Saturday, September 03, 2022

Labor Day 2022: I'm Union and I'm Proud

I think I was about 20 when I learned that my great-great-grandfather -- Martin Bergan, my dad's dad’s mother's dad -- had been hanged on Jan. 14, 1879, for his role in the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish immigrant coal miners in Pennsylvania I had no knowledge of. Naturally, my first inclination was to feel shame -- he'd been convicted of murder, after all, so he must have been a bad guy. And because we had little interaction with the Walshes after my father suffered a traumatic brain injury when I was about 6 years old, this wasn't the kind of family lore I could hash out with extended family -- and the internet was still ages away.

Over the years, my brother Bill and his wife, Jacqueline, began researching their family histories, eventually building a(n in-house) family tree that puts anything on to shame. And over the years -- especially since home DNA tests became more mainstream -- so too have I taken a deeper interest in where I come from.

When I finally got around to looking into my great-great-grandfather's case, I was stunned by what I learned. Instead of being ashamed I found myself beaming with pride at his efforts to fight against the greedy and ruthless mining companies in the Keystone State he and his fellow workers were up against -- helping to pave the way for the unions I have been a proud member of my entire career:
Wages were low, working conditions were atrocious, and deaths and serious injuries numbered in the hundreds each year. On Sept. 6, 1869, a fire at the Avondale Mine in Luzerne County, took the lives of 110 coal miners. The families blamed the coal company for failing to finance a secondary exit for the mine.

The mine owners without one single exception had refused over the years to install emergency exits, ventilating and pumping systems, or to make provision for sound scaffolding. In Schuylkill County alone 566 miners had been killed and 1,655 had been seriously injured over a seven-year period.

Then in December 1874, Franklin B. Gowen -- aka "the wealthiest anthracite coal mine owner in the world" -- led the other coal operators to announce a 20 percent pay cut.

Labor organizers angrily watched railway directors riding about the country in luxurious private cars while proclaiming their inability to pay living wages to hungry working men, prompting the miners to go on strike on Jan. 1, 1875.

The union was nearly broken by the imprisonment of its leadership and by attacks conducted by vigilantes against the strikers. Gowen "deluged the newspapers with stories of murder and arson" committed by the Molly Maguires. The press produced stories of strikes in Illinois, in Jersey City, and in the Ohio mine fields, all inspired by the Mollies. The stories were widely believed. In Schuylkill County, the striking miners and their families were starving to death. (Via Wikipedia)

That the Molly Maguires fought back with every tool in their arsenal hardly seems unreasonable, given the desperate circumstances. 

As a token of my solidarity, I read up and then watched the 1970 film based on my great-great-grandfather and his comrades' lives, "The Molly Maguires," starring Richard Harris (as the Pinkerton detective hired by Gowen to bust the Molly Maguires' union building) and Sean Connery (as a leader of the Mollies), whose tagline reads:
In 1876 Pennsylvania, a group of Irish immigrant coal miners begin to retaliate against the cruelty of their work environment.
To me, that they were forced to use "sabotage and sometimes murder" -- as the film's longer tagline proclaims -- is the price society pays for letting corporations inhumanely exploit immigrants struggling to support their families, forcing them to work in some of roughest conditions known to man. 

He begins work the next day -- it is back-breaking work and he is exhausted. At the end of the week he joins the long queue for pay. He is paid $9.24 -- however a long list is made of "deductions" including cost of explosives and cost of shovels. $9 is deducted so his pay for the week is 24 cents.

A novelization of the film.

While not everyone may see it the way I do -- to give you an idea of who I am, I'm at peace with the IRA’s attempts to reunite Ireland and still think the United Kingdom needs to give back the occupied six counties, and have little patience for Russia’s annexation of Crimea (and more) and Israelis building illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, trampling on human-rights law -- I'm now proud to be the descendant of two kinds of Mollies.


That the film was directed by Martin Ritt of "Norma Rae" (1979) fame only makes my penchant for calling myself "Norma Gay" during work contract negotiations all the more fitting, but does nothing to explain my Jimmy Hoffa jokes!

Still, it's rather depressing to read that The Pottsville Republican, my great-great-grandfather's home newspaper where his grandson Mickey Walsh would later be a noted sports columnist, described Martin as someone who "must have been born without heart or soul." I'd say that's a better description of the Pinkerton detective, James McParland (aka James McKenna), who was hired by the mining brass to infiltrate the Mollies, which led to their mass executions. Before he ratted them out, he was leaking information to vigilantes who "ambushed and murdered miners suspected of being Molly Maguires, as well as their families." 

Who's up for a pint?

Richard Harris as the Pinkerton detective

The Mollies at rest

Shoving the queer was totally different by the time they did it to me!

Sean Connery as Jack Kehoe

From my family tree: 
Martin was hanged in the Pottsville jail on Jan. 14, 1879, for the murder of Patrick Burns in Silver Creek, a killing linked to the Molly Maguires, a group of Irish Americans blamed for violence as part of the movement to unionize Pennsylvania coal mines in the 1870s.

Fittingly, the last of Mollies to be tried and convicted was Peter McManus, whose namesake bar I lived around the corner from and frequented for nearly 25 years. 

And in a freaky epilogue: One of my dad's cousins has recently been in touch, and just sent me this shocking newspaper article that reveals that Patrick Bergin -- my great-great-uncle and the son of Martin Bergin -- was the victim of workplace violence on July 3, 1918, nearly 40 years after his father's hanging. 
Patrick Bergen [sic], a foreman in charge of masons erecting the buildings for Carson College, at Erdenheim, near Chestnut Hill, was shot and killed yesterday by an Italian. 

Bergen discharged an Italian laborer during the morning after he had found the man shirking. In the afternoon this man, whose name the police do not know, returned with four fellow countrymen.

Bergen ordered them away. Then one of the men who had come with the discharged laborer pulled out a revolver and shot Bergen twice. The foremen was dead when he reached Chestnut Hill Hospital. The five men escaped. 

I don't know about you, but "shirking Italian" [EYE-tal-yun] just might be the best unused album title I've ever heard. (Or maybe a punk group, The Shirking Italians?) This tragedy left poor Mrs. Bergen [sic] alone to raise two or three young children, depending on the source, and the world lost one fine mustache. 


This headline made my week!


JimmyD said...

This is fantastic! I’ve always been fascinated by family histories.
Unfortunately, being adopted, with no record of biological family, I remain in the dark regarding my own.

VRCooper said...

This is great!!

I love history!!

Yes, I read as well that unions are at an all-time high. I am so proud of the Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joes....workers getting their union on. Howard Schultz CEO-Starbucks-was caught on tape encouraging his managers to continue with their union busting. What are they so afraid of? Really it is telling that they are not there for their employees.

Workers at all economic levels want to be paid fairly and treated with respect. If one follows the minimum wage over the years, it has barely budged as everything to provide dignity in ones living has increased. The United States should be ashamed.

I am in managment-healthcare-and have worked for several healthcare organizations with unions. I tell my staff, that they are there to support them. I never had a problem with unions. Just an extra layer. As a manager, I will always treat my staff right.

One does have to keep an eye on unions though. Members must evaluate their actions and make certain the union is fighting for them and not just collecting dues. They must have a track record of support.


j said...

Thank you for sharing your family's history