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23 July 2009 Edition

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Remembering the Past: James Connolly with US workers in struggle


James Connolly was primarily an Irish revolutionary who worked all his life for independence and socialism in his home country. But his work as a socialist educator and organiser in the United States between 1903 and 1910 was significant and saw him involved in some of the biggest industrial struggles between workers and bosses.
In 1896, Connolly had founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in Dublin. For seven years he laboured to build the organisation while raising a young family. Meeting with very limited success and anxious to prevent his family falling into destitution, he emigrated to the United States in 1903. His family followed him the next year and he worked at various jobs such as insurance agent, machinist and filer, moving between cities in New York and New Jersey as work became available.
In 1905, Connolly joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the militant general union which organised throughout the burgeoning industries of the USA. Always a prolific writer, he founded The Harp newspaper in New York in 1908.
The American steel industry was based in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it had some of the harshest and most dangerous working conditions. Connolly visited the area several times as a socialist speaker and wrote about it in The Harp in 1908. What a local paper called “the most outrageous of all industrial plants in the United States” was located at McKee’s Rocks. This was the Pressed Steel Car Company which produced railway carriages in huge numbers.
Workers at Pressed Steel were driven day and night in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week with wages related to the needs of a single man in a lodging house. Fr A F Toner, a Catholic priest at McKee’s Rocks, said the men were “compelled to sacrifice their wives and daughters to the villainous foremen and little bosses to be allowed to work”. He described how the bodies of men killed in horrific accidents at the steel plant were kicked aside so the work could go on.

In July 1909, the mainly Eastern European workforce at McKee’s Rocks went on strike. They were assisted by the IWW, including Connolly, who wrote about the strike in The Harp. The bosses used armed strike-breakers and on 22 August they attacked the pickets, killing eight workers. Later, the bosses attempted to divide the strike by setting the American-born craftworkers against the mainly foreign-born industrial union workers. Connolly condemned the craft union that collaborated in this, commenting: “Patriotism, what crimes are committed in thy name.”
The strikers at McKee’s Rocks later emerged victorious, boosting the IWW.
Connolly himself was influenced by the struggle and, tired of in-fighting within and between socialist parties, he emphasised the importance of militant industrial unionism.
Writing to William O’Brien in Dublin during the McKee’s Rock strike, he welcomed the establishment of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union earlier that year, saying it was “the most promising sign in Ireland”. He returned home the next year and became an ITGWU organiser.
James Connolly’s last participation in the struggle of American workers was at McKee’s Rocks in July 1909, 100 years ago this month.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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