“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.
“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)
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
On October 31st two people died, one known around the world for his cinema roles, Seán Connery, who played James Bond and many better and less well known roles. The other death was that of the Colombian liberal politician Horacio Serpa. No sooner had he died the liberals and NGOs and all the former revolutionaries began to write and comment on the life of Serpa with a script that not even Connery could convincingly play.
So, just who was Horacio Serpa and what was his role in Colombian politics? His body hadn’t time to go cold and they were already rewriting the history of the country. The headline on El Espectador said it all, Remembering an Authentic Liberal. i Of course part of the problem depends on what you understand as a liberal, as in the current times when they talk of liberals and the Liberal Party one can barely recognise that it is and always has been the party of a sector of the Colombian oligarchy, that it is the party that gave us legalised paramilitaries, it is the party of massacre after massacre and of course they talk about it as if it wasn’t Liberal Party that gave us the health reform Law 100 (the liberal senator Uribe was the the speaker to the motion on the law, but the law was a proposal from the entire Liberal Party), nor that it was the party that gave us the infamous economic aperture of 1990.
So, for starts, Horacio Serpa who was the Minister of the Interior, under Samper, a government which deepened the aperture, was a neoliberal politician. In the midst of the political poverty of the current Colombian left, such as statement comes across like a grenade thrown or a burst of gunfire against Serpa’s good name. But, how are we to describe a minister in a neoliberal government as anything else? They say we shouldn’t and part of the problem is there are those who forget who President Samper was and what his government’s policies were. Worse still, they forget their own criticisms of that government. So let’s remind ourselves. Serpa was a neoliberal. Of course, he was a neoliberal speaking out both sides of his mouth, capable of calming the angels whilst defended the devils tooth and nail. A man of the right wing at the service of the oligarchy who with his populist discourse made himself out to be a progressive. Once again, some will say he wasn’t right wing. Is there another type of Minister of the Interior? Not only was he Minister of the Interior under Samper and champion in defending him against accusations of links to drug traffickers, but also he would later be Uribe’s ambassador to the Organisation of American States.
As we are in Colombia and politicians like Serpa are very deft, there is no lack of supposed lefties who will talk about how Serpa helped them. So in order to see what he was really like we should deal with some examples when Serpa did the exact opposite. In his passage through the Procurator General’s office he did nothing for the disappeared from the Palace of Justice. It was not at all surprising given his own role in that. The then Procurator Carlos Jiménez Gómez drew up a report and formerly denounced to
… the House Commission of Accusations President Belisario Betancur and his Minister of Defence, Miguel Vega Uribe for violating the Constitution and the Law of Nations now known as International Humanitarian Law.
The Procurator Jiménez’s denunciation with precise hard-hitting proof in hand was shelved through a motion presented by the representatives Carlos Mauro Hoyos, Horacio Serpa and Darío Alberto Ordoñez, arguing that “it was a typical act of government in the most important area under the remit of the President of the Republic namely to uphold public order and re-establish it wherever it has broken down”.ii
That is Horacio Serpa, the man who ensured that there would be no investigation of the events. A friend and accessory after the fact of criminals. It is worth pointing out that two of those who suppressed the accusation would later hold the office of procurator, Hoyos was the successor to the whistleblower Jiménez Gómez and Serpa then replaced Hoyos and thus the truth was buried underneath the ruins of the palace and the manoeuvres of Serpa and company.
But some claim he was a friend of the workers and an enemy of paramilitaries. Leave aside that he served in governments that actively promoted paramilitaries, those of Samper and Uribe and lets look at when workers reached out to his office to seek protection. After the 1995 massacre of palm workers in San Alberto, Cesar, the workers met with Horacio Serpa who was the Minister of the Interior at the time. In their oral history published in 2018, the workers narrate how Serpa told them “there was nothing that could be done as the paramilitary project was very big, and upon finishing the meeting and when we were heading towards the door he said ‘lads it is best that you be careful, because in this country if you stick your head above the parapet it will get knocked off.”iii Of course, he didn’t want to do anything to protect the workers of the palm company Indupalma, whilst at that exact time both he and his government maintained a military base within the plantation to protect the company’s assets. That is Horacio Serpa, loyal friend of the oligarchy, traitor speaking out both sides of his mouth to the workers, a defender of criminals such as the murderers behind the events of the Palace of Justice and a man capable of placing an entire battalion at the disposition of a company in order to protect it and not lift a finger to protect the workers in that company.
So, on October 31st, one of the greats died who we will remember fondly, with admiration, someone who contributed positively to our lives. Rest in Peace, Seán Connery.
Michael Quill forever changed labor relations in the USA. The founder of the powerful union representing New York City’s bus and subway workers, Quill’s numerous achievements helped transform the lives of millions of workers by his setting national standards for equal pay for women and minorities, health benefits and paid medical leave. However, it was his leadership of the 1966 Transit Strike that made “Red Mike Quill” a celebrity, famous for defying the Mayor and a jail sentence, when Quill shut down public transportation in the nation’s largest city.
Born in 1905 into a humble, Gaelic-speaking family in rural Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, which was restive under British rule, Quill inherited his desire to fight for justice from his father. “My father,” recalled Quill, “knew where every fight against an eviction had taken place in all the parishes around.”
During the War of Independence, the fifteen-year-old Quill fought in the 3rd Battalion, Kerry No. 2 Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. On a solo scouting mission, Quill stumbled on a patrol of Black and Tans asleep in a ditch. Instead of fleeing, he quietly stole all their ammunition, gleefully returning home with his stolen loot.
During the war, Quill fought bravely and met almost all the top military leaders, providing him the rare opportunity of personally knowing many of Ireland’s most famous patriots. The war also started in Quill a lifelong animosity towards the Catholic Church. While on the run, Mike and his brother were gutted when their parish priest refused their request for temporary amnesty to attend their mother’s funeral.
Opposed to the Treaty creating the Free State with a partitioned British colony, Quill fought against Michael Collins’ National Army and in the conflict Kerry Republicans suffered greatly, especially at Ballyseedy, where 23 anti-Treaty fighters were murdered with dynamite by Free State soldiers. That fight’s unbelievable brutality and injustice never left Quill.
Being on the wrong side of the Treaty, Quill, unable to find work, left for America, arriving in New York the day before St. Patrick’s Day in 1926 with just $3.42 in his pocket. Through his uncle who was a subway conductor, Quill got a job on the Interborough Rapid Transit company (which ran the original subway system in New York), first as a night gateman, then as a clerk or “ticket chopper”. The IRT quickly employed many of Quill’s comrades who were also ex- anti-Treaty fighters. Moving from station to station, Quill got to know many IRT employees. He learned they craved dignity and wanted to be treated like human beings, but Quill knew this meant fighting. He said, “You will get only what you are strong enough to take. You will have to fight for your rights—they will never be given to you. And you cannot win if you fight alone.”
While working night shifts, Quill, who had only attended national school, used dead time to read labor history, especially the works of James Connolly. To fight the low pay, terrible working conditions and long hours of I.R.T workers, Quinn used Connolly, the leader of the Transport Workers Union in Dublin, executed by the British for his role in the 1916 Rising, as his inspiration, and Connolly’s ideas guided Quill throughout his life. Like Connolly, Quill believed that economic power precedes political power, and that the only effective means of satisfying the workers’ demands is the creation of an independent labor party, which creates and supports strong unions. He would honor Connolly by also calling his American union the Transportation Workers Union and years later, as president of the TWU, Quill only had two pictures on his office wall, Abraham Lincoln and James Connolly.
In his union-organizing activities, Quill got the cold shoulder from many established Irish-American organizations. “When we first started to organize the union, we asked for help from the Knight of Columbus and the Ancient Order of Hibernians”, he said. “We were booed and booted out. The Irish organizations did nothing for us, and the Church campaigned actively against us.”
Rejected by mainstream Irish Americans, Quill was embraced by the American Communist Party, which helped him obtain the money, the mimeograph machines and the manpower to launch the Transport Workers Union. Quill, though, merely used the Communists, while knowing he wanted no part of them. When they thought he should attend “Workers School” for indoctrination, Quill told them he needed no indoctrination and soon left the party.
Fearing anti-union informers, Quill organized the TWU, using the methods of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret Fenian society dedicated to a violent rising against British rule. Employing cells of five so that no man knew the names of more than four other workers in the organization, messages were also sent in half-Gaelic and half-English to confuse company spies, known as “beakies.” One night, the “beakies” attacked Quill and five other activists in a tunnel as they were returning from picketing the IRT’s offices. Falsely arrested over the incident for incitement to riot, Quill gained huge notoriety amongst his fellow workers and the charges were eventually dismissed. On April 12, 1934, fighting back against 12 hour days, six days a week, at 66 cents an hour, Quill and six other men formed the T.W.U.
Quill soon became union President and succeeded in getting his union into the American Federation of Labor. He then began unionizing the other transportation companies of New York. In January 1937, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Coorporation dismissed two boiler room engineers from their power plant in Brooklyn for their union activity. Quill immediately called a successful sit-down strike and the BMT had to reinstate the men, which further raised Quill’s standing amongst the rank and file.
At a time in American history when bigotry and discrimination were commonplace, Quill became famous for fighting prejudice. An ardent opponent of the pro-Fascist Fr. Coughlin, Quill said, “Anti-Semitism is not the problem of the Jewish people alone. It is an American problem, a number one American problem.” He also fought for African Americans against the prejudice of many in his own union. He explained, “The bosses hired you and the same bosses hired the blacks. You are on one payroll; you come to work and leave through the same gate; you punch the same time clock. Unless there is one union to protect all of you, the employer will train these men and use them to displace you—at half your wages.”
Quill became an early ally of Martin Luther King who referred to Quill as “a fighter for decent things all his life” who “spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man.” Quill once asked, “Do you know what I’m most proud of? That in TWU we have eliminated racial discrimination in hiring and in promotions and within the union’s ranks. Blacks, Hispanics, Orientals, American Indians and women are holding appointive and elective office.”
STRIKE AND JAIL
Perhaps Quill’s finest hour was during the Transit Strike of 1966. Newly-elected patrician Mayor john Lindsay wanted to get tough with Quill and the TWU. Journalist Jimmy Breslin summarized the conflict succinctly: “…[Lindsay] was talking down to old Mike Quill, and when Quill looked up at John Lindsay he saw the Church of England. Within an hour, we had one hell of a transit strike.”
Quill attacked the Mayor just as if he were a British soldier, chiding Lindsay for his “abysmal lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of labor relations.” He castigated Lindsay as “a pipsqueak, a juvenile” and jested: “We explored his mind yesterday and found nothing there.” To add insult to injury Quill intentionally repeatedly mispronounced the mayor’s name as “Linsley,” proving that even in the heat of battle Quill never lost his sense of humor.
Then Lindsay made a fatal mistake, jailing Quill, who defiantly said, “The judge can drop dead in his black robes!” While in prison, Quill suffered another heart attack and was sent to the worst of city hospitals. The only person who called Mrs. Quill asking if he could help was Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. No other politician inquired about the stricken Quill. While Quill was in the hospital a deal was reached granting the TWU a 15% wage increase along with improvements in the health, welfare and pension systems. In all, it was a great victory. The strike over, he was released from police custody, but just three days later Quill died at age sixty with many claiming that the stress of the strike led to his premature passing.
Mike Quill left an enduring legacy. Today the Transport Workers Union is composed of an estimated 60 percent minorities and Quill is still revered within it. He had an inclusive vision of labor, which minority workers respected, strengthening the movement. Pete Seeger dedicated a ballad to Quill and producers Macdara Vallely and Paul Miller have made a biographical film about Quill entitled Which side are you on?
POSTSCRIPT: Mike Quill and Vice-Admiral Nelson
In the Dublin City Centre, in the middle of its main street, is a curious steel erection which most people call “The Spire”. But from 1809 until 1966, something else stood there: a granite column with the English naval hero Nelson atop it, very much in the style of the one that stands in London’s Trafalgar Square today.
About 50 metres away from what was colloquially called “The Pillar” stands the General Post Office building, which operated as the command HQ of the 1916 Easter Rising and is therefore a traditional gathering place for State and other commemorations of the Rising.
As the 50th Anniversary of the Rising drew near, Mike Quill contacted Dublin City Council and offered to have the statue removed for free and replaced with a more suitable monument. Quill’s first choice was a statue of Jim Larkin, who led his and Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union in resisting the 8-month Dublin Lockout – the tram crews had walked off their vehicles once they reached the Pillar and Dublin Metropolitan Police had run riot against the people in O’Connell Street shortly afterwards on Bloody Sunday 1913. But Quill offered the Council other options too. A private trust and not Dublin City Council owned Nelson’s Column, he was informed and there the matter rested. Until, on 8th March 1966, the Pillar was blown up by Saor Éire, a socialist split from the Irish Republican Movement, in advance of the 50th Anniversary commemorations.
Sacked workers of Debenhams picketed offices of KPMG, the appointed liquidator of their former employer to protest threats of injunctions. The workers are demanding the statutory two weeks’ redundancy plus another two and that they be treated as the first creditors to be paid out, instead of being last, as is usually the case in receivership. Until they receive an agreed settlement, the workers are maintaining their 24-blockades on Debenhams stores, supported officially by their union Mandate, to prevent the company removing its stock.
Finding other means to keep themselves amused.
The British-based department store retailer Debenhams closed its Irish branches in Dublin, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Cork during the Covid19 lockdown earlier this summer and has yet to pay the workers their redundancy pay. Picketers attended Harcourt Street yesterday to gather outside the offices of KPMG, the multinational financial audit services company. KPMG recently claimed it has a potential buyer for a number of the Debenhams sites and while declining to name it, threatened to apply for injunctions against the picketers in order to remove stock and allow the new buyer to move its own stock in. RTÉ reported the company also claiming the union leadership had agreed and said that pickets in Cork were unofficial, both claims which however were denied by the new General Secretary, Gerry Light. RTÉ quoted Mr. Light as saying that the continuing pickets are officially backed by the union and that if there is a new buyer, they’d be interested in talking to them.
A placard displayed on the picket in Dublin pointed out that the workers have been blockading Debenhams sites for 131 days and one of the speakers at the picket acknowledged that keeping up an action over such an extended period of time is difficult. A number of speakers outlined the necessity to remain strong while Paul Murphy, socialist TD (member of the Irish Parliament) stated that the talk of injunctions was not a sign of strength of the liquidators’ position but rather one of weakness. Another speaker called for a strengthening of the pickets now and a number stated that any injunctions would need to be defied.
MESSAGE OF SOLIDARITY FROM THE FAMOUS ANTI-APARTHEID DUNNE’S STORES STRIKERS
Meanwhile, a message of solidarity came from some of the Dunne’s Stores Anti-Apartheid strikers, the famous strike 1984-1987 in pursuance of their union’s policy (then the IADTU, now incorporated into Mandate) not to handle good from South Africa (then under racist white minority regime).
Kate Gearon was shop steward (elected shop-floor workers’ representative) during the strike.
“What has happened the Debenhams workers is atrocious,” Ms. Gearon wrote. “Some workers have given decades of service to the company and then when it suits the company just abandons them.
“But what is inspirational is the fact the workers are trying to change legislation to protect all other workers from this terrible predicament.”
Ms Gearon added: “When we started our pickets on this day in 1984, people told us we couldn’t win. They said ordinary retail workers didn’t have the power to change legislation. Well 10 of us stuck to our guns and we forced the Irish Government to ban all South African goods.
“There were only 10 of us, there are 1,000 Debenhams workers. Imagine the changes they can force if they stick together in their trade union.”
Picketers outside the KPMG offices in Dublin chanted slogans including: “What do we want? Two plus Two!” “When do we want it? Now!” “When under attack– Stand up, Fight back!”and “Treat us right, treat us fair, or your stock ain’t going anywhere!”. The MC of the event also raised cheers when he told those in attendance that pickets were taking place simultaneously at KPMG officers in Galway and Cork.
Sites of Debenhams stores are being picketed on a 24-hour basis and solidarity can be shown by attending in person.
It was waiting to happen. For weeks fascists and racists have been flaunting themselves in particular at the GPO in Dublin city centre and on two weekends assaulted a number of anti-fascists protesting peacefully against them — while the police harassed the victims. Today, the tables turned. Fascists marching across O’Connell Bridge were confronted by Irish Republicans picketing there for an end to internment without trial. Punches were thrown and the police arrested an antifascist. Later, fascists outside the GPO were also attacked, their amplifier and microphone confiscated by antifascists and a loudhailer smashed.
It was a day of many protests. The usual group of Far-Right, racists and fascists were outside the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main street, protesting against the Covid19 restrictions, even claiming that the virus does not exist and is rather a creation of governments trying to instal “a world government”. Their weekly protest starts at 2pm but today they moved it back to 1pm, perhaps because another two protests had been scheduled to start at the same time: a national protest of the sacked Debenham workers and a last-minute Black Lives Matter protest.
In addition to the Far-Right at the GPO, another group of the same ilk, led by the fascist Irish Freedom (sic) Party, planned a march – also to start at 1pm — to the location of Radió Teilifís Éireann in Donnybrook. Their intention was to protest against any further lockdown and claiming that the national broadcaster is disseminating lies about the virus.
Two weeks ago, a Republican organisation, Saoradh, had advertised a picket to take place today on O’Connell Bridge in protest at continuing internment without trial of Republican activists. The protest was to take place on the anniversary of the introduction of formal internment in the occupied Six Counties in (7th to 9th August) 1971 and was orlginally planned to start at 2pm but, in order to facilitate people supporting the Debenham Workers’ national protest, was re-scheduled to start at 1pm. The picket would also protest the attempted extradition to Lithuania of Liam Campbell, an Irish Republican.
The announcement of the fascist IFP march came a few days before the scheduled picket but, although it was possible that it would pass over O’Connell Bridge and therefore by the picketers, the organisers decided to stick to their schedule and arrangement.
About 30 Irish Republicans and other socialists, including many independent activists took up positions at 1pm on the central pedestrian strip on O’Connell Bridge, unfolding banners and placards against internment and extradition and flying flags of various allegiances: Irish, Irish socialist republican, Basque, Basque Antifa, Palestine.
Soon afterwards, the picketers began to be accosted by three plain-clothes political police, generally known as “the Special Branch” and as the cry went up of “Garda harassment!” the picketers began to parade in a circular movement around the central strip. Confrontations developed between the “Branch” and individuals they had targeted to demand their names and addresses. The Branch were using Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act, “anti-terrorist” (sic) legislation but, since they refused to confirm that they suspected their victims of committing or being about to commit a crime and in fact quoted association with others who had been convicted in the past, they were using it illegally (as they usually do). Although the illegality was pointed out to them, the political police persisted in threatening their victims with arrest if they did not give their names and addresses until eventually some complied.
Meanwhile, the shouts of “Garda harassment” and “Police harassment of a peaceful protest” could be heard both sides of the Bridge and attracted the attention of passing bus passengers, with many tourists and others stopping to watch.
CONFRONTATION WITH FASCISTS
The Branch had taken the names of perhaps no more than three when the fascist march could be seen approaching. By this time a number of other young men and women had taken position on the Bridge and, as Republican picketers stepped into the street to confront the fascists, the newcomers also jumped into the fray.
Uniformed Garda escorting the fascist marchers and those who had taken up positions on the Bridge waded into the antifascists and arrested at least one Republican there. For awhile the ability of the marchers to proceed seemed in doubt but the numbers of the antifascists were insufficient to overcome both police and fascists and so eventually the latter got across the bridge, being pursued down D’Olier Street with the Gardaí blocking antifascists there, the picketers gradually trickling back to the Bridge.
It was not long before the cry of “Garda harassment!” rang out again as the political police, who had stayed well away from the fighting earlier, returned to their undemocratic repressive activity of intimidating and building up files on Republicans. The picketers began to renew their circling of the central strip and at that point it seemed the political police decided to give up, with perhaps a total of four or five having been coerced by the police.
Shortly after that, at about 1.45, the organisers decided to to end the picket a little early and some of the participants headed up to the GPO. They were not there long when a surge of antifascists, apparently led by anarchists, crossed from the central pedestrian reservation and into the ranks of the fascists. Uniformed Police rushed in and at least one antifascist was seen being held down by two Gardaí but another was running down the road with the fascists’ amplifier. Their microphone had also been seized and trampled and the remains of a loudhailer could be seen on the road. The fascists appeared badly shocked.
About five minutes later, the Public Order Unit, otherwise known as the “Riot Squad” arrived in three large police vans, precipitating a general evacuation of anarchists. The POU took up positions in a line near the antifascists, with uniformed police in a line on the other side of the road, i.e near the fascists.
Republicans and some other antifascists remained in the area waiting for the advertised Black Lives Matter protest which did not materialise, nor could it be ascertained who had been allegedly organising it.
Then the Debenham’s Workers march came down O’Connell Street and, turning into Henry Street, proceeded to the site of the former department store (which is still holding stock and equipment). Without warning in the very early days of the Covid19 lockdown, their former employer closed its Irish stores and sacked its workers. They have now been protesting for 121 days and their minimum demand is that they are considered first in the line of creditors for their collective redundancy pay, instead of last of all as is the general practice of capitalism.
It was a day in which a number of different aspects of capitalism in crisis and State repression could be observed on the streets of the city centre, all in the space of a few hours.
What makes leaders good or bad ones? How much power should a leader have? How should they conduct themselves? How do we know when they are no longer leading us well and what can we do about it? The following piece discusses these questions and seeks to answer them.
Most people think human beings need leaders and revolutionaries and insurgents in general are no exception. There are some political-social groups who state that they are autonomous and do not need leaders but it has been my experience even in some of those groups that they do indeed have leaders and that in general they act under that leadership. It seems to be a human trait for groups to accept leadership and to follow leaders and indeed all social animals we may observe have leaders. Nevertheless, the question of leadership historically has been fraught and that is as much the case for human society in its various stages as well as for revolutionary organisations.
RESPONSES TO LEADERS – HEALTHY & UNHEALTHY
If our leaders have proved their worth to our endeavours then of course we should respect them. We should not respect them because of their class or family background. It is what one does that makes one worthy of respect, not the social class in which one was raised. And if that class background gave certain advantages in education, in leisure time to study and learn, then those are advantages we value and seek for all, which is far from respecting someone merely because they were raised with those advantages.
As to family background, it seems to me that we are haunted with an old way of looking at human society. It might have seemed natural in ancient times to give the offspring of a valued leader special respect and even to choose the successor from among his/her offspring. It does seem to be the case that some talents and traits are inherited through genes and it is also true that such a family background can familiarise one with some principles of leadership. However, history has provided us with many examples of ineptitude, malice and even madness in leaders who have greatness in their family background. It has also provided us with examples of people who rose from obscurity and from a family background of no particular note to lead masses in historic deeds.
Since we speak of respect, we should talk now about what that means. Of course, when leaders seeks to lead us, to advocate some action or policy, we should listen for if we do not, how can we benefit from what they have to say to us? We listen with respect.
But respect is not the same as servility, nor blind acceptance. We should consider what we are being told and feel free to ask questions and to challenge what we may perceive as assumptions. Further, we should accept that others also have that right, even if we ourselves are convinced in the leaders’ words. Our leaders are not infallible and nor are we.
We said earlier that it is upon what we do that we earn respect and that is so for leaders too. Every judgement on what we do must inevitably be based to some extent on an action in the past, even if it as recent a past as earlier that week, the day before or an hour ago. But one’s past does not grant infallibility and one who took correct decisions in the past can all too easily take wrong ones today or tomorrow. History has also shown us many such examples. Therefore the expectation of any leaders or of their followers that we should accept what they say mainly on the basis of their having been correct in the past is completely unjustified — however emotionally satisfying it may be to some people — and we should resolutely reject the premise.
If we are entitled to question and even challenge leaders there also comes a time when that right should be put aside for awhile. At some point it is necessary to act and endless debate does not lead to action. Nor is the entitlement to question and challenge a justification for ceaseless exercise of that right and it is also the case that such practice will in time devalue future criticism and challenge, perhaps when they are valid and should be most needed. The point at which debate needs to come to an end and a decision made, by the accepted procedures of the group, is ruled by the necessities of the situation and not by simple declaration.
CONDUCT OF LEADERSHIP
Firstly, led us observe that while it is an impossibility for everyone to lead simultaneously, everybody is capable of leadership at some time in some circumstance. Every time one of us suggests a course of action or expresses a criticism in a group, we are in effect offering leadership to others. The one who says “I think we should …” or “Why don’t we …..?” or “Maybe we could ….” are all offering leadership at that moment. Whether it would have been effective leadership or in any case is accepted or not is beside this point.
We all of us should take responsibility for our actions and their effect. In practice that means weighing up positive and negative aspects before action (should we have time to do so) and afterwards evaluating once again its negative and positive aspects. Should we be constantly hesitant or paralysed by fear of failure we cannot be effective in anything worthwhile, therefore it is necessary that we are prepared to risk making mistakes. Then we have a responsibility to learn from our mistakes which implies a responsibility to admit to them.
Leaders at any level must take responsibility not only for their own actions but for those of their followers also. The leader too must be prepared to make mistakes but should endeavour to ensure that they are not too serious, that the consequences are not too disastrous. This is a heavy responsibility which implies the need to think things through in advance and not to merely react or act mainly out of emotion. And yet, the leader must be prepared to be decisive when that is what the situation requires.
Too many individuals accept leaders as a means of abrogating their own responsibilities. All of us have responsibilities in any endeavour we join together: responsibility in sharing work, risk, and thought. If we leave consideration of the negative and positive aspects of a proposal to others, not only are we shirking our responsibilities but we are hardly justified in complaining later about the actions of our leaders.
Some leaders are seen to take on multiple responsibilities and many tasks. In capitalist endeavours this has been judged to be wasteful and ineffective in the long run, leading to inflexibility, slowness to react and “micro management”, among other faults. An insecure leader does not trust others and seeks to keep all tasks and initiatives under his/ her control. And yet, shit happens, as they say. Nothing can be completely controlled.
In revolutionary leadership this tendency to try to control everything by an individual or individuals has also been seen, with harmful consequences that include stifling initiative and learning among the group or organisation. Once this becomes established, the absence of the leader(s) mean the paralysis of the organisation and a similar effect occurs while waiting for them to make a decision. In addition, if they enemy subverts the leadership, the whole organisation and struggle becomes destroyed or at least greatly damaged.
Good leadership encourages the development of different areas by different individuals within the group and spreads participation in — and responsibility for — the decision-making. This model is often called collective leadership but within that itself there are different models too.
It would be very damaging if every individual were to act within an organisation according to how they might feel at different times and to represent the organisation externally without consulting the group. After matters are discussed and collective agreement has taken place, members of an organisation should not represent the organisation in a contrary way to what has been agreed. This is a difficult area with tensions between the right of expression of the individual and of responsibility to the organisation, one which I am unsure has ever been completely resolved.
Collective leadership is usually exercised through a committee or temporary working group and allows for different individuals taking a lead in different areas. One might note that person A regularly calls people to the overall task in hand and pushes for a monitoring of progress, while person B concentrates on developing a specific area, person C looks to the recording of decisions and person D to some external relations. There are of course formal positions in organisations and committees such as Chair, Secretary, Treasurer etc but even without formal elections one finds that successful groups develop areas of responsibility for separate individuals even without the existence of such elected offices. Furthermore, a particular responsibility may fluctuate between individuals at different times. A good argument exists for not entrenching anyone in specific roles over long periods of time. Rotation of roles and encouragement to take up new responsibilities can help broaden the experience and capabilities of members of the group or organisation and also prevent the growth of cliques and controlling leaderships.
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR
Their are certain traits which may be observed repeated in unhealthy leadership and it is well to be aware of them, both for those who follow them and for people put in positions of leadership themselves. The following list does not include timidity, hesitation and prevarication, which are also bad traits of leadership.
clearly enjoy issuing orders
direct others to do tasks they would not undertake themselves
monopolise speaking time
push for an end to debate without demonstrable necessity for the organisation
dismiss out of hand opinions opposed to theirs
expect agreement with whatever they say and resent question or challenge
regard question and challenge as treasonous, mutinous
hold grudges against those who have disagreed with them and seek to have them ignored, ostracised or demoted
seek or accept control over multiple areas of work
lie outright to their following
or do not tell their following the whole truth
call upon their past record in order to justify their actions or direction in the present
call upon their family background to justify their actions or decisions
surround themselves with a group who support them without question
flatter particular people (as distinct from commending when appropriate)
never commend any of their followers when deserved or choose only some to commend
criticise others unfairly or out of proportion to what is deserved
consider themselves entitled to special consideration above others in physical and emotional comforts
believe that rules that apply to the majority do not apply to them by virtue of their position or imagined personal superiority
Also, among the group or organisation, those who:
Always agree with the leaders or
Constantly disagree to no apparent concrete purpose
Constantly praise the leaders in private or in public
Praise a leader or leaders while ignoring or downplaying the contribution of others
Deny leaders have committed errors or wrongdoing in the face of evidence to the contrary
Make excuses for wrongdoing or errors of the leaders
Use the past record or family background of the leaders to justify actions in the present
or to imply that the leaders should be followed without weighing up their actions or what they advocate
criticise anyone who criticises the leadership rather than dealing with the point of that criticism
try to justify leaders having special consideration above others in terms of physical and emotional comfort
The exploitation of working masses and their resistance to that has been going on since ancient slave societies and has led to outbreaks of revolt down through the centuries. The Paris Commune of 1871 was the first time that the working class succeeded in taking a city and holding it for a period, developing its own instruments of making decisions and carrying them out. At little over two months it was a short-lived experiment and fell to the bloody suppression of Prussian armed forces at the invitation of deposed royalty and dispossessed bourgeoisie.
It was not until 1917 that the working class was able once again to overthrow its oppressors and this time it did so not just in a city but in an entire state, also defeating invasions to overthrow its power. But where is that today? The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 but had been crumbling within from long before that and, some would say, the working class had lost control in the early years immediately following the Revolution.
The question of leadership and how to handle it by everyone is an important one in an organisation but, for revolutionaries, is essential. It is essential not only for the conduct of the struggle but perhaps even more so for managing society after a revolution. The seeds of that management in the future must be sown in the present.
I base the above on my personal experience of decades, my reflection upon them and on reading of history. My personal experience has been mostly in unpaid social-political struggles in trade unionism, housing, political groups on a number of fronts,solidarity committees, community and education groups but also employed in few NGOs for a shorter period. I have been either a follower or part of leaderships and have erred in both on occasions while on others acted correctly. I hope that I have learned from them all — and certainly from my mistakes.
In order to concentrate thinking on the general principles I have refrained from giving particular examples of recent leadership, which might have tended to give rise to discussion about individual cases rather than the principles as a whole.
Mick Healy interviewed me about a number of my experiences in revolutionary work over the years and this is Part 1 (Part 2 will shortly be published), nearly all about some of my three decades in London. It contains a number of errors by me, for example the apartheid rugby team was South Africa’s one which were not called the “All Blacks”, that being New Zealand’s. Also I believe the giant Hunger Strikers solidarity march in London was to Michael Foot’s home, not Tony Benn’s. Still, here it is for what it’s worth with many thanks to Mick.
Diarmuid a long time political agitator was active in London from 1967, in interview part one, he talks about his involvement with Marxism-Leninism-Anarchism. His involvement in the Vietnam and Rhodesia solidarity campaigns, Anti-fascist mobilisation, solidarity Ireland, family squatting. In addition the campaign against the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the 1969 Peoples Democracy march from Belfast-Dublin.
One of the clerical staff knocked on the door of Patrick, the boss of the Irish health worker’s union. “Come in!” called out the latter.
“Eh, Boss, lookit this here,” he said, waving a computer printout.
“Why don’t you summarise it for me,” suggested Patrick.
“It’s about that epidemic in China.”
“Coronavirus-19,” replied Patrick, who prided himself on keeping up with world news. “What about it?”
“It’s coming here,” replied the clerical worker.
“What! Who says? Where does it say that?”
“Boss, it’s spreading all over Italy and ….”
“Yes, well but Italy is far away from here!”
“Not as far as China is from Italy.”
Patrick thought about that but the clerical worker continued: “And the Ireland rugby team is playing there and nobody stopped Irish fans going there …. or coming back.”
Patrick sat silently, the enormity of the situation dawning upon him, then reached out for the computer printout. Among other things, it showed the steep climbing graph of confirmed cases of the virus in Italy.
After the clerical worker had gone, Patrick rang Michael, the President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Then he rang a number of union general secretaries: Brigid, of the shop and distributive workers, Barry of public transport, Jim of post and telecommunications, Josie of the clerical municipal workers, Colm of the manual municipal workers, Jan of construction ….
Two days later they all met in Liberty Hall, Dublin – thirty people, including chiefs of all the main trade unions in Ireland and of a few sub-divisions, along with their note-takers or advisers. By the end of three hours they had a position statement, including demands of the Irish Government, ready to go the moment the first case of the virus was confirmed in Ireland. They had ruled out issuing it until then because they feared it would not have enough effect.
A delegation was chosen to meet the Ministers of Health and of Industry. And pieces of work including research and requirements specific to some branches of the workforce had been distributed, with those responsible noted in the minutes and deadlines given. It was nearing the end of February.
The following day, the first case was notified in Ireland, a person returning from Italy.
ICTU PUBLIC STATEMENT
That afternoon, the President of the ICTU phoned the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish Government to alert him to the joint trade union statement and to push for an early meeting with the Ministers of Health and of Industry.
By midday four days later, the 1st of March, the updated statement had been emailed and faxed to all union branches, newspaper, radio and television news media and to a number of bloggers, most of which displayed it prominently, especially as that day the second case in Ireland had been diagnosed:
“The Coronavirus-19 epidemic in Italy has now reached 1,694 confirmed cases of contagion with 34 deaths and only four months ago the first case of this virus was diagnosed in China. It has now reached Ireland and more cases will soon be reported here. As trade unions representing workers including those in front-line services of healthcare, food sales and distribution, public transport, post and communications, municipal services …. We call on employers and Government to ensure the following steps are taken as a matter of great urgency.
All front-line workers in essential services be issued with HSE information on the known dangers of the Coronavirus-19 and be updated regularly
Those workers to be issued with hand-sanitiser gel, gloves and face-masks
The term “essential services” to be applied to the following (the list is not exclusive):
general health workers and auxiliary services with special emphais on those to the elderly, disabled etc
emergency services in health, fire-fighting, public order, rescue services
workers in production and maintenance of power supplies for heating, lighting and cooking
workers in water purification and supply
workers in food production
workers in outlets providing food and essential supplies
delivery workers to the above and of these to homes
public sanitation workers
postal and essential telecommunications workers (i.e not commercial call centres)
Those workers to be where possible isolated from members of the public by appropriate measures such as withdrawal from duties requiring contact with the public, placing of transparent screens between staff and the public, recourse to audio and video communication, etc.
All covered public spaces, in particular those supplying essential services such as food shops, to be supplied with hand-sanitiser dispensers and notices exhorting the public to use them to prevent or restrict the spread of the virus
All companies to publicly display the measures they have taken to protect staff and the public
The closure of borders, airports and ports to travel to or from abroad, quarantine measures being enforced wherever arrivals are currently taking place
Should the virus continue to spread, all non-essential services should cease. This measure is not only for the protection of staff and public at the place of work but also in the travelling of workers from their homes to the place of work and back again
The above measure to be announced by the Government through public statements and to be enforced strictly wherever non-compliance should be observed
The Government to urge the public through repeated public announcements to self-isolate and to remain indoors where possible, urging responsible adults to ensure the same with children
The Government to freeze by decree all evictions, all actions for non-payment or arrears of rent or mortgages
likewise with actions pursuing non-payment of bills for utility services
The Government to oblige all companies that can afford it to pay workers they lay off
and to supply all smaller companies and businesses that cannot afford in full such payments, the necessary assistance to meet their obligations to the workers
The Government to set aside an adequate sum to pay all unemployed or on pensions a weekly sum sufficient to meet normal weekly expenses
The Government to propose for Oireachtas approval an emergency law authorising the appropriation of any buildings, private facilities, companies and property necessary for healthcare, production of prevention materials, production and distribution of food etc.
“Wherever we find the necessary measures are not being taken, we will instruct our members to take appropriate action, including withdrawal of their labour, picketing of the offending company or service along with providing comprehensive information to the public on the reasons for our actions and the risks to which they are being exposed through failure of the companies or services to take the appropriate action. We will not be negligent in the face of danger to our members and to the general public.”
Two days later, after the employers and Government had failed to respond in the manner considered necessary by the trade unions, strikes, walkouts and pickets were called at many branches of all supermarkets, postal service depots and public outlets, call centres, public transport depots, construction sites, local authority manual and clerical services, pubs and hotels. The unions of the health service workers, a workforce under-staffed, under-funded and under huge pressure already, maintained a rota picket with placards and leaflets in front of major hospitals and the Department of Health in Dublin. Lawyers and barristers picketed the courts, calling for them to close. All pickets wore surgical-type face masks and disposable gloves, and had with them a mobile stand with a hand-sanitiser dispenser.
By the end of that week, the public pressure on the supermarket chains was such that all had provided sanitiser dispensers for staff at work stations and for customers at entrances and exits, glass screens separated all staff work-stations from customers, staff needing to work in the public area were all wearing face-masks and gloves and a big badge asking people to keep a safe distance. Shelf-filling and price-tagging duties were confined to hours when no public were present. Queue lines were marked out with spacing between customers and periodic announcements instructed
customers on safety precautions. Numbers of shoppers inside were restricted at any one time and lines outside marked required spacing for people queuing outside. All staff were being given health precautionary instructions for a half-hour daily through interactive screens.
Furthermore, all main employers had published a list of their precautionary measures and were updating them in response to representations from unions, the general public and Government instructions or recommendations.
Workers in all main public services had been issued precautionary instructions, face-masks, disposable gloves and hand-sanitiser and workers in some particular conditions had protective suits.
That is what could have happened and would have had an early restrictive impact on the spread of the virus to the public and to workers who provided a public service. The unions had the organisational and communication capacity to to do that. They didn’t do it – it didn’t happen.
Many of the measures indicated above – but by no means all – were taken but weeks later — and none at trade union initiative: unofficial workers’ action, voluntary company action and government order were the means by which they came into being. By that time, many front-line workers and members of the public had been infected.
The trade unions in Ireland, having already failed their members and the working class in general through two decades of “social partnership” (when a healthy “social distancing” would have been more appropriate!), followed by failure to resist (and collusion with) austerity measures, failed once again in anti-virus protection of their members and of the public.
Some left-wingers say we should not mention these shortcomings since average trade union membership is low and this kind of discourse will hardly help union membership recruitment. But if unions cannot or will not respond adequately and in timely fashion to the needs of their members in particular and to working people in general, why should people be expected to join them? Trade union membership is falling for a reason.
Perhaps these left-wingers feel that the current unions should not be criticised, without a viable alternative having being put in place first. But what are they doing to provide that viable alternative? The answer is clearly nothing, or as near to that as makes no effective difference.
THE FORBIDDEN DISCUSSION
There is silence on this question from the broad Left, including those parties claiming to be revolutionary. When individuals raise the issue, it is not addressed or the individual is censored.
It is time to end this self-censorship on the Left and to proclaim loud and high that the trade unions in Ireland, despite the presence of many genuine activists, are generally not fit for purpose. What do we do instead? First, admit the problem and its scale – then we can discuss possible remedies. The patient cannot be cured if we refuse to admit the illness and the stage it has reached.
Some of the left-wingers are now saying that this crisis has exposed the unsuitability for society of the capitalist system and that when it is over, that lesson must be put into practice and essential services become national public services. Apart from the weaknesses in this solution, one must ask: who is going to make this happen? If the capitalist system opposes this change, how will the capitalists and their State be overcome? A social revolution without a mass working class organisational base is not possible.
Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU)
There are currently 55 trade unions with membership of Congress, representing about 600,000 members in the …. (Irish state). Trade union members represent 35.1% of the Republic’s workforce. This is a significant decline since the 55.3% recorded in 1980 and the 38.5% reported in 2003. In the Republic, roughly 50% of union members are in the public sector. The ICTU represents trade unions in negotiations with employers and the government with regard to pay and working conditions (from Wikipedia)
Main trade unions
SIPTU: “… is the largest Union in Ireland with over 180,000 members.
SIPTU represents workers in both the public and private sector in almost every industry in Ireland and at virtually every level. SIPTU caters for full-time, part-time, permanent, contract and temporary workers, as well as retired and unemployed members.” (from SIPTU website)
“Fórsa is Ireland’s newest trade union with over 80,000 members. …. represents members in the public service, as well as the commercial sector, state agencies, some private companies and in the community and voluntary sector.
“Fórsa is the second largest union on the island of Ireland and by far the largest trade union voice in the Irish civil and public service.” (quoted from Forsa’s website)
The Connect Trade Union is the largest Engineering Union in Ireland and the second largest in manufacturing representing up to 40,000 workers.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), founded in 1868, is the oldest and largest teachers’ trade union in Ireland. It represents 40,633 teachers at primary level in the Republic of Ireland and 7,086 teachers at primary and post-primary level in Northern Ireland. Total membershipis 47,719 (August 2019).
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland represents over 17,000 teachers and lecturers in Ireland engaged in Post-Primary, Higher and Further Education. The Union is made up of 62 branches in 19 areas. (quoted from TUI website).
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. ….. connecting trade unions from 147 countries …. We are the voice for 18.5 million working men and women across the world” (ITF website).
“Mandate is a union of over 40,000 workers across Ireland.”(Wikipedia)
Unite the Union, commonly known as Unite, is a British and Irish trade union, formed on 1 May2007, by the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union. With just over 1.2 million members, it is the second largest trade unionin the UK (Wikipedia).