Labor Day is an 'Irish' Holiday too - the national day commemorating America’s workers was an Irishman
The true meaning of the forgotten holiday for working men and women
Times were tough, but he found work constructing the new IND subway line in New York -- 12-hour days, seven days a week.
Inspired by the great Irish labor leaders and revolutionaries Jim Larkin and James Connelly, Quill set about organizing the transit workers. And in 1934, with the help of some fellow Irishmen and others, he founded the Transit Workers Union.
Opponents called him “the most dangerous man in America.”
Later, in recalling the efforts to organize Quill said: “We were no experts in the field of labor organization, but we had something in common with our fellow workers: we were all poor -- we were all overworked -- we were all victims of the 84 hour week. In fact, we were all so low down on the economic and social ladder that we had nowhere to go but up.”
Quill had many victories, including reducing the workweek from seven to six days.
In 1966, he presided over the famous 10-day transit workers strike. The union was successful in increasing the hourly wage --- $3.18 to $4.14 an hour – and earning an extra paid holiday for workers. But Quill suffered a heart attack while in jail for contempt during the strike, and lived just a couple of weeks past the successful settlement.
On the occasion of his death Reverend Martin Luther King paid Quill the following tribute: “Mike Quill was a fighter for decent things all his life - Irish Independence, labor organization and racial equality. He spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man. This is a man the ages will remember.”
And so, here’s to our modern day heroes – chief among them John Sweeney who has risen to the top of the AFL-CIO.
The son of Irish immigrants – he was born in 1934, the same year that Mike Quill founded the Transit Workers Union, and his father, a bus driver, was a dedicated member, Sweeney throughout his life has been a tireless advocate for workers’ rights: fair wages, good jobs, health care, retirement security.
To draw attention to the plight of immigrant and undocumented workers, the AFL-CIO sponsored the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides and many such marches on Washington.
“The way we are treating the present millions of immigrant workers in our country is a disgrace. Immigrant workers are being exploited even more than they have ever been in our country,” he has said.
Sweeney, who will retire on September 13, was Irish America magazine’s 2004 Irish American of the Year. He said, in an interview with the magazine, “My parents were both Irish immigrants, so we grew up in that culture, where social justice was a big thing. It was something that I felt very strongly about, and in my youngest days I could draw the contrast between my father being a member of the union and my mother a domestic worker with no union and no benefits.”
Happy retirement, John. Together with the other Irish great labor leaders you have ensured that all of us Irish can take a little extra pride in celebrating Labor Day.
Orginally published September 2009.
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