Pride and tradition
IBEW Local 3's Chris Erikson Jr. looks at the importance of bagpipes in the Labor Movement
Throughout history, the bagpipes have represented a number of things in a number of different cultures – the serious and dangerous nature of military regiments being lead into battle by a piper, the pomp of ceremonial processions, and the joy of music accompanying weddings and parties. Most people recognize the Scottish Highland bagpipes, however, countries all across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia have similar versions of the instrument dating back over 500 years. Bagpipe tunes range from battle marches and salutes in war, to reels and jigs at gatherings, to laments and retreats played at funerals. Imagine a solo piper at a church or cemetery, just off in the peripheral, as he strikes up the instrument and honors the dead with a slow rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Or a Drum Major call a set of tunes and lead a band of 40 pipes and drums up 5th Avenue with a crowd of proud union workers marching behind on Labor Day.
Within the New York-area labor movement, the bagpipes have a significant meaning as well – pride and tradition. Cops, Firefighters, Corrections Officers, and the Sanitation Department all have their Emerald Societies. The Building Trades are represented as well by the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 1, the NYC District Council of Carpenters, and the Sword of Light - Pipes and Drums of Local 3, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Three electricians’ effort to celebrate their Irish heritage in 1983 by starting an Irish bagpipe band has turned into over 30 years of dedicated service to Local 3, the IBEW, and the NY labor movement. The Sword of Light has participated in well over 3500 parades, conventions, rallies, parties, weddings, and funerals across the United States, Canada, and Ireland. Highlights of the Sword of Light’s illustrious career include two performances at Gracie Mansion, four trips up the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan – including one to honor our troops’ arrival home from Operation Desert Storm, and three trips to Ireland.
9/11 was a particularly poignant moment in the band’s history. Local 3 IBEW lost 17 members and the band was ever-present in the months following, playing at over two dozen funerals and services for not only IBEW members, but anyone struck by that day’s tragic events.
This past March, the Sword of Light was honored to represent the United States Labor Movement in Ireland as part of the Centennial of Free Ireland: The Easter Rising of 1916. Along with a delegation from Local 3, the Sword of Light participated in a number of events organized by the Friends of Sinn Fein. The events included marching on Good Friday in the Lost Leaders parade from Kilmainham Gaol, the jail where many of the leaders of the rebellion were held and executed to Arbour Hill, a military cemetery and burial place for 14 of the executed leaders. Local 3’s contingent marched with James Connolly’s Irish Citizens Army from Liberty Hall, Connolly’s Union Headquarters, to St. Stephen’s Green. The Easter Sunday parade through Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, capped off the trip. The Sword of Light marched 2 and a half miles behind the American, Irish and Local 3 IBEW flags from the Garden of Remembrance to Milltown Cemetery, playing to a raucous crowd of over 35,000.
The bagpipes have had a long and storied tradition in New York’s labor movement and will continue to be the rallying cry of working people for years to come.