(Reading time: 7 mins.)
By Geoff Cobb (with addendum from Rebel Breeze)
Michael Quill forever changed labor relations in the USA. The founder of the powerful union representing New York City’s bus and subway workers, Quill’s numerous achievements helped transform the lives of millions of workers by his setting national standards for equal pay for women and minorities, health benefits and paid medical leave. However, it was his leadership of the 1966 Transit Strike that made “Red Mike Quill” a celebrity, famous for defying the Mayor and a jail sentence, when Quill shut down public transportation in the nation’s largest city.
Born in 1905 into a humble, Gaelic-speaking family in rural Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, which was restive under British rule, Quill inherited his desire to fight for justice from his father. “My father,” recalled Quill, “knew where every fight against an eviction had taken place in all the parishes around.”
During the War of Independence, the fifteen-year-old Quill fought in the 3rd Battalion, Kerry No. 2 Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. On a solo scouting mission, Quill stumbled on a patrol of Black and Tans asleep in a ditch. Instead of fleeing, he quietly stole all their ammunition, gleefully returning home with his stolen loot.
During the war, Quill fought bravely and met almost all the top military leaders, providing him the rare opportunity of personally knowing many of Ireland’s most famous patriots. The war also started in Quill a lifelong animosity towards the Catholic Church. While on the run, Mike and his brother were gutted when their parish priest refused their request for temporary amnesty to attend their mother’s funeral.
Opposed to the Treaty creating the Free State with a partitioned British colony, Quill fought against Michael Collins’ National Army and in the conflict Kerry Republicans suffered greatly, especially at Ballyseedy, where 23 anti-Treaty fighters were murdered with dynamite by Free State soldiers. That fight’s unbelievable brutality and injustice never left Quill.
Being on the wrong side of the Treaty, Quill, unable to find work, left for America, arriving in New York the day before St. Patrick’s Day in 1926 with just $3.42 in his pocket. Through his uncle who was a subway conductor, Quill got a job on the Interborough Rapid Transit company (which ran the original subway system in New York), first as a night gateman, then as a clerk or “ticket chopper”. The IRT quickly employed many of Quill’s comrades who were also ex- anti-Treaty fighters. Moving from station to station, Quill got to know many IRT employees. He learned they craved dignity and wanted to be treated like human beings, but Quill knew this meant fighting. He said, “You will get only what you are strong enough to take. You will have to fight for your rights—they will never be given to you. And you cannot win if you fight alone.”
While working night shifts, Quill, who had only attended national school, used dead time to read labor history, especially the works of James Connolly. To fight the low pay, terrible working conditions and long hours of I.R.T workers, Quinn used Connolly, the leader of the Transport Workers Union in Dublin, executed by the British for his role in the 1916 Rising, as his inspiration, and Connolly’s ideas guided Quill throughout his life. Like Connolly, Quill believed that economic power precedes political power, and that the only effective means of satisfying the workers’ demands is the creation of an independent labor party, which creates and supports strong unions. He would honor Connolly by also calling his American union the Transportation Workers Union and years later, as president of the TWU, Quill only had two pictures on his office wall, Abraham Lincoln and James Connolly.
In his union-organizing activities, Quill got the cold shoulder from many established Irish-American organizations. “When we first started to organize the union, we asked for help from the Knight of Columbus and the Ancient Order of Hibernians”, he said. “We were booed and booted out. The Irish organizations did nothing for us, and the Church campaigned actively against us.”
Rejected by mainstream Irish Americans, Quill was embraced by the American Communist Party, which helped him obtain the money, the mimeograph machines and the manpower to launch the Transport Workers Union. Quill, though, merely used the Communists, while knowing he wanted no part of them. When they thought he should attend “Workers School” for indoctrination, Quill told them he needed no indoctrination and soon left the party.
Fearing anti-union informers, Quill organized the TWU, using the methods of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret Fenian society dedicated to a violent rising against British rule. Employing cells of five so that no man knew the names of more than four other workers in the organization, messages were also sent in half-Gaelic and half-English to confuse company spies, known as “beakies.” One night, the “beakies” attacked Quill and five other activists in a tunnel as they were returning from picketing the IRT’s offices. Falsely arrested over the incident for incitement to riot, Quill gained huge notoriety amongst his fellow workers and the charges were eventually dismissed. On April 12, 1934, fighting back against 12 hour days, six days a week, at 66 cents an hour, Quill and six other men formed the T.W.U.
Quill soon became union President and succeeded in getting his union into the American Federation of Labor. He then began unionizing the other transportation companies of New York. In January 1937, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Coorporation dismissed two boiler room engineers from their power plant in Brooklyn for their union activity. Quill immediately called a successful sit-down strike and the BMT had to reinstate the men, which further raised Quill’s standing amongst the rank and file.
At a time in American history when bigotry and discrimination were commonplace, Quill became famous for fighting prejudice. An ardent opponent of the pro-Fascist Fr. Coughlin, Quill said, “Anti-Semitism is not the problem of the Jewish people alone. It is an American problem, a number one American problem.” He also fought for African Americans against the prejudice of many in his own union. He explained, “The bosses hired you and the same bosses hired the blacks. You are on one payroll; you come to work and leave through the same gate; you punch the same time clock. Unless there is one union to protect all of you, the employer will train these men and use them to displace you—at half your wages.”
Quill became an early ally of Martin Luther King who referred to Quill as “a fighter for decent things all his life” who “spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man.” Quill once asked, “Do you know what I’m most proud of? That in TWU we have eliminated racial discrimination in hiring and in promotions and within the union’s ranks. Blacks, Hispanics, Orientals, American Indians and women are holding appointive and elective office.”
STRIKE AND JAIL
Perhaps Quill’s finest hour was during the Transit Strike of 1966. Newly-elected patrician Mayor john Lindsay wanted to get tough with Quill and the TWU. Journalist Jimmy Breslin summarized the conflict succinctly: “…[Lindsay] was talking down to old Mike Quill, and when Quill looked up at John Lindsay he saw the Church of England. Within an hour, we had one hell of a transit strike.”
Quill attacked the Mayor just as if he were a British soldier, chiding Lindsay for his “abysmal lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of labor relations.” He castigated Lindsay as “a pipsqueak, a juvenile” and jested: “We explored his mind yesterday and found nothing there.” To add insult to injury Quill intentionally repeatedly mispronounced the mayor’s name as “Linsley,” proving that even in the heat of battle Quill never lost his sense of humor.
Then Lindsay made a fatal mistake, jailing Quill, who defiantly said, “The judge can drop dead in his black robes!” While in prison, Quill suffered another heart attack and was sent to the worst of city hospitals. The only person who called Mrs. Quill asking if he could help was Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. No other politician inquired about the stricken Quill. While Quill was in the hospital a deal was reached granting the TWU a 15% wage increase along with improvements in the health, welfare and pension systems. In all, it was a great victory. The strike over, he was released from police custody, but just three days later Quill died at age sixty with many claiming that the stress of the strike led to his premature passing.
Mike Quill left an enduring legacy. Today the Transport Workers Union is composed of an estimated 60 percent minorities and Quill is still revered within it. He had an inclusive vision of labor, which minority workers respected, strengthening the movement. Pete Seeger dedicated a ballad to Quill and producers Macdara Vallely and Paul Miller have made a biographical film about Quill entitled Which side are you on?
POSTSCRIPT: Mike Quill and Vice-Admiral Nelson
In the Dublin City Centre, in the middle of its main street, is a curious steel erection which most people call “The Spire”. But from 1809 until 1966, something else stood there: a granite column with the English naval hero Nelson atop it, very much in the style of the one that stands in London’s Trafalgar Square today.
About 50 metres away from what was colloquially called “The Pillar” stands the General Post Office building, which operated as the command HQ of the 1916 Easter Rising and is therefore a traditional gathering place for State and other commemorations of the Rising.
As the 50th Anniversary of the Rising drew near, Mike Quill contacted Dublin City Council and offered to have the statue removed for free and replaced with a more suitable monument. Quill’s first choice was a statue of Jim Larkin, who led his and Connolly’s Irish Transport and General Workers Union in resisting the 8-month Dublin Lockout – the tram crews had walked off their vehicles once they reached the Pillar and Dublin Metropolitan Police had run riot against the people in O’Connell Street shortly afterwards on Bloody Sunday 1913. But Quill offered the Council other options too. A private trust and not Dublin City Council owned Nelson’s Column, he was informed and there the matter rested. Until, on 8th March 1966, the Pillar was blown up by Saor Éire, a socialist split from the Irish Republican Movement, in advance of the 50th Anniversary commemorations.