By Patrick Markey
When Margaret Horan started working in Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in the Bronx, she saw room for improvement.
So, six years ago, the Kerry-born registered nurse joined with a group of Irish-American hospital staff and started pushing for union representation. It was a matter, Horan said, of improving staffing ratios to improve service to patients.
In March, after three elections and a protracted battle with hospital management, almost 500 nurses at the hospital decided to join the Local 1199 health workers union. Represented by the 150,000 member union, the nurses were able to put pay, patient-nurse ratios and shift times on the negotiating table.
Aside from winning representation for one of the last Bronx hospitals without a union, Horan and her fellow nurses were also maintaining a tradition of Irish involvement in labor stretching back more than a century.
America’s union membership has dipped significantly from the late 1940s when almost 40 percent of the workforce was employed in unionized jobs. And with the change in the America’s immigration patterns, particularly in cities such as New York, so too has the union’s Irish influence waned.
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But while the membership of the rank-and-file appears less Irish — a contention some would dispute — Irish Americans still hold sway in the upper echelons and the politically influential positions in the union movement.
In the America’s largest labor coalition, the AFL-CIO, the national, state and city leaders are all Irish American — John Sweeney, Denis Hughes and Brian McLaughlin. In New York, the Central Labor Council, names such Maguire and Ryan still sit on membership lists with Torres and Conigliaro.
Indeed, Irish heritage weaves a strong green line through the fabric of America’s labor history.
Delve into the records of the history of a longshoreman’s union or the pipefitters and Irish names fill the union rosters.
"Right from the early days, the idea of labor unions in America always had an Irish tinge," said Ed O’Donnell, a New York historian who teaches at Hunter College.
In his chapter of the book "Irish in America," O’Donnell writes that the second half of the 19th century, Irish immigrants filled the majority of the jobs in the manufacturing and labor industries.
As their influence grew, the Irish community began to establish itself with the blossoming labor movement. O’Donnell quotes one historian noting: "The same qualities that made the Irish successful organizers and leaders in politics and the church, helped them become successful labor leaders."
Their ability to speak English and their ethnic cohesion allowed the Irish to make headway over other ethnic groups to take the organizing lead in the labor movement. America’s first organized labor group was founded by an Irishman — The Knights of Labor, which grew from a little known society to become the national representative of hundreds of thousands of workers.
But O’Donnell also draws attention to the Irish union leaders comparison of the struggle for Irish freedom to the fight for union rights in America.
"In their minds, American robber barons were cut from the same cloth as British landlords," he writes.
Through the early 20th century the union movement prospered and so too did Irish American involvement in labor groups. Union history is full of Irish characters. Among the: Mike Quill, Transport Workers Union, who brandished a shillelagh during the 1965 subway strike, and George Meany, who negotiated the new AFL-CIO.
But by the 1950s, Irish involvement in unions had begun to erode, according to O’Donnell. Several corruption cases, links to organized crime and the decline in union membership took their toll.
By the 1980s the change had come full circle. With Irish immigration dropping off compared to new incoming ethnic groups, union rank-and-file membership began to become much more diverse.
But Irish influence in the unions also waned as Irish America became more successful, O’Donnell said.
"They became the great model of the immigrant success story. That made them much less likely to be employed in a trade where a union membership was probable," he said.
But since 1995, when the union movement began to show signs of a slow resurgence, Irish America has been again making its mark.
John Sweeney, national president of the AFL-CIO, said that while the Irish influence was less pronounced than 40 years ago, Irish-American leaders are now more active in the executive level of the labor movement.
Still, in certain sections of the East Coast union movement, such as in construction, Irish immigrants and Irish Americans are influential at the lower levels of labor organizing, Sweeney said.
According to the AFL-CIO, in 1998, 475,000 workers joined unions, an increase from the previous year of about 100,000. Organizers expect this year’s figures to continue to rise. With those numbers, Sweeney said the unions will be looking to make their make politically through more lobbying.
Joe Jamison, director of the Irish American Labor Coalition, said Irish Americans still make up considerable numbers of union membership, even within the rank-and-file, especially in some areas such as New York’s Nassau County.
Changing patterns in immigration mean that union patterns have changed too, he said. For instance, there is now an Irish presence in the white-collar sectors, such as computers, that are non-unionized, while similar workforces in Ireland are in unions.
"They have still to be heard from," Jamison said. "Irish people end up in America and sooner or later they end up in the union movement, too," he said.