter, who shared Howard’s progressive views and was also a Jewish child of immigrants. Zinn joined the Army Air Corps in 1943, eager to fight the fascists, and became a bombardier in a B-17. While in the Air Force he was disturbed by the race and class inequality among the servicemen. It wasn’t until years after the war that he questioned the necessity of the bombs that he dropped.  But at the end of the war, back in New York, he deposited his medals in an envelope and wrote: “Never Again.”

View of students and faculty carrying signs during a strike by faculty and staff of Boston University, on Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 1979. Historian Howard Zinn, then a professor at BU, is just visible in the centre foreground. (Photo by Spencer Grant/Getty Images)

“I would not deny that [WWII] had a certain moral core, but that made it easier for Americans to treat all subsequent wars with a kind of glow,” Zinn said. “Every enemy becomes Hitler.”

After the war, he went back to interview victims of the bombing, and later wrote about it in two books. His own experience and his subsequent interviews led him to conclude that the bombing had been ordered more to enhance the careers of senior officers than for any military imperative, and he later wrote about the ethics of bombing in the context of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tokyo and Dresden, as well as Iraq.

Zinn and Roz married in 1944. While Zinn worked various jobs after the war, they lived on meager income in a rat-infested basement apartment in Brooklyn. Their daughter Myla was born in 1947 and Jeff in 1949. They moved to new public housing in 1949 and Zinn went to New York University for his B.A in history.

Thanks to the GI Bill, which paid the tuition of veterans, Zinn went to Columbia, where he earned an MA in 1952 with a thesis about a famous coalminers’ strike in Colorado, then obtained his PhD with a dissertation about the career in Congress of Fiorello LaGuardia, the reforming mayor of New York. He studied at Columbia under Richard Hofstadter who taught Zinn that American liberals were not as liberal as they thought they were, and that the two common threads in all American history were nationalism and capitalism.

PROFESSOR ZINN

In 1956, Zinn accepted a professorship at Spelman College, a traditionally black college for women in Atlanta, Georgia. Among his students were Maria Wright Edelman, the campaigner for children’s rights, and the future novelist Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. At Spelman, he was a mentor to and later the historian of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), the radical student wing of the civil rights movement. Zinn took part in many civil rights protests, and he encouraged his students to join him in these marches, which angered Spelman’s president. Zinn angered the authorities at Spelman over his insistence that its students should not be trained to be ladies, but should be actively involved in politics. “I was fired for insubordination,” he recalled. “Which happened to be true.” Zinn moved to Boston University in 1964, where he quickly became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He angered many Americans, including Boston University’s president, by traveling with the Rev. Daniel Berrigan to Hanoi to receive prisoners released by the North Vietnamese, and produced the antiwar books “Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal” (1967) and “Disobedience and Democracy” (1968). When Daniel Ellsberg, a previously gung-ho John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson administration official, came out against the war, he gave one copy of the Pentagon Papers (officially titled United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, the government’s secret history of the war) to Zinn and his wife, Roslyn. Zinn and Noam Chomsky edited what became known as the Mike Gravel edition, published in Boston in 1971-72 by the Beacon Press.

In 1980, he published his most successful work, A People’s History of the United States, which was a highly controversial revision of American history. Instead of the usual congratulatory tone of most American history textbooks, his work concentrated on what he saw as the genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln. He also highlighted the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, feminists, laborers and resisters of slavery and war. Bruce Springsteen said the starkest of his many albums, “Nebraska,” drew inspiration in part from Mr. Zinn’s writings.

For decades, he poured out articles attacking war and government secrecy. 

When President Ronald Reagan bombed Tripoli in 1986, Zinn wrote: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable.” He denounced the invasion of Iraq and also criticized President Barack Obama’s intensification of the war in Afghanistan. He was sharply attacked in Israel and by many of his fellow American Jews for saying that war was morally the equivalent of terrorism.

Howard Zinn (Photo sourced: Internet)

Mr. Zinn retired in 1988, concluding his last class early so he could join a picket line. He invited his students to join him. Zinn also wrote three plays: “Daughter of Venus,” “Marx in Soho” and “Emma,” about the life of the anarchist Emma Goldman. All have been produced. Zinn died in 2010.

Zinn always believed in standing up to injustice and fighting for oppression. He said near the end of his life, “Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it’s been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn’t just moan. They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary to bring their situation to the attention of people in power. And that’s what we have to do today.”

End.

POSTSCRIPT from Rebel Breeze:

TRUMP ATTACKS ZINN AFTER LATTER’S DEATH

“If you want to read a real history book,” Matt Damon’s character tells his therapist, played by Robin Williams, in the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting,” “read Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States.’ That book will knock you on your ass.”

It is very unlikely that President Donald Trump knew who Howard Zinn was before he saw the name on his teleprompter. And it is even less likely that he’s read “A People’s History of the United States.” But that didn’t stop him from saying — at the White House Conference on American History on Thursday — that today’s “left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long. Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.”

Quoted from https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/09/23/rights-long-war-howard-zinn-reaches-white-house

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)

WHO FEARS TO SPEAK OF ‘98? REVULSION AT ETHOS OF O’CONNELL’S REPEAL

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 2 mins.)

In 1843 the lyrics of In Memory of the Dead were published anonymously in The Nation but it seems to have been an open secret in Dublin political circles that the author was John Kells Ingram. As often happens, the song became known by its opening line “Who Fears to Speak of ‘98” and years later Ingram admitted having written the lyrics. Though it never once mentions Daniel O’Connell, taken in context of its subject, time and where it was published, the song was a blistering attack on the politician and his Repeal of the Union organisation. Yet while Kells Ingram was many things, he was no revolutionary — unlike the editors of the Nation and many of its readers.

Plaque indicating former location of The Nation newspaper in Middle Abbey Street, Dublin, premises bought out ironically by The Irish Independent. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

John Kells Ingram was a mildly nationalist mathematician, economist, philosopher and poet who was selected to write expert entries for the Encyclopedia Britannica. But although he was no revolutionary it is clear that he felt a distaste for O’Connell’s distancing himself from the memory of those who had risen in rebellion four decades earlier.

John Kells Ingram 1823-1907 (1890) by Sarah Purser (1848 – 1943). (Photo sourced: Internet)

Supporting O’Connell initially, The Nation sought to create a patriotic and indeed revolutionary culture through its pages. One of The Nation’s founders and editors, Thomas Davis was perforce also one of the periodical’s contributors and his compositions The West’s Awake and A Nation Once Again are still sung today, the latter very nearly becoming Ireland’s national anthem. The lyrics of Who Fears to Speak celebrated historical memory of resistance and lamented death and exile, the latter to the USA, where many of the surviving United Irish had gone (“across the Atlantic foam“). Davis’ In Bodenstown’s Churchyard, commemorated and celebrated Theobald Wolfe Tone, remembered as the father of Irish Republicanism and martyr.

Portrait of Thomas Davis (Sourced on: Internet)

Three years after co-founding The Nation, Thomas Davis died of scarlet fever in 1845, a few months short of his 31st birthday. Two years later, in “Black ‘47”, the worst year of the Great Hunger, the Young Irelanders finally and formally split from O’Connell’s Repeal Movement and in 1848 had their ill-fated and short uprising – again jail and exile for the leaders followed. Just under a score of years later, 1867 saw the tardy and unsuccessful rising of the Fenians with again, resultant jail sentences and exile (in addition to the executions of the Manchester Martyrs).

Two years following the rising of the Young Irelanders, in 1850 Arthur M. Forrester was born near Manchester in Salford, England (the “Dirty Old Town” of Ewan McColl) and in 1869 his stirring words of The Felons of Our Land appeared in Songs of a Rising Nation and other poetry (Felons reprinted by Kearney Brothers in a 1922 collection including songs by Thomas Davis). Songs of a Rising Nation was a collection published by the militant and resourceful Ellen Forrester from Clones, Co. Monaghan, who struggled to raise her children after the early death of her husband and included poems by her son Arthur and daughter Cathy.

Felons of Our Land indeed contains some of the themes of Who Fears to Speak (of which Arthur was doubtless aware) but in addition those of jail and death on the scaffold. By that time, the Young Irelanders had been added to the imprisoned and exiled, some in escape to the USA but others to penal colony in the Australias. And Forester added the theme of pride in our political prisoners:

A felon’s cap’s the noblest crown

an Irish head can wear.

and

We love them yet, we can’t forget

the felons of our land.

Twenty years after the publication of The Felons of Our Land, in 1889, another Irishman, Jim Connell, writing in SE London, would contribute the lyrics of the anthem of the working class in Britain, The Red Flag. Although commonly sung to the air of a German Christmas carol, Connell himself put it to the the traditional Jacobite air of The White Cockade. Connell, from Crossakiel in Co. Meath, also invoked historical memory and included the theme of martyrdom in explanation of the flag’s colour:

The workers’ flag is deepest red —

it shrouded oft’ our martyrs dead,

And ‘ere their limbs grew stiff and cold

their life’s blood dyed its every fold.

Jim Connell (Sourced on: Internet)

The traditions and themes of resistance and struggle are handed from generation to generation and song is one of the vehicles of that transmission. But songwriters borrow themes not just from history but from the very songs of the singers and songwriters before them. In 1869 Arthur M. Forrester wrote in Who Fears to Speak of ‘98:

Let cowards mock and tyrants frown

ah, little do we care ….

Jim Connell, three decades later, took up not only the themes but also that line:

Let cowards mock and traitors sneer,

we’ll keep the red flag flying here.

End.

APPENDIX

References in lyrics to themes

of exile:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

Some on a far-off distant land

their weary hearts have laid

And by the stranger’s heedless hands

their lonely graves were made.

But though their clay

be far away

Across the Atlantic foam …

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

…We’ll drink a toast

to comrades far away …

and

…. or flee, outlawed and banned

In The Red Flag (1889)

None.

of imprisonment:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

None.

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

(Apart from the title and refrain)

… though they sleep in dungeons deep

and

Some in the convict’s dreary cell

have found a living tomb

And some unseen unfriended fell

within the dungeon’s gloom …

also

A felon’s cap’s the noblest crown

an Irish head can wear……

In The Red Flag (1889)

Come dungeons dark or gallows grim ….

of martyred death:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

Alas that might should conquer right,

they fell and passed away …..

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

….. Some on the scaffold proudly died …

In The Red Flag (1889)

….. their life’s blood dyed its every fold ….

and

….. to bear it onward til we fall;

Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,

this song shall be our parting hymn.

of cowards and/ or traitors:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

Who fears to speak of ‘98,

who blushes at the name?

When cowards mock the patriot’s fate,

who hangs his head for shame?

He’s all a knave or half a slave

Who slights his country thus …

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

…. And brothers say, shall we, today,

unmoved like cowards stand,While traitors shame and foes defame,

the Felons of our Land.

and

Let cowards mock and tyrants frown,

In The Red Flag (1889)

. ..Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer (repeated in the chorus, sung six times)

and

It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man’s frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.

of the higher moral fibre of revolutionaries:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

Repeated reference in every verse to such as

a true man, like you man and you men, be true men etc.

Alas that Might should conquer Right ….

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

… No nation on earth can boast of braver hearts than they ….

also

And every Gael in Inishfail,

who scorns the serf’s vile brand,

From Lee to Boyne would gladly join

the felons of our land.

In The Red Flag (1889)

The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.

and

With heads uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.

of eventual victory:

In Who Fears to Speak of ‘98 (1843)

… a fiery blaze that nothing can withstand …

In The Felons of Our Land (1869)

None – but inferred.

In The Red Flag (1889)

It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last;
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.

SOURCES AND REFERENCES

John Kells Ingram: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Kells_Ingram

https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Kells-Ingram

Arthur Forrester: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/the-felons-ofour-land-frank-mcnally-on-the-various-lives-of-a-republican-ballad-1.4185803

Ellen Forrester https: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Forrester

Lyrics Felons of Our Land: https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2010/10/12/felons-our-land

Jim Connell and The Red Flag: https://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/jim-connell-and-the-red-flag/

Monument to Daniel O’Connell in Dublin’s main street, now named after him. (Photo sourced: Wikipedia)

MAYDAY DUBLIN – PICKET ON KPMG — GARDA HARASSMENT AND ARRESTS

Clive Sulish

(Reading time: 5 mins.)

A cross-section of mostly independent activists from across the Communist, Republican and Anarchist continuum held a small march today to celebrate May 1st, International Workers’ Day. All wearing masks against spreading the virus and marching from the north city centre to the south, they held a momentary picket outside the HQ of the KPMG financial group which has carried out evictions of people from their homes as well as raids on Debenham’s stores to inventory stock, led by Gardaí attacking Debenham workers’ pickets and their supporters. At the close of the march the participants were surrounded by a large force of Gardaí and all had their names and addresses recorded under Covid19 legislation while a number were arrested and others were threatened with arrest under the Public Order Act.

May 1st was agreed as the international day of the working class after the police massacre of demonstrators in Chicago in 1886 on a demonstration for the 8-hour day and the subsequent framing of anarchists leading to the judicial martyrdom of five activists.

Gathering outside the Garden of Remembrance (Photo: R.Breeze)

Just after noon today the march set off in two columns from outside the Garden of Remembrance and proceeded down O’Connell Street (Dublin’s main street). The leading banner recalled that on Liberty Hall prior to the 1916 Rising: “We serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland”. Many of the marchers were young and led by a banner with a red flag showing the design of the hammer and sickle, followed by a number of Fianna Éireann flags (orange sunburst on a blue field) and Starry Ploughs (gold ursa mayor and plough on a green field) of the Irish Citizen Army. There were also some other red flags and flags of Antifascist, Cumann na mBan flag (name in peach with brown rifle on a blue background), “Irish Republic”, the Irish Tricolour and the Starry Plough (ursa mayor in white on a blue background).

“WE ONLY WANT THE EARTH”

Initially a lone voice on the march sang verses of James Connolly’s satirical song Be Moderate1 to the air of Davis’ A Nation Once Again with other voices joining in on the chorus:

We only want the Earth,

We only want the Earth

And our demands most moderate are:

We only want the Earth!

View of marchers being addressed across the road from the GPO, Dublin city centre (in the far distance, figure with arms raised is part of the Larkin monument). (Photo: R.Breeze)
Placards and two of the flags outside the GPO in Dublin city centre (Photo: R.Breeze)
Beside James Connolly Monument (to the left, out of shot; the HQ of Ireland’s biggest union SIPTU is visible to the right). Gardaí may be seen gathering also plainclothes ‘Special Branch’ officer turned away (dark jacket, blue jeans). (Photo: R.Breeze)

The marchers gathered briefly outside the GPO, where a couple of speakers addressed them before re-forming to march again, turning into Abbey Street and gathering again at the James Connolly monument in Beresford Place, where they were briefly addressed again, then marching on past the Bus Áras and across the river, a heavy screen of Gardaí between the marchers and Custom House Quay, where a far-Right “May Day” rally has been advertised by the Irish Yellow Vests2, opportunistically and hypocritically using the image of Martin Luther King!

The Mayday marchers proceeded to Pearse Street, around by Trinity College and into Grafton Street. There were a number of shouts and slogans, including:

Happy May 1st, International Workers’ Day! Up the workers!

The workers, united, will never be defeated!

Whose streets? Our streets! Whose history? Our history!

When under attack, stand up, fight back!

Housing for need, not for profit! Housing for all, not for profit!

There were also a number of slogans shouted against the two main Coalition parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who were accused of being robbers. A number of shouts also pointed out that the workers are the creators of all wealth.

Proceeding along the west side of Stephens’ Green, a voice called out that this area had been held under the Irish Citizen Army in 1916 and called attention to the marks of bullet impact on the exterior of the College of Surgeons building. In Harcourt Street the march turned into Stokes Place and, as the security guard at the barrier challenged them with “Excuse me!” a marcher replied: “You’re excused!” Outside the KPMG building the marchers paused briefly before leaving again and retracing their steps, folding up their banner and rolling up flags.

Inside the complex where the KPMG has their Dublin HQ. (Photo: R.Breeze)

GARDA HARASSMENT, THREATS AND ARRESTS

At the bottom of Grafton Street the leading group of marchers, all flags and banner now folded, turned left into Dame Street prior to dispersing and were there halted by a large group of Gardaí with a number of Garda vans and cars in attendance.

Garda officers proceeded to harass the marchers, asking them their purpose in being in the city, requiring replies under Covid19 regulations, along with names, addresses and dates of birth. When a man shouted “Shame on you! Shame!” at the Gardaí as they were arresting a young man, a Sergeant threatened him with arrest under the Public Order Act. “For what?” asked the man, denying that he had used threatening or abusive words, the Garda insisting he had and cautioning him.

Some of the Gardaí harassing marchers in Dame Street (Photo: R.Breeze)
More Gardaí harassing May Day marchers at end of march in Dame Street (Photo: R.Breeze)
Some of the Garda vehicles used in harassment of the May Day marchers at the end of their march in Dame Street (Photo: R.Breeze)

Four Gardaí were around another marcher accusing him of having an offensive weapon (a pair of scissors to cut the cable ties on the groups’ flags!). When another marcher pointed out to them that they were just using excuses to harass the marchers and asked were they going to do the same to the Irish Yellow Vest crowd on Custom House Quay, he too was threatened for using “threatening and abusive words” and ordered to disperse.

It is believed that three were arrested but difficult to confirm due to Gardaí ordering others to disperse under threat of further arrests.

Two of the bicycle Gardaí who were keeping tabs on the marchers, seen here in Dame Street, looking back towards the concentration of Gardaí harrassing May Day marchers. (Photo: R.Breeze)

DEMOCRATIC RIGHT TO PROTEST AND PICKET UNDER ATTACK

Despite Covid19 legislation under Level Five forbidding non-essential work, last week KPMG employees entered Debenham’s stores in cities of the Irish state while Gardaí forcibly removed Debenham workers and supporters’ pickets.

On Thursday this week, taxi drivers in Dublin were intimidated by Gardaí from holding a protest although they would have been isolated within their taxis and perforce practicing social distancing. According to information given in the Dáil by some TDs (members of the Irish Parliament), the taxi drivers were threatened with hefty fines and impact upon their license renewals (a department of the Gardaí manages the verification and renewal of taxi drivers’ licenses).

Yet all throughout the Level Five restrictions, Far-Right groups have held marches and rallies protesting against the Lockdown, without wearing masks or practicing social distancing, without enduring Garda threats and without mass taking of names and addresses. It remains to be seen what action if any the Gardaí took or will be taking on Custom House Quay today3. What the charges against the May Day marchers arrested today might be remain to be seen too and how long they are (or were) detained.

The Garda actions against legitimate and peaceful protests and pickets seem to harbinger more attacks on rights to protest as the Gombeen capitalist class and their government endeavour to make the workers pay for the financial cost of the Covid19 crisis and ‘recovery’.

End.

FOOTNOTES

1One of the songs published in Connolly’s songbook “Songs of Freedom” in 1907 in New York.

2A Far-Right organisation led by an Islamophobe that has joined with openly fascist organisations in the past.

3According to reports received, in Dublin Gardaí prevented the IYV entering on to Custom House Quay and moved them on a number of times after that. However in Cork the Gardaí facilitated the Far-Right (around 350, according to the Irish Times) in holding a march and rally in which they were addressed bty former Aontú Councillor Anne McCloskey from Derry (despite travel restrictions) and Dolores Cahill, 2nd-in-command of the fascist Irish Freedom Party. Cahill has been withdrawn by UCD from her lecture course after petition by 133 students and debunking of her theories but is still receiving her salary from the institution. On St. Patrick’s Day she told a rally the wearing of masks would mean that children would “never reach their IQ and job potential because their brains are starved of oxygen,” adding that the reason “globalists” are “putting down the masks” is due to the fact “oxygen-deprived people are easier to manipulate”. McCloskey told the crowd in Cork that people were dying of other illnesses untreated because the authorities wanted to to ascribe the deaths to the “mild” Covid19 virus so their freedom could be restricted. She said that people should take off their masks and embrace.

SOURCES

Origins of International Workers’ Day: https://libcom.org/history/1886-haymarket-martyrs-mayday

Debenhams pickets attacked by Gardaí: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/former-debenhams-workers-in-shock-after-removal-from-picket-1.4546092

https://www.dublinlive.ie/news/dublin-news/ex-debenhams-workers-forcibly-removed-20305262

https://www.limerickleader.ie/news/home/625500/gardai-intervene-following-protest-outside-former-limerick-store.html

Taxi protest stopped by Gardaí: https://www.thejournal.ie/taxi-driver-protest-called-off-5423729-Apr2021/

OVER TWO MONTHS OF WORKERS’ CONTROL – THE PARIS COMMUNE 1871

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 5 mins.)

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, the working class seized control of a major city and held it for over two months – the first time any such thing had happened. They did not just arm themselves and erect barricades – they elected representation, issued directives and implemented them, day by day. And the women were very much a part of it, including some of the lower level leadership, like Louise Michel, the Breton Anarchist woman who declared to the authorities who drowned the revolution in blood: “If you let me live, I will never stop crying out for vengeance.”

We should not allow the 18th of March to pass without stopping a least a moment to ponder on that momentous occasion and the extraordinary acts taken by mostly ordinary people. If we consider that the industrial commodity production of the industrial revolution had created the working class, the proletariat, it had been struggling for centuries against the exploitation of its labour power by the capitalists, the expropriation of all production for sale in exchange for the minimum in wages required to keep the workers alive and to produce the next generation of workers to be exploited. They had participated in many failed uprisings and even successful revolutions but in the latter case, always to the benefit of other social classes.

In 1871 they were successful beyond strikes, protests, riots and insurrections and, for the first time, in their own interests – they seized a major European city, the capital of a powerful State and ran it for their own benefit.

A number of conditions obtained which helped prepare the ground for the uprising: defeat of French state in war against Germany, ceding of Alsace-Lorraine, war shortages of food, firewood, coal and medicine in plummeting temperatures and a simmering discontent from the failure of a rising the previous October and others before that. But the action that precipitated the rising that led to the founding of the Commune was the attempt of the Government to seize the old cannons in the working class Montmartre district. As the casting of these had been paid for by popular subscription, the people saw them as their property and also as their own protection (having still living memories of the suppression of the 1848 revolution among many).

Contemporary sketch depicting even women and children removing cannon to Montmartre for people’s defence

The attempt by the Government’s soldiers resulted in the death of a resisting member of the National Guard, a popular armed force and this in turn led to the surrounding of the military and, when ordered to fire on the crowd, mutinies, desertions and the capture of officers. Soon afterwards the crowds began to take control and prominent high officers were grabbed and shot. By midday the Government was leaving and had ordered the regular army, which had already been retreated to the Seine, to leave and to reassemble at Versailles. Unfortunately one of the escaped was Marshall Patrice McMahon1 of the French Army.

MEASURES OF REVOLUTIONARY MANAGEMENT

Proclamation of the Commune and government by its Council

The Commune organised not only the defence of the city but its running and organisation along socialist lines.

On April 1st – that no employee or member of the Commune’s salary could exceed 6,000 francs. On April 2nd, the separation of Church and State, the abolition of all State payments for religious purposes and the transformation of all Church property into national property.

On 6th April the guillotine was brought out by the 137th Battalion of the National Guard and burned to great rejoicing. On 8th April the removal of all religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers from schools was decreed and began to be implemented.

On 12th April, that the Column of Victory in the Place Vendome should be demolished, as the symbol of and incitement to national chauvinism and hatreds (this was carried out on the 16th). On the 16th the Commune ordered the systematic registration of all closed factories and the working out of plans for their management into production by the workers formerly employed in them, in cooperative societies. These cooperatives were to be organised in one great union.

On 30th April, the closing of all pawnshops. On 5th May the demolition of the symbol of expiation for the execution of Louis XVI, the Chapel of Atonement.

The Commune also abolished child labour and night work for bakers, made citizens of migrants (a number of which were also prominent in the Commune), granted pensions to unmarried partners of soldiers killed and their children, postponed commercial debts and outlawed interest on them and ensured the right of recall by voters of their delegates. The Commune’s local committees organised local defences, ran schools, provided clothing for children, food for the destitute, established canteens and first-aid stations …

A number of newspapers were published during the life of the Commune, varying from communist to anarchist to republican.

DEFEAT AND MASSACRES

The French Versailles Government was unable to take back control of the city even with their own regular army without systematic artillery bombardment to clear the way through to Paris and within it also. They appealed to those who had beaten them in the war, the German generals, to help them overcome the revolutionary resistance or at least allow them to pass. On the 11th May, the French Versailles troops under Marshal McMahon had blasted their way to the City Walls, then passed by the forts the Prussians had earlier taken on the north and east of the city. As the Versailles troops drove deeper into the city, resistance stiffened and intensified as they reached the working class quarters in the eastern half of Paris. It took eight days for the regular French Army to overcome the resistance on the heights of Belleville and Menilmontant.

“And then the massacre of defenceless men, women and children, which had been raging all week, reached its zenith.”2

Despite women not having the right to vote, they were active in the struggle, including in leadership roles, though not formally. Women were not only in the rearguard but helped build the barricades and fought on them, chaired committees and took part in debates. Many were killed in battle and many survivors were tried and sentenced to prison. Louise Michel, who was one of the leading activists, in her memoirs estimated their numbers in first-hand activity at 10,000; she fought with a unit of 30 women at Place Blanche in Montmartre until they were overrun.2

At the Hotel de Ville, which had been the headquarters of the Commune, the Versailles troops executed around 300 prisoners and burned the building (since rebuilt). One group of Communards retreated to the Pere Lachaise cemetery to make their stand and there, with no weapons or ammunition remaining, 147 survivors were placed against the wall and shot, their bodies thrown into a long ditch dug along the wall.

All armed resistance ended on 28th May but not the retributions of the French ruling class (with the support of the Republican bourgeoisie).

The Communard Wall plaque in Pere Lachaise cemetery, place of annual pilgrimage for the Left, especially the revolutionary Left.
Bodies of executed Communards
Some of the dead Communards prepared for burial by family or sympathisers

The full number of massacred will probably be never known and estimates vary from 10,000 to 20,000. On the wall of the Pere Lachaise cemetery some years later a plaque was erected and it has been a place of annual pilgrimage since for the Left (except during the Nazi occupation).

Louise Michel, Communard, in the uniform of the National Guard, the main armed force of the Paris Commune. Wearing that uniform was one of the charges of which she was convicted after the fall of the Commune.

Louise Michel, who defied the judges at her trial in December and challenged them to have her shot, was sentenced to penal exile, along with 10,000 Communard survivors, hers being to New Caledonia, a French colonial possession in the Pacific3. She arrived there after 20 months’ jail, where she met many other revolutionaries and apparently there became an Anarchist, returning to France under the general amnesty for the Communards in 1880 (and continued revolutionary activities almost to the day of her death in 1905, a few months short of her 75th birthday).

FOR THE FUTURE AND THE PAST

With the Paris Commune of 1871, the proletariat had for the first time seized and managed a major city. It would be 46 years later before they succeeded in seizing a country – Russia. In the case of the Commune, the workers had learned how to take a city but were unable to hold it against sustained external attack; with the Soviet Union, they took a country and fought off external attack but were unable hold it against subversion from within. One hundred and fifty years after the Commune’s and a century after the Soviet Union’s achievements, we are overdue for another revolution. Hopefully this time we will have learned to hold on to its gains.

The Communards sounded the trumpet proclaiming the approaching end of capitalism and gave an answer then and since to those who say a revolution is not possible or if it is, that the workers are incapable of governing themselves and supplying the means to satisfy the needs of society.

Let us take a moment to reflect and to honour.

End.

FOOTNOTES:

1Descendant of Irish gentry who had fled Cromwellian confiscations and repression and settled in France.

2Engels, opus cited in Sources.

3A long way from the west of the Australian continent.

Print of women on trial in Versailles court for their actions during the Paris Commune
Depiction of arrest of Louise Michel among survivors of massacre of prisoners
Battle in defence of the Paris Commune

SOURCES:

Engels, selected writings, (ed. W.O. Henderson, Penguin 1967), Introduction to the Civil War in France

https://www.rfi.fr/en/visiting-france/20110106-truth-buried-paris-cemetery-sculpture-mistook-famous-wall

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/07/vive-la-commune-the-working-class-insurrection-that-shook-the-world

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)