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Mother Jones Festival, Cork: Speech by SIPTU General Secretary, Joe O’Flynn, 1st August, 2012

Date Released: 01 August 2012

As a Cork man, I am delighted to be here today on behalf of SIPTU to join in the celebrations of Mother Jones - a magnificent and inspirational trade unionist. I want to start by warmly congratulating the Organising Committee for a fantastic programme of events, but more importantly, for taking on the very worthy task of organising this commemoration of Mary Harris who was born here in the north side of Cork.

As many of you present are aware, Mary Harris, known as Mother Jones, organised hundreds of thousands of American workers, mainly coal miners, in unions from 1890 to 1920. Her story is quite an incredible one and she was celebrated in song by Woody Guthrie and recorded in history as one of the greatest ever labour organisers in the US.  She was among those present when the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, was founded in Chicago in 1905 and was a speaker and organiser for the Socialist Party. James Connolly trod a similar path when he organised workers in the US before returning to Ireland to help build the ITGWU which was established in 1909, one of the constituent Unions of SIPTU. 

It is staggering that such a powerful, determined and courageous leader of workers and social interest campaigns is not widely honoured in a more significant fashion in our schools and throughout Irish society.   I would have thought that Mother Jones should be acknowledged to a much greater degree as a leading figure that influenced so much in her adopted land by her tenacious and determined work on behalf of many who were under privileged and deprived, including young children who were exploited as child labour in mines and mills.

I was pleasantly surprised however at the number of people who mentioned this commemoration and its relevance in recognising such a wonderful trade unionist and also the esteem and respect which they held for her endeavours.

The lack of recognition of leading figures in the Trade Union Movement such as Mother Jones – is nothing new, as over the last number of decades trade union figures have virtually been written out of the history books.    Recently, I was delighted to have been asked to be involved in the promotion of another great Cork figure, Ald. Tadhg Barry, who again has been largely forgotten for his tremendous work in organising workers in this city.  This is not just an Irish phenomenon!   I understand the Mother Jones display, among those of other labour activists, has been removed from the offices of the Department of Labour in Washington DC.    

Indeed, I watched with interest the opening of the London 2012 Olympics last Friday night and you probably are aware that the theme included the industrial revolution.  Interestingly, we had the workers and the chimney stacks, the suffragettes and the bowler hatted business men – there was no place for the trade unionists who, as we all know, played such a vital role in helping to curb the worst excesses of the employers who, at that time, virtually controlled every aspect of life – not just pay and working conditions.

Events such as this commemoration give us a real opportunity to promote great people such as Mother Jones but also provide us with the opportunity to promote their values:

  • Fairness and Justice
  • Right from Wrong
  • Collective  v  Individual
  • Sharing and caring for all against the greed of the few.

How relevant these values were throughout the period when Mother Jones campaigned and how relevant these values are today.

This generation and generations to come are paying a very heavy price for the greed of a chosen few at the top who have virtually bankrupted this country.  Vital public services are being affected.  People have lost their livelihoods, in some cases even their homes.  All brought about by a political system of light touch regulation and hero worship of those in the golden circle who were perceived as having the Midas touch but, in reality, had no vision, no concept of what a society should be and worse still, despised the value of solidarity and trade unionism.

Mother Jones showed how the human spirit can prevail against the worst adversity. How powerful and generous people can be when organised together to ensure respect and dignity for all – men, women and children – working and unemployed! These are the values which we must again strive for.   In doing so, we must ensure that her legacy and others like her, is acknowledged and promoted.

This is not just a commemoration, but a lesson that we have much to learn from our history and the great leaders that inspired us to fight for a better and fairer society for all to enjoy.


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