Growing up in a small mining town in the north of Spain, in the Galicia region, Emilio Maira saw how dangerous his family’s work could be, and learned the importance of being in a union.
“Almost all of the industry and success in our village was around the mining factory, so one way or another, we were all kind of connected to unions,” he says.
“One of my uncles was a welder in the factory, and the other worked directly extracting the coal. It was a very dangerous job, but he usually told stories about how strong the union was there, up to the point that every excavator had aircon for the summer and heaters for winter.”
Everyone in the mine was unionised and had a representative, so that if anyone had a problem with health and safety, “they’d call them and get it fixed”.
Now, years later, living in Dublin, Maira works full time for a trade union himself. “I didn’t have a fixed idea of what I wanted to do. But I think it just ended up that way,” he says.
After living in Mexico for a year, he moved to Ireland in September 2020. “It was this month three years ago. I was about to finish my undergraduate degree in sociology and I just wanted to look for a job in another country and improve my English,” he says.
“It was a personal decision because I came here on holidays in 2015 and I liked the place. I was mainly visiting Dublin for two weeks and then one day in Belfast and one day at the Cliffs of Moher. I could see some movement in employment and thought I could get a job here.”
At first he thought he would go for a kitchen porter job because of his level of English, but “the reality for kitchen porter jobs was that I knew I would end up getting the Covid payment within a few weeks, and that was unpleasant for me, because I preferred to work throughout the pandemic”, he says.
“So I worked at a warehouse with Amazon,” a job he kept for about a year and a half, before moving to a training role position in Amazon’s fulfilment centre.
“Through that job, I got to know the members in Unite. I was told there was a vacancy to apply for an organiser role in Unite and that’s where I work now,” he says.
You often need your basic needs covered to do activism. If you don’t have a roof over your head or food in your belly, it’s harder to fight
The fact he comes from a mining community “made that idea of being part of a collective and building strength together very present in my life, always”, he says. “When I was in college, I was always in a student union and a labour union. When I came here, I knew I’d join a union in any job I was in.”
Working conditions, which include night shifts, “really alter your personal life and makes having a decent work-life balance quite difficult,” he says. “I thought that through a union I could make things better.” There were some “small wins” during that time, he says.
Maira has always been more broadly passionate about labour rights throughout his life, completing a degree dissertation on labour precarity during the Covid-19 crisis in Galicia, and master’s research at Trinity College Dublin about labour organising in Ireland.
“It’s also because of my political beliefs. I’m a socialist and I believe the working class is the driving force of history,” says Maira.
His family, who he feels instilled these beliefs in him, are happy to see him “safe and in good health” and enjoying his life in Ireland.
“They don’t have this idea that you need to have a great career. There’s no aspiration of being successful; it’s about being fine, and being in contact with them. They see that I got the master’s here and I’m happy with the job I have.”
Before he moved to Ireland, his plan was to go into academia. “Studying in Ireland was good. Trinity is a great college. The lecturers were all very good and helpful to me and gave me work references,” he says, not ruling out a return to that career in the future, but saying: “I’m in a comfortable situation with a decent job and good friends now.”
“I have a great social environment. All of this makes me stay in Ireland. I know all my friends through politics or through similar networks. All of them live nearby, so for me it’s quite easy to go to their house for a chat or games night or have a few drinks,” he says.
Politics is “a very important part of my life, and trying to change things for the better”, he adds.
His friends are mostly Irish, and it was not difficult for him to make friends in Dublin, but he noticed a “turnover of population” that meant that, after getting to know some people, they might move away.
“So that’s a barrier, and I think the turnover is completely related to the housing crisis,” he says. “It’s funny how history operates. We know how this country operated in the early 20th century with families living in bedsits. Now we have groups of 10 or 12 students or migrants in one small apartment.”
But Maira was lucky with his rental situation, he says, because he “lives with another socialist and we share similar views, so we have a rental agreement”.
“But I’m still a member of CATU [Community Action Tenants Union] and support housing campaigns. The fact I’m in a good situation doesn’t exclude me from trying to help others. You often need your basic needs covered to do activism. If you don’t have a roof over your head or food in your belly, it’s harder to fight,” he says.
Life in Ireland has brought its “highs and lows”, but Maira sees himself remaining here.
“It’s been a wonderful time and I really love it here. I think it’s a bright place to be, and on a cultural level there is an openness to the world from the Irish,” he says. “That’s what really makes me want to stay”.