by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn/Love and Rage
“We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman – the hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared.” – James Connolly
On May 12 in 1916 James Connolly sat in a chair before a firing squad in Dublin. He was one of the leaders of the failed Easter Rising that was launched after the Proclamation of 1916 was read to an unamused crowd in the streets of Dublin. The proclamation declared Ireland an independent nation, free from the clutches of British colonialism. The other leaders of the uprising were also executed by firing squad but Connolly was the only one shot in a chair. His body was battered in bleeding from wounds inflicted during the uprising. He was too weak to stand on his own.
Although the Easter Rising had little support from the Irish people, it was the martyrdom of its leaders, and particularly of Connolly, that sparked the flame of Irish republicanism across this island, launched a mass rebellion, and ultimately led to the creation of an Irish republic. Connolly is celebrated as the father of the Irish nation. Although he was a nationalist, he was also a revolutionary socialist and militant unionist. He dedicated his life not just to the cause of Irish liberation, but also to international socialism. For several years he called the Mohawk Valley home and became active in the Socialist Labor Party and the radical syndicalist union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
James Connolly was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1868. His parents had emigrated there from Ireland and settled in a working class neighborhood that could more accurately be described as a ghetto. At the age of ten he dropped out of school and worked a number of jobs as a laborer. At the age of fourteen and faced with the pains of poverty and hunger, Connolly enlisted in the British Army and served almost seven years in Ireland. It was through his experience in the military that he developed a hatred of the British Army and became radicalized. He deserted the military after he was given orders to deploy to another nation occupied by the British: India. Soon after, Connolly became heavily involved with the labor and socialist movements in Scotland and Ireland. He became secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation and soon moved to Ireland to take a position as the secretary of what would soon be called the Irish Socialist Republican Party. Consistently faced with economic hardship, Connolly and his family moved to the United States in 1903, eventually settling in both Troy and Schenectady, NY.
Schenectady was a hotbed of radicalism and revolution in the early twentieth century. Connolly joined the Socialist Labor Party, the Socialist Party of America and founded the Irish Socialist Federation of New York. He also joined the recently established Industrial Workers of the World which sought to organize all workers of the world into “One Big Union.” Members of the IWW, or Wobblies as they were affectionately called, espoused a revolutionary ethos steeped in the traditions of anarchism, Marxism and syndicalism, a form of revolutionary unionism.
Unlike the mainstream and much larger American Federation of Labor (AFL), the IWW accepted all workers into its ranks. This included immigrants, unskilled workers, farm workers, women, and workers of all races and ethnicities. This also included Chinese and other Asian workers at a time when the AFL excluded Chinese workers from its ranks. While the AFL wanted to carve out a space for workers within the capitalist system, the IWW wanted to abolish capitalism and “wage slavery,” opting instead to usher in a cooperative commonwealth whereby workers would democratically run industry based on the needs of workers. The IWW struck fear into the hearts and minds of the rich, not just in the US but in places as far sprung as Chile and Mexico, New Zealand and Australia where Wobblies also organized.
In Schenectady, James Connolly assisted workers at the massive General Electric factory. The company employed a large portion of the workers in Schenectady. Although the AFL represented a number of workers at the plant, more and more workers became attracted to both the ideology and the tactics of the IWW. Of the 17,500 workers, about 2,500 joined the union and built a shop floor militancy that was unheard of in the US at the time. Wobblies made it a habit to initiate sit-down strikes that usually ranged from a few minutes to an entire shift. This was an unorthodox practice in the labor movement as strikes traditionally involved workers walking out of factories and setting up picket lines outside. When workers sat down in the factory, this gave them a strategic advantage as they would not have to deal with scabs crossing picket lines, anti-union thugs, or police violence. It was one step away from workers kicking out the bosses and running production on their own terms – the kind of direct democracy, industrial unionism and workplace envisioned by the IWW.
It was in the cold days of November 1906 that a new IWW organizing drive of draftsmen at the plant was unhinged when the three main organizers were fired by management. The response of the IWW was swift. Wobblies demanded the immediate reinstatement of the fired workers. Management did not comply and on December 10, 3,000 workers staged a sit-in strike, halting production at the plant. The next day, 5,000 Wobblies, AFL union members and even workers not in any union walked out. It was an exciting day for the workers of Schenectady. They had more power by folding their arms and making demands on their own terms than they would have had if they patiently waited for election day to make some kind of change. Before lobby groups and non profits existed, this is how workers made change in this country.
The strike eventually ended and the AFL would ultimately beat the Wobblies into submission. The “pure and simple unionism” of the AFL was a position the bosses preferred to the anti-capitalist politics and disruptive sit-down strikes of the IWW. James Connolly however continued his activity with the IWW and he was not alone. German-born engineer and inventor at General Electric, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, was a revolutionary socialist and fellow traveler of the IWW in Schenectady. The citizens of the city also elected socialist George Lunn as mayor in 1911. In 1912 Mayor Lunn and members of his cabinet went to assist striking Wobblies at knitting mills in Little Falls. He was arrested with countless others and sent to jail in a bitter free speech fight in the mill town. Thousands of workers, many of them women and girls, many of them immigrants, flocked to join the IWW throughout the Mohawk Valley. It was not uncommon for villages as small as Mohawk to attract crowds of hundreds of residents to listen to Wobblies and socialists give public soap-box speeches on street corners.
In the middle of this wellspring of activity, Connolly left the Mohawk Valley in 1910 to go back to Ireland but the revolutionary fervor of the IWW continued to sweep across the region. Wobblies struck in Little Falls and attempted to do so in Utica. Radicals of every stripe would congregate at the corner of Bleecker and Mohawk in what is today Garro Drugs. Anarchists, socialists, syndicalists and Wobblies all called that building home at one point or another. Revolutionary leaders such as Big Bill Haywood, Carlo Tresca, Emma Goldman, Hubert Harrison, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and others traveled through the Mohawk Valley to agitate, organize and give public speeches. Even Juliet Stuart Poyntz once called Utica home only to later become one of the co-founders of the American Communist Party. Multitudes of workers joined unions and struck, especially in knitting mills like those in Little Falls. This was an unprecedented level of working class activity never before seen in the Mohawk Valley. It only makes sense why someone like Connolly would be attracted to this area and call it home.
Connolly’s time here was short-lived and as the revolutionary and anti-capitalist movements were all but destroyed by waves of repression launched by the US government and big business in the 1910s, the memory of Connolly soon faded. However, in 1986 a statue of James Connolly was unveiled near Troy’s Riverfront Park where it stands to this day. More importantly, there is a renewed interest in radical labor activism as exhibited by the growth of the IWW in recent years in New York State and even more recent movements in the state like Occupy Wall Street, the immigrant rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. Based in part on his experiences in the Mohawk Valley with revolutionary unionism and the IWW, Connolly penned the pamphlet “The Re-Conquest of Ireland” in 1915. In it, he outlines his syndicalist vision for a society run by workers:
A system of society in which the workshops, factories, docks, railways, shipyards, &c., shall be owned by the nation, but administered by the Industrial Unions of the respective industries, organised as above, seems best calculated to secure the highest form of industrial efficiency, combined with the greatest amount of individual freedom from state despotism. Such a system would, we believe, realise for Ireland the most radiant hopes of all her heroes and martyrs.
This is a vision that James Connolly died for. It is a vision that workers who are faced with austerity in places like Ireland and the Mohawk Valley, as elsewhere in the world, could learn from today. If workers had democratic control over their workplaces, over industry, over all of society, would we be in the mess we are in today? Connolly was a visionary, a dreamer and he acted on his beliefs. This is something we need more of. We need to dream. Dream of a better world. Discuss with each other what that world would look like. And, like Connolly and the Wobblies did years ago, act on it.