“A man the ages will remember.” -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Kevin Rooney (reprinted by kind permission of author).
Michael Joseph Quill was born in Gortloughera, near Kilgarvan Co. Kerry on 18 September, 1905. His parents were John Daniel Quill and Margaret (née Lynch). Fighting injustice seemed to be in his blood. He remembered: “My father knew where every fight against an eviction had taken place in all the parishes around”. His Irish-speaking family’s home served as headquarters for the No. 2 Kerry Brigade Of The Irish Republican Army during the War Of Independence Of 1919-1921. His uncle’s house was so well known for rebel activity, it is said that the Black and Tans in the area referred to the house as “Liberty Hall”; a reference to James Connolly’s ITGWU Union Headquarters in Dublin which was to prove prophetic.
IRISH REPUBLICAN ACTIVITY
While still a boy of 14, Michael was a dispatch rider for the IRA during the War of Independence. He served in 3rd Battalion of the No. 2 Kerry Brigade. Once on a scouting mission, he stumbled on a patrol of Black and tans asleep in a ditch. He stole all their ammunition without rousing them. He eventually graduated to carrying a rifle and organized a group of about thirty boys in the village into an IRA scout group, and drilled several times a week.
When the Civil War began in 1921, Quill joined the Republican side which opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty that ended the War Of Independence. He took part in the re-capture of the town of Kenmare from The Free State Army in August of 1922, one of few Republican victories. He was said to have been involved in robbing a bank for the IRA during the war. He was much affected by the brutality and violence dished out by the Government Forces (Free Staters) to his Republican comrades in Kerry who were captured.
The worst atrocity was the Ballyseedy massacre where eight Republican prisoners were killed by being tied to a landmine, which was then detonated. In March of 1923, at total of 23 Republican prisoners in Kerry were killed in similar manner, or summarily executed by shooting on different occasions. Another five were officially executed by firing squad. The most of any county.
His mother died in September 1923. The local priest refused to request a temporary amnesty so that Michael and his brother John could attend her funeral without risking arrest by National troops. It left a lasting bitterness in him toward the Catholic Church.
During the Wars, he met many prominent Republican leaders of the time who passed through his area; including Eamon de Valera, Liam Lynch, Tom Barry, Liam Deasy, Dan Breen, Erskine Childers among them. While still young, he conversed with these great minds.
EMIGRATION TO THE USA
After the war, Quill found opportunities limited for him as he had supported the losing side. He was also blacklisted after a sit-in strike with his brother John at a saw mill in Kenmare. He emigrated to the US, arriving on 16 March, 1926 in New York, where he stayed with an aunt on 104th Street in East Harlem (New York).
He hustled to make a living working a series of menial jobs which included what was called “bootlegging”: smuggling alcohol during Prohibition, during which time the sale of alcohol was illegal in the US. He worked passing coal and peddling roach powder and religious articles in Pennsylvania coal country. While there he wrote his father his observation that “the cows and pigs in Kerry were better housed and fed than were the miners’ children in America.”
Quill returned to New York and met a young Kerry woman named Maria Theresa O’Neill, known as Mollie who came from Cahersiveen. With the onset of the Great Depression she became unemployed and decided to return to Ireland. She and Quill maintained a patient long-distance courtship, keeping in touch with weekly letters.
Quill found employment with the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) railroad in 1929. He worked several jobs before becoming a ticket agent. The IRT, the largest transit company in New York attracted employment from many Irishmen; particularly Republican veterans of the Irish Civil War like Quill. There was a joke that IRT stood for “Irish Republican Transit”. Their advantage over other immigrant groups was that they already spoke English. Coming from mostly farm land, they were also able for the twelve to fourteen-hour days demanded of them seven days a week. About half of the employees were Irish.
Moving from station to station, he got to know many of the employees. Along with deplorable working conditions, Quill also observed discrimination based on racism and bigotry, which he hated. He said: “During those twelve hour nights we’d chat about the motormen, conductors, guards etc. whose conditions were even worse. They had to work a ‘spread’ of 16 hours each day in order to get 10 hours pay. Negro workers could get jobs only as porters. They were subjected to treatment that makes Little Rock (Arkansas) and Birmingham (Alabama) seem liberal and respectable by comparison. I also saw Catholic ticket agents fired by Catholic bosses for going to Mass early in the morning while the porter ‘covered’ the booth for half an hour. Protestant bosses fired Protestant workers for similar crimes, going to Church. The Jewish workers had no trouble with the subway bosses. Jews were denied employment in the transit lines”.
INFLUENCED BY CONNOLLY’S WRITINGS
While working a 12-hour overnight shift, Quill passed the time with reading to supplement his education, which had ended with National school. The main influence on his political thinking was James Connolly. Connolly had also organised unions in New York, where he lived for a few years before returning to Dublin where he was executed in 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising.
Quill’s second wife Shirley later wrote: “Connolly’s two basic theories were to guide Mike Quill’s thinking for the next three decades: that economic power precedes and conditions political power, and that the only satisfactory expression of the workers’ demands is to be found politically in a separate and independent labour party, and economically in the industrial union.” He then set about organizing a union. He stood on his soap box during lunch hour in power-houses and shops all over the city.
Quill recalled: “We were no experts in the field of labor organization, but we had something in common with our fellow workers; we were all poor, we were all overworked, we were all victims of the 84 hour week. In fact, we were all so low down on the economic and social ladder that we had nowhere to go but up.”
Quill and some of his fellow Irish immigrants became involved in Irish Worker’s Clubs that were established by James Gralton, and were affiliated with the American Communist Party. Gralton’s political views got him deported from Ireland in 1933 as an “undesirable alien”; even though he was born in Co. Leitrim because of pressure from the Catholic Church. This made him the only Irishman ever to be deported by the Irish government.
Quill didn’t find much difference in the attitude of Irish-American Organisations that were Catholic church-based. Quill recalled: “We went to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, but they would have nothing to do with the idea of organizing Irishmen into a legitimate union. We went to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and they threw us out of their meeting hall. They wanted no part of Irish rebels or Irish rabble. That was the reception we got from those conservative descendants of Ireland’s revolutionists of a hundred years ago.”
Making no bones or apologies, he said “I worked with the Communists. In 1933 I would have made a pact with the Devil himself if he could have given us the money, the mimeograph machines and the manpower to launch the Transport Workers Union. The Communist Party needed me, and I needed them. I knew what the transit workers needed. The men craved dignity, longed to be treated like human beings. The time had come to get off our knees and fight back.”
FOUNDING A TRADE UNION
On 12 April 1934, Quill, along with six other Irishmen including Thomas H. O’Shea and Austin Hogan from Co. Cork, and Gerald O’Reilly from Co. Meath formed the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU). All seven including Quill were members of Clan na Gael, an Irish Republican organisation that succeeded the Fenian Brotherhood as the American branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). They were said to have initially applied the rules and practices of secrecy from that tradition. Quill was to remain a silent financial supporter of the Republican cause in Ireland his whole life.
Like Quill, they were all influenced by Connolly’s ideas and writings; in particular, Connolly’s 1910 pamphlet “The Axe To The Root” where he wrote specifically about a recent 1910 transit workers strike in New York that had failed, known as the New York Express Strike.
Connolly wrote: “It was not the scabs (strikebreakers, replacements) however, who turned the scale against the strikers in favour of the masters. That service to capital was performed by good union men with union cards in their pockets. These men were the engineers in their power-houses which supplied the electric power to run their cars, and without whom all the scabs combined could not have run a single trip.”
The very name of the union was a tip of the hat to James Larkin and James Connolly’s Irish Transport & General Workers Union (ITGWU). In fact the word “Transit” is more normally used than “Transport” regarding that industry in the US. Thomas H. O’Shea was the Union’s first president, followed by Quill, who would remain president for the remainder of his life.
The Union began with a membership of 400, then eventually represented all 14,000 IRT workers. An African-American porter named Clarence King was elected to the first TWU executive board. In 1937 there was a sit-down strike on the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT); the second-largest Transit company in New York. Two BMT employees at the Kent Avenue Brooklyn station were fired for union activity. The 500 members of TWU in the company secured their re-instatement. It eventually represented all BMT employees as well.
Quill began to involve himself in city politics and was elected to the New York City Council in 1937 representing the American Labor Party. His whole career people loved or hated him, with no middle ground. He returned to Ireland to marry Mollie on 26 December 1937. They would return to New York to live, where she bore a son; John Daniel Quill, named after Michael’s father. Theirs proved to be an unhappy marriage of convenience. Quill filled this void first with drink, later with extramarital romance.
While in Ireland, he met with Michael O’Riordan from Co. Cork, who was headed to Spain to fight for the Spanish Republic in that country’s Civil War; which side Quill supported. Michael Lehane, the child of a neighbor from Kilgarvan, also went to Spain to fight fascism.
In 1939, he organized a rally against anti-semitism in a heavily Irish neighborhood in The South Bronx attended by four thousand. This was in response to Father Charles Coughlin’s anti-semitic campaign preaching to New York’s Irish. Fr. Coughlin was born in Canada of Irish parents, but moved to the US. He began radio broadcasting in 1926 in response to a Ku Klux Klan anti-catholic attack on his church in Michigan, but moved into political commentary and also moved far to the political right. Fr. Coughlin’s sympathies to the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini got him removed from the air later in 1939.
Having little use for the church, this is how Quill summed up his personal philosophy: “I believe in the Corporal Works Of Mercy, the Ten Commandments, the American Declaration Of Independence and James Connolly’s outline of a socialist society. Most of my life I’ve been called a lunatic because I believe that I am my brother’s keeper. I organise poor and exploited workers, I fight for the civil rights of minorities, and I believe in peace. It appears to have become old-fashioned to make social commitments; to want a world free of war, poverty and disease. This is my religion.”
TESTIFYING AT MC CARTHY HEARINGS
In April of 1940, former TWU President and founder Thomas O’Shea; who had been earlier been ousted from the union testified against his former fellow union leaders including Quill. He alleged that the union was in complete control of the communist party and their goal was to promote revolution through strikes. Quill testified in the US House Of Representatives before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and denied these allegations, calling O’Shea a “stool pigeon.” He told Chairman Martin Dies: “You are afraid to hear the truth about our union. You can’t take it, but the American labour movement will live.”
Also in 1940, the city purchased the BMT and IRT. This put Quill in the path of every New York mayor from then on, beginning with Italian-American Republican Fiorello LaGuardia. Years ahead of his time, in 1944, Quill introduced a bill in the City Council to establish free childcare centers for working mothers. Also in 1944, he ended a TWU wildcat (unauthorised) strike in Philadelphia initiated by a racist reaction to a contract that secured promotions to conductor for eight black porters.
After World War II and the Holocaust, Quill said “We licked the race haters in Europe, but the millions of Jewish dead cannot be restored to life”. He was re-elected to the City Council also in 1945. His election campaign manager was Shirley Ukin, a fiery former communist born in Brooklyn Of Russian-Jewish parents with whom he began a longtime affair. She had worked with him in TWU from the beginning. In the late 40’s the union expanded to include airline workers, utility workers and railroad workers.
Also after the war, under pressure from the government on communists in the labor movement but mostly his own dissatisfaction and mistrust caused him to purge the communists out of the Union. In 1948 he secured a large increase for subway workers from Democratic Mayor William O’Dwyer, a native of Bohola, Co. Mayo.
In the 50’s he supported the candidacy of Democrat Robert F. Wagner for mayor. Wagner’s German-born father, a US Senator for New York (Democrat 1927-1949) had authored the Wagner Act Of 1935 that created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which protected workers’ rights to organise and strike.
Quill’s past relationship with the communist party continued to be criticised. He was nicknamed “Red Mike”. Wagner was elected to three terms and his administration was able to come to collective bargaining agreements with the TWU.
IN THE US TRADE UNION MOVEMENT AGAINST RACISM
Mollie died August 16, 1959. In 1961 he married Shirley; his longtime girlfriend who had previously been married and divorced twice. She would later carry on his union work and write his biography. Also in 1961, Quill received a letter from twenty-five TWU members in Tennessee protesting the Union’s support for Civil Rights and de-segregation. He responded by inviting a prominent black Civil Rights leader to address the Union Convention, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he admired.
He introduced Dr. King as “The man who is entrusted with the banner of American liberty that was taken from Lincoln when he was shot 95 years ago.” This was indeed high praise as the only two pictures in Quill’s office were of President Abraham Lincoln and James Connolly. The two became friends. As far back as 1938, Quill made a statement much like Dr. King’s famous speeches: “If we, black and white, Catholic and non-Catholic, Jew and gentile, are good enough to slave and sweat together, then we are good enough to unite and fight together”.
In November 1965, John Lindsay was elected Mayor. The aristocratic Protestant Republican whose name he intentionally mispronounced as “Linsley” immediately rubbed Quill the wrong way. Quill quipped: “we explored his mind (Lindsay) yesterday and found nothing there.” This was amid the union negotiating a raise for its members due to inflation caused by the War in Vietnam, of which Quill was typically an early critic.
The TWU had always threatened a strike that could cripple the city of New York, the largest in the US; a city of 8 million where many people’s commutes involve travel across rivers. Manhattan, the center of commerce is an island. Quill knew and stated that this was from where came the union’s power. Quill had seen many Mayors come and go and such a situation had always been averted.
Before he took office, Lindsay felt empowered and entitled to “call their bluff”. He felt such a strike was illegal as it would endanger public safety as transportation is a public utility. He also seemed to feel the union was incapable of pulling it off as history had shown. Irish-American newspaper journalist Jimmy Breslin observed: “[Lindsay] was talking down to old Mike Quill, and when Mike Quill looked up at John Lindsay he saw the Church of England. Within an hour, we had one hell of a transit strike.”
Lindsay was sworn in on 1 January 1966. The same day, 33,000 members of the TWU announced a strike and 2,000 members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) also joined them. This demonstrated James Connolly’s lesson from “Axe To The Root” put into action.
A legal injunction was issued to stop the strike along with an order for the arrest of Quill and eight others: Matthew Guinan, Frank Sheehan, Daniel Gilmartin, Ellis Van Riper, and Mark Kavanagh of the TWU and John Rowland, William Mangus, and Frank Kleess of the ATU) effective at 1am January 4th.
Quill tore up the injunction and famously said in his thick Kerry accent: “The judge can drop dead in his black robes. I don’t care if I rot in jail. I will not call off the strike.” Only two hours after being imprisoned; Quill who was sixty years old and had health issues with his heart, suffered a heart attack and was sent to Bellevue Hospital. He had ignored all medical advice from his doctors and the strain of the battle was taking its toll. Ironically, he had to wait two hours for an ambulance because the strike had indeed brought the city to a grinding halt.
15,000 workers picketed City Hall on 10 January. The strike ended on 13 January with a huge victory. The TWU had secured the workers a package worth $60 million. Hourly wages rose from $3.18 to $4.14 per hour. Quill seemed to be on the mend and was released from the hospital on 25 January. Quill died in his sleep of congestive heart failure on 28 January. Like ancient Irish High King Brian Boru, he had won his greatest victory at the cost of his own life. His coffin was draped in the Irish
Upon his death, the TWU Express newspaper reported: “Mike Quill did not hesitate or equivocate. He died as he lived fighting the good fight for the TWU and its members.” His friend Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said of him: “Mike Quill was a fighter for decent things all his life: Irish independence, labor organization, and racial equality. He spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man. When the totality of a man’s life is consumed with enriching the lives of others, this is a man the ages will remember. This is a man who has passed on but who has not died.”
In 1987, The Michael J. Quill Cultural & Sports Centre was opened in the predominantly Irish-American hamlet of East Durham, NY featuring an authentic Irish cottage and the largest scale map of Ireland in the world. There is also a Michael J. Quill centre in Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry. In 1999, the MTA named the West Side bus garage the Michael J. Quill Depot. The TWU today has a diverse membership of over 100,000.
*Originally posted by K. Rooney September 23, 2018
by Diarmuid Breatnach
In 1964 the TWU offered the Irish Government to carefully remove Nelson’s Column in O’Connell Street. Quill wrote that the scale of the statue and its location would give the impression to visitors that the Irish looked up to Nelson and that it meant to them what the Statue of Liberty meant to US citizens. The TWU volunteered to pay for its removal and its replacement with a more appropriate one among which they included Pearse, Connolly or Larkin.
The Irish Government passed the letter to Dublin Corporation (now DCC) who claimed that since the column was managed by a Trust, the Corporation had no power to remove it.
Two years later, the 50th anniversary year of the Easter Rising, a ‘dissident’ group of the IRA, Saor Éire, took matters into their own hands and demolished the structure, commonly known as Nelson’t Pillar.