13 Labor Events And Organizers Who We Should Teach About During Irish-American Heritage Month

Labor history and Irish-American heritage intersect throughout the history of our country. Here’s a list of Irish-American contributions to the labor movement that should be taught during Irish-American Heritage Month.

  1. Irish Need Not Apply

In the 19th century, some Irish immigrants seeking jobs were met by signs reading “Irish Need Not Apply.” Such discrimination would be illegal today, but Irish-Americans have historically faced job discrimination in the United States.

2. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones

Mother Jones was an Irish-American schoolteacher and labor organizer who supported mining strikes in the eastern United States. In 1903, she organized the Children’s Crusade, in which children who worked in mines and factories marched from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., with banners stating, “We want to go to school and not to the mines!”

Mother Jones was also included in our Women’s History Month list.

3. Molly Maguires

The Molly Maguires was a secret society of Irish immigrants. In 1877, they protested unfair working conditions in Pennsylvania mines. These conditions included child labor, requiring purchases at the company store and low wages. After a private investigation and private arrest by the mining company, the state hanged 10 Irish workers.

4. George Meany

As president of the American Federation of Labor in 1955, George Meany managed its merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. He then served as president of the AFL-CIO until 1979. Meany was born to an Irish-American labor family in 1894, quit school at 16 to begin working as a plumber, worked his way up and became an officer of the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 463. When he died in 1980, President Jimmy Carter called him “an American institution” and “a patriot.”

5. Terence Powderly

Terence Powderly was an Irish-American labor leader who is best known for leading the Knights of Labor from 1879–1893. At the time, the Knights of Labor was the largest labor organization in the United States (and is now considered our nation’s first successful national labor union). Powderly also was a pro-labor politician, serving as the mayor of Scranton, Pa., and was later appointed as the commissioner general of immigration by President William McKinley.

6. Lowell Mill Girls

In the mid-1800s, textile factories in Lowell, Mass., began recruiting Irish immigrants who had survived the Great Irish Famine. Women made up three-fourths of the workforce and worked long hours for low pay. The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association fought for better conditions for the factory workers.

The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association was included in our Women’s History Month list.

7. Thomas R. Donahue

Thomas R. Donahue is an Irish-American labor leader and former president of the AFL-CIO. In the 1950s, he worked for Local 32B of the Building Service Employees International Union. Donahue later served as assistant secretary for labor-management relations for President Lyndon B. Johnson and as first vice president of SEIU. As the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, he led a fight against NAFTA, an unfair trade agreement that cost many American jobs, and led a U.S. labor delegation to Northern Ireland and Ireland in 1983. He served as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995.

8. Hallie Flanagan

Hallie Flanagan was an Irish-American writer and theatrical director and producer. She spent much of her early career studying theater at Grinnell College, Harvard University and Vassar College. As part of the Works Progress Administration, Flanagan led the Federal Theatre Project, which funded and produced live theater across the United States during the Great Depression. By producing theater, the Federal Theatre Project created jobs across the country for actors, dancers, writers, directors, stage crew and set construction workers. Under Flanagan’s leadership, the program employed tens of thousands of workers, including 15,000 in the first year alone. During the four years of the program, the project produced around 1,200 shows to more than 30 million people.

Flanagan was included in our Women’s History Month list.

9. Building the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal stretches across New York from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. A large portion of the canal’s construction workforce was made up of Irish immigrants, many of whom settled along the canal, creating Irish-American communities across New York.

10. Ammon Hennacy

Ammon Hennacy was an Irish-American labor activist who was active in the Catholic Worker Movement. He was the associate editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper in the 1950s, and he co-founded and ran the Joe Hill House of Hospitality in Utah in the 1960s, which provided housing and social services for the homeless.

11. Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day was an Irish-American journalist and activist who helped found the Catholic Worker Movement. She served as editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper from 1933 until her death in 1980.

12. James Braddock

James Braddock was an Irish-American boxer who won the world heavyweight championship in 1935. Before winning the title, Braddock worked as a longshoreman and at times lived on government assistance. He was involved with the Catholic Worker Movement and would later make regular donations to Catholic Worker houses.

13. John Sweeney

John Sweeney is an Irish-American labor leader and former president of the AFL-CIO. Sweeney began his career in the labor movement with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Building Service Employees International Union. In 1977, he oversaw the merger of SEIU Local 32B and Local 32J, which formed Local 32BJ, currently the largest property service workers union in the United States. Sweeney was elected president of SEIU in 1980 and president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, serving until his retirement in 2009.

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