February 23, 2008

Black History Month: The Irish Patriotic Strike

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The banners carried along the Manhattan docks read: Ireland's Fight Is Our Fight! Up Liberty, Down Slavery!, The Emancipation Of The Irish Is the Emancipation Of All Mankind! and Ireland For the Irish, Africa For The Africans.The picket line was a remarkably diverse mixture of Irish American longshoremen and their wives, Italian coal-heavers and African American longshoremen.

Strikes are usually economic in nature; union labor in a particular industry goes on strike to demand higher wages, better working conditions, a stop to layoffs, etc. Few labor actions in U.S. history have the broad political implications of the Irish Patriotic Strike of 1920. A strike on U.S. docks in support of a national liberation movement was unusual in its own right. The support the walkout garnered outside the Irish community, and across the so-called "color-line," was truly significant.

Black support for the Irish Patriotic Strike of 1920 grew out of the importance of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) to African-American longshoremen, the Black community in the United States and, in fact, around the world. Garvey believed that the Irish struggle provided inspiration for the African diaspora and a model for the UNIA. Longshoremen were pivotal in the network of Garveyism, forging informal international links from Harlem to the West Indies, on to London and Amsterdam and all the way back to Africa. Just as the Pullman porters (organized by A. Philip Randolph into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) were important to sharing information across Black America, African American, West Indian and African sailors and longshoremen developed international Black identity across the Atlantic.

After Garvey sent the Rev. J. W. Selkridge, one of his chief lieutenants, to the docks urging the Black longshoremen to honor the strike, a contingent of Irish American longshoremen visited Liberty Hall in Harlem, seeking closer cooperation with the UNIA. A four-way meeting the next day brought together representatives of the UNIA, the American Women's Pickets, the Black longshoremen and the striking Irish longshoremen. When the African American dockworkers asked for promises that they wouldn't be banned from the piers after the strike, the striking workers refused to agree to this basic democratic demand. This decision sealed the strike's fate. It collapsed two days later.

From the beginnings of European colonialism through the early 19th Century, maritime work in North America had historically been Black work. Slave and free, African labor had worked the docks along the East Coast of North American. Frederick Douglass, for example, had worked as a ship's chandler, leased from plantation slave master to an urban slave-owner in Baltimore. But with the mass immigration of the second half of the 1800s, Irish immigrants began staking their claim to the docks and by World War 1 had (with the help of police, politicians, and corrupt, racist elements in the International Longshoremen's Association) had successfully banned Black labor from nearly all of the Northeast, including piers from Boston to New York City. The fight to open these berths is ongoing.

The failure of the Irish Patriotic Strike is just one example of how detrimental racism is to all workers.

[This is based on an article carried last year in The Agitator, the quarterly newsletter of the Newark -based People's Organization for Progress.]

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