Athlone, Co. Westmeath native Tracey Kiernan was not even born when John Doherty began his long career with the New York City Sanitation Department, eventually rising to the office of commissioner.
Unbeknownst to both, the Irish American and the Irish immigrant were on a collision course which would eventually lead to a court battle, a nasty war of words and tough questions about the historical Irish dominance of New York City’s civil service jobs.
“It does make me a little uncomfortable,” said Kiernan, a lawyer with a group called Advocates for Justice, in an interview with the Irish Voice this week. “I will always defend my countrymen.”
But Kiernan also feels a number of sanitation workers were treated unfairly under Doherty’s watch, which has led to some stinging comments about the Sanitation Department’s Irish fraternal organization.
It all began last year, when Advocates for Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of black and Hispanic sanitation workers, charging that the ranks of sanitation supervisors were disproportionately white.
“The plaintiffs say they have been repeatedly overlooked...while white candidates, many of them Irish like Commissioner John J. Doherty and First Deputy Commissioner Bernard J. Sullivan, got promoted every two years,” is how the civil service newspaper The Chief put it.
“Everything is Emerald Society,” the president of the Sanitation’s Hispanic Society added. “They can’t do anything wrong...They just continue to promote Irish people.”
Ouch! One of many ironies here is that the Irish, in the past, have also been discriminated against.
In fact, one of the toughest walls to break down for the Irish were prized civil service positions as cops, teachers, fire fighters and sanitation workers in cities across the country.
Now, in the 21st century, it is Irish Americans who regularly find themselves cast in the position as defenders of an exclusionary status quo.
Just last week, Advocates for Justice held a press conference at City Hall reiterating their charges and calling on new Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia to settle the lawsuit. This may very well happen.
Another historically Irish uniformed agency, the New York City Fire Department, just settled a lawsuit for nearly $100 million. The lawsuit alleged that non-white firefighters faced discriminatory obstacles in their efforts to join the FDNY, which remains nearly 90 percent white and heavily Irish.
Of course, given the demographic changes in New York City in recent decades, it is astounding how Irish the uniformed services have remained. These lawsuits might lead some to see this as purely the product of racism and discrimination, but things are much more complicated than that.
In many ways these positions remain father-son jobs. Though they cannot simply be handed off from one generation to the next, the training and networking done by the past generation has paved the way for younger Irish Americans to keep the Emerald Society ranks flush.
The courts now have to decide how much of that, at the Sanitation Department, was done by working to exclude others.
Ironically, the very fact that Irish Americans dominate and cherish these jobs so deeply may well be a vestige of the tough times the Irish faced generations earlier.
Some observers suggest that the new, more liberal de Blasio administration was more willing than the Bloomberg administration to settle the FDNY case. The same may go for the sanitation case. For now, court arguments will continue over whether or not a judge agrees with city lawyers and dismiss the case against the Sanitation Department.
Whatever the outcome, what should not be forgotten is that the FDNY’s Irish worked side by side with those from so many other walks of life in the wake of 9/11, as did the Sanitation Department’s Irish workers when it came time to clean up the city in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Let’s hope that continues for all workers who are ready, willing and able in the 21st century.
Tom Deignan (tdeignan. blogspot.com) will be discussing “The 20 Books Every Irish-American Should Read” at the Pavonia Branch of the Jersey City library on March 31. Call 201-547-4808 for details.