Image: Joseph O'Keefe, left, plays a bagpipe as the Department of Sanitation of New York's Emerald Society Pipes and Drums marches during the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York last year
Bebeto Matthews  /  AP
Joseph O'Keefe, left, plays a bagpipe as the Department of Sanitation of New York's Emerald Society Pipes and Drums marches during the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York last year.
updated 3/17/2011 5:56:56 AM ET 2011-03-17T09:56:56

In a year when the questions of union power and the responsibility of governments to their employees have taken center stage, St. Patrick's Day is taking on dual meaning for many Irish-Americans, with their rich ties to the labor movement.

The struggles their famine-worn ancestors faced as new arrivals — the slurs from their neighbors, the "Irish need not apply" signs — still echo through the generations, as does the avid union support that helped lift them to positions of power, influence and ultimately acceptance.

"Union jobs, civil service jobs have always been the ladder out of poverty for working people in this country," said Patrick J. Lynch, leader of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the union that represents New York police.

"The faces may have changed. The countries they're coming from may have changed. But the ladder is the same," he said.

In Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere, public workers face threats to collective bargaining rights, and Irish-American legislators backing the proposals are being accused of betraying their heritage.

Story: In wake of Wisconsin law, can labor keep its political clout?

In the nation's largest city, the fond subject of songs such as "When New York was Irish," a tight budget has led to a battle over municipal pensions.

Lynch this week recalled joining his father on the picket line in the New York transit strike of 1980, when he was a teenager.

He had grown up listening to his dad, a longtime motorman, speak frequently of the legendary Mike Quill, founder of the Transport Workers Union of America and a native of Kilgarvan, Ireland.

Unionism 'under attack'
Remembering Irish-American labor struggles is "especially important this year when unionism is under attack across the country," Lynch said.

While many Chinese immigrants laid train tracks from the West Coast, it was largely Irish immigrants who laid them from the East. Many Irish immigrants went to work in the mines of the South.

And in New York, they joined the police force and firefighters in great numbers, said Peter Filardo, an archivist at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

So many Irish-Americans once worked in the city's transit system, the joke went, that the IRT subway line was known as "Irish Rapid Transit."

Irish-American workers were key in the rise of powerful political machines in the 19th and early 20th centuries. AFL-CIO presidents have included names like George Meany, Thomas Donahue and John Sweeney.

"We have gained our place through labor activism and political activism all across the United States," said John Kilbane, a native of Ireland and business manager of the Laborers' Local 310 in Cleveland.

"The old adage goes, 'A rising tide floats every boat,'" Kilbane said.

"If collective bargaining is attacked and collective bargaining rights are weakened, or lessened or obliterated, it certainly is the beginning of a race to the bottom economically, not only for union people but for those who are not fortunate enough to be represented by a union," he added.

'A point of pride'
In Dublin, Ohio, state Rep. John Carney said people at a St. Patrick's Day parade last weekend gave him an earful on legislation nearing approval that would limit collective bargaining by public workers.

"If I had taken a straw vote, I would have said that it was overwhelmingly 'no' based on the people along the parade route, that's for sure," said Carney, an Irish-American and a Democrat from Columbus, who said he understands how the immigrants' union activism was borne out of discrimination.

"I think it should be a point of pride," he said.

Video: The latest in Wisconsin union fight (on this page)

Some Irish-American leaders, though, have come down on the other side of the present-day labor debate.

In Wisconsin, where the governor last week signed a law that ends most collective bargaining rights for public workers, the effort to pass the bill was led by two brothers of Irish descent — Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.

As thousands of protesters swarmed the Capitol, the brothers were accused of betraying their heritage. One protest sign read: "Fitzgerald isn't Irish."

Some Irish-Americans say their heritage is irrelevant when it comes to labor activism and politics, especially because they and their ancestors are now thoroughly integrated in American society.

American, not Irish-American
Jim Cavanaugh, president of the South Central Federation of Labor, which helped organize opposition to the Wisconsin bill, noted that Irish families have been in Wisconsin for generations. He said he would give his perspective only as an American, not an Irish-American.

"What's going on in this state right now is not like anything any of us alive today have seen before," he said. "It's very different and more dynamic."

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an Irish-American, hasn't forgotten answering the phone as a girl and hearing a young voice hurriedly asking for her father, an electrical engineer and shop steward.

Hours later, he reported saving the young man's job from an attempt to fire him.

"I remember just thinking how remarkable that was: A, that somebody would try to wrongfully fire somebody. And B, that there was a structure in place that my father was a part of, that could actually go and save somebody's job," Quinn said.

Now Quinn, a Democrat, is among the politicians grappling with budget shortfalls, and she has called on labor leaders to negotiate changes to pension and benefits, even while she has protested the legislative action in Wisconsin.

"Do we need to make savings? Do we need to restructure pensions? Do we need to look at job rules? Those are all fair questions to ask. And I don't think the labor movement is unwilling to participate in asking and answering those questions," she said. "That's quite different than trying to union-bust."

'We built this city'
Quinn's grandfather was an original member of the Transit Workers Union after Quill founded it in 1934, and today's transit workers haven't forgotten Quill.

Union members, many of them Irish-Americans, gathered Wednesday evening at a yearly event in his memory and that of Irish labor leader James Connolly.

For brothers Peter and John Vaughan, both members of the iron workers' union, their Irish-American heritage is tied up with their pride in what they, their father and their grandfather have built.

Their older brother's ashes are scattered at the Statue of Liberty, where he had proudly worked on the icon's restoration.

"We built this city," said Peter Vaughan, 52.

Today's labor concerns are complex, he said, and as he's watched the battle over some municipal workers' benefits, he doesn't always come down on the side of the unions — siding with independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his bid to tie teachers' job security to their performance.

Still, he says, some traditions remain untouched.

"Labor has been good for the people, the masses," he said. "We're not going back to the old ways."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: The latest in Wisconsin union fight

Photos: The battle over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin

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  1. Massive crowds gather to see the 14 democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker as crowds continued to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison on Saturday, March 12. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Democratic Senator Lena Taylor, right, and civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson Jr. greet the crowd as they and the other Wisconsin State democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker return to massive crowds that continue to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 12. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Republican Wisconsin State Legislatures look on as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker performs a ceremonial bill signing outside his office at the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 11. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Protesters shout outside the office of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as he held a ceremonial bill-signing on March 11. The bill essentially eliminates collective bargaining rights for public union workers except on wage issues (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protesters hold wooden letters that spell the word "shame" in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 10. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald makes the argument to pass the budget repair bill before the State Assembly in the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, Thursday, March 10. (Allen Fredrickson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Spectators in the gallery of the Wisconsin assembly chambers chant "shame" in protest after the House voted to pass the state's controversial budget bill in the Wisconsin assembly chamber on Thursday in Madison. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Democratic Rep. Jon Richards yells after a vote was cast in the Wisconsin Assembly chambers Thursday in Madison. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Wisconsin State Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-WI) flashes the peace sign after the House voted to pass the state's controversial budget bill in the Wisconsin assembly chamber on Thursday in Madison. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The statue "Forward" displays a new sign at the State Capitol in Madison on Thursday, the day after the Senate passed the governor's controversial budget repair bill. (Steve Apps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Erving Smith, of Madison, Wis., shouts at law enforcement personnel after he was slightly injured while being carried out of the Assembly Room lobby in Madison on Thursday, March 10. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Protesters get kicked out by police from the Wisconsin state assembly chamber as they try to block access to the chambers in Madison on March 10. (Carlos Javier Ortiz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Wisconsin Rep. Cory Mason, center, talks to protesters in the rotunda of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Wednesday, March 9, after demonstrators retook the Capitol building. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kensoha, center, calls an impromptu news conference March 9 after Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tears roll down the face of Liz Sanger of Madison, Wis., after the state Senate passed the budget repair bill following a meeting of a state Legislature conference committee at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., March 9. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Wisc. Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, is escorted out of the state Capitol in Madison, March 9, after Republicans in the Senate voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Opponents of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill deride legislators as they leave the senate parlor at the Wisconsin State Capitol Building where the Senate voted to move forward on an amended version of the controversial bill Wednesday. (John Hart / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. After a protester outside throws a snowball hitting a window at the state Capitol, State Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, D-Milladore, implores demonstrators to remain peaceful during a press conference of Democratic state Assembly members, March 9. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Helmut Kenies of the Wisconsin Historical Society sifts through hundreds of signs that were removed from the Wisconsin State Capitol on Tuesday, March 8 in Madison. Posters that were left behind by demostrators that occupied the State Capitol were collected and are being made available for people to claim them until this Friday. Select posters that are not claimed will be acquired by the Historical Society. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Filmmaker Michael Moore speaks to a crowd during a march and rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Saturday, March 5 in Madison. Thousands of demonstrators are staging a protest at the Capitol against Governor Scott Walker's attempt to push through a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for most government workers in the state. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Union members protest inside the Wisconsin Capitol on Friday, March 4, in Madison. Some demonstrators returned to the Capitol hours after they were forced to vacate the building after occupying it for more than two weeks. They are protesting Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to push through a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for most government workers in the state. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman talks with demonstrators Mark Dziedzic, left, and Jeff Dziedzic inside the state Capitol on March 4. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Wisconsin Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kensoha, celebrates with other lawmakers and protesters March 3 outside of the state Capitol in Madison after a judge ordered the Department of Administration to open the Capitol to normal business hours. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A police officer blocks an entrance of the Wisconsin State Capitol on Thursday. A Wisconsin judge ordered all of the pro-union protesters to leave the Capitol after they had camped out inside the building for two weeks. The judge also ruled that the state had violated the public's free speech and assembly rights by restricting access to the building. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Protesters celebrate as they walk outside of the state Capitol after a judge ordered the Department of Administration to open the Capitol to normal business hours. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Protesters wake-up outside of the state Capitol, Thursday in Madison after sleeping the night. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers are in their 16th day of protests. The Wisconsin Department of Administration officials shut the doors to many protesters and some chose to sleep outside. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Wisconsin State representative Fred Clark. left, meets with constituents at his desk outside the capitol building on March 2. Clark and several other Democrat members of the assembly moved their offices outside the building because of the difficulties the public was having entering the building which has been essentially locked down to prevent protestors from spending the night inside. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Demonstrators protest in a hallway below the assembly chamber where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was delivering his budget address to a joint session of the legislature at the capitol on March 1. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Union Iron Worker Randy Bryce of Milwaukee shows police a court order to open the doors of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, March 1. It was the 14th day of protests against the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Opponents to the governor's bill protest at the state Capitol on March 1. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Democrats refuse to stand as Gov. Scott Walker arrives to deliver his budget address to a joint session of the Legislature, March 1 in Madison. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Police stand in the rotunda of the State Capitol on Feb. 27 in Madison. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Damon Terrrell speaks to protesters at the State Capitol in on Feb. 27. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers protest outside of the State Capitol on Feb. 26. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Rally supporters hang an American flag from fourth floor windows of the State Capitol as thousands of opponents of Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill gather for ongoing protests inside and outside the State Capitol on Feb. 26. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Protesters gather in the rotunda of the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison the morning of Friday, Feb. 25, after the Assembly passed a bill ending most state worker collective bargaining rights. (Carlos Javier Ortiz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Protesters who identified themselves as Kenosha city and county workers hold signs as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's plane flies away after his news conference about his budget repair bill at the Kenosha Airport in Kenosha, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25. (Mark Hertzberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Messages left by supporters protesting in the State Capitol are stuck on the office entrance of Wisconsin State Assemblyman Brett Hulsey on Feb. 25. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Ryan Eykholt of Madison, Wis., plays "This Land Is Your Land" during a protest at the state Capitol in Madison on Friday, Feb. 25, over the governor's proposed budget measures. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Standing beside fellow Assembly Democrats, State Rep. Christine Sinicki approaches the front of the chamber in outrage as their Republican counterparts cut off debate and vote on the budget repair bill in session at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., early Friday morning, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Protester Bridgette O'Brien of Elroy, Wis., does a morning routine of yoga at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25 before another day of protesting. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Escorted by law enforcement officers, Assembly Republicans exit the state Capitol after cutting off debate and rapidly voting to pass a controversial budget repair bill in the state Assembly in Madison, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Assembly Democrats wave to protesters, thanking them after Republicans cut off debate and rapidly voted to pass a controversial budget repair bill in the state Assembly at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., early Friday, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Wisconsin Reps. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, left, and Donna Seidel, D-Wausau, walk to the governor's office at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Thursday, Feb. 24. Opponents of the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers were in their 10th day of protests. Gov. Scott Walker was trying to get at least one Democratic senator back to the Capitol to vote on the bill. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Wisconsin Democratic state Sens. Tim Cullen, left, and Robert Jauch leave a home on Thursday, Feb. 24, in Woodstock, Ill. The senators have been in Illinois after leaving Wisconsin to try to stop a vote on bill that would take away public workers' collective bargaining rights. (Lauren M. Anderson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Opponents of the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers sleep on the floor of the rotunda at the state Capitol on Feb. 24. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Wisconsin state representatives start to fade as they listen to arguments on one of the expected 200 amendments to the governor's budget bill early Feb. 24. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. A protester sleeps on the floor in the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Protesters sleep in the rotunda of the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Democratic and Republican assembly members rise before the start of a session Feb. 22. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Teamsters President James Hoffa speaks at a rally in the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pauses while giving an address in Madison on Feb. 22. to explain his budget bill. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. A man sits surrounded by protesters' signs at the state Capitol in Madison on Feb. 22. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. Protesters walk outside the Wisconsin Capitol on Feb. 22. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. Opponents of Walker's budget bill sleep in the rotunda on Feb. 22. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. John Henneman, left, and Dan Kuhl, right, teachers from Wisconsin Rapids, protest Feb. 21 outside the King Street entrance to the Capitol. (Steve Apps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. A protester gestures in the Capitol building, after a week's mass protest against Walker's bill on Feb. 21. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. Kathryn Schulze delivers a silent message at the state Capitol on Feb. 21. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. Protesters rest inside the State Capitol on Feb. 21 in Madison. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  60. Arnold Chevalier, left, of Stoughton, Wis., shouts inside the State Capitol on Monday. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  61. State Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-WI) speaks to Democratic Senators via telephone during a meeting of the committee for Senate Organization inside the Wisconsin State Capitol on Monday. (Eric Thayer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  62. A union advocate, left, and a Tea Party supporter argue in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 19, on the grounds of State Capitol over the governor's proposed budget bill. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  63. About 30 members of the AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, protest State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester on Feb. 19. (Scott Anderson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  64. Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 19. A few dozen police officers stood between supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker on the muddy east lawn of the Capitol and the much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators who surrounded them. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  65. Protestors take a moment to rest inside a bus shelter as crowds continue to gather at the State Capitol grounds, while members of the Wisconsin state government discuss the proposed bill by Gov. Scott Walker in Madison on Feb. 19. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  66. Democratic Wisconsin Assembly members cheer on the crowd on the fourth day of large scale protests outside of the State Capitol in Madison on Feb. 18. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  67. Teacher Nicole North Hester, right, cries and applauds as union iron workers pass by during the fourth day of large demonstrations at the State Capitol on Feb. 18. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  68. Two protesters put up a sign at the State Capitol on Feb. 17, that reads "Run Dems Run" in support of 14 state Senators that have left the state in opposition the bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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