First Word: Everyday Heroes

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
April / May 2004

Congratulations to our Top 100 and to our Irish-American of the Year John J. Sweeney. In honoring Sweeney we honor a great labor leader who has three million workers under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO. We also take pride in the history of the Irish in the labor movement — by 1900 it’s estimated that 50 of the 110 labor unions were headed by Irish or Irish-Americans. We reflect back too, on the Irish men and women who emigrated to America to seek a better life — those hardscrabble ancestors who eked out a living in bottom-of-the-heap employment and risked their jobs, and sometimes their lives, to join a movement that would improve the lot for everyone.

We remember Terence Powderly, son of Irish immigrants, who transformed the Knights of Labor into the first national industrial union with more than 700,000 members. In the 1800’s, far in advance for the period, he sought the inclusion of blacks, women and Hispanics for fully-fledged membership in his trade union. We also remember Mother Jones, born in Cork, who organized the miners and the miners’ wives, and who in 1903, to dramatize the case for abolishing child labor, led the “children’s crusade,” a caravan of striking children from the textile mills of Kensington, Pennsylvania, to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Long Island, New York. “I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hell-raiser,” said Jones.

The Molly Maguires, the Irish miners who believed that a violent campaign against mine owners and officials was the only way to bring about change, also come to mind, as do Peter McGuire and Matthew Maguire, one or the other of whom created Labor Day. Peter was general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. He is largely credited with having been the first to suggest that a day be dedicated to American workers and their accomplishments. But many believe that it was Matthew Maguire, who was secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York in 1882, who first proposed the holiday.

As a kid John Sweeney knew how much the extra-days’ vacation that the Transport Workers’ Union of America negotiated for his bus driver father meant to his family, and so we remember Mike Quill, the Kerryman who founded the union in 1934 when times were tough and the 12-hour, 7-day work week was all too common. “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 is remembered as saying.

Today the Irish in America are as likely to head up a Fortune 500 company as they are to be a union member. In fact, early in his career Sweeney gave up a job at IBM and took a pay cut for a union job. But while conditions may have changed for the Irish, they have not changed for many of today’s immigrants. Like the Irish of the last century, they come seeking a better life and all too often they end up with starvation wages and nightmarish conditions. Sweeney and his union are trying to change that. Documented or undocumented, he believes that workers deserve the protection of the law. And in 2003 the AFL-CIO organized the Freedom Buses, which fanned out across the United States spreading the message of legalization for the more than eight million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and better protections of workplace rights for all workers.

In giving voice to the voiceless, John J. Sweeney follows in the great tradition of Irish men and women, everyday heroes who fought to make this country a better place for all. He embodies the best kind of Irishman, in that his knowledge of past injustices waged against the Irish has not made him bitter; rather it’s given him the impetus to reach out a helping hand to others. We are proud to name him Irish-American of the Year. ♦

Return to Labor Day 2020 to read more.

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