Michael J. Quill, founder of the Transport Workers Union of America in 1934, was also its first International President. Born in the village of Kilgarvan, County Kerry, in 1905, Mike Quill was nurtured by the Irish revolt against British occupation. Because of his involvement with the rebellion, he had to leave his country and travel to America where he found work building the IND (Independent) subway in New York City. He held various other jobs until becoming a changemaker on the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit). Times were tough and the 12-hour, 7 day work week was all-too-common.
By 1935, Mike Quill began to agitate openly for the union. He set up his soapbox at lunch hour at the powerhouses or in the shops. It was the famous shopgate meetings which helped make him a popular figure on the transit property. He also appeared on radio in 1936 to bring the union’s message across to the widest audience.
Reflecting on those years, Mike Quill once 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.”
What Mike Quill is probably most remembered for, is his role in the 1966 transit strike in New York City. New York transit had always been a political football and in 1966 the issue of who was to pay for transit funding loomed large. An ailing Mike Quill, weakened by a series of heart attacks, would not be daunted by politicians’ pronouncements and editorial page attacks. Called an “irresponsible demagogue” and “lawless hooligan” by the press, he only wanted what was fair for his members, even at the cost of a strike.
TWU had made its economic demands known in July 1965, but negotiations dragged on with no movement by the Transit Authority. At the top of TWU’s list were wage increases to make up for the rise in the cost of living generated by the Vietnam War inflation.
In November 1965, John V. Lindsay was elected mayor. Unlike his predecessor, Robert Wagner, he did not take an active role in the negotiations. The TA pleaded poverty and without any leadership from the Mayor, they made no offers to the union. In fact, the Mayor-elect decided to take a vacation in Puerto Rico.
As the clock ran down, the union made strike preparations as it had so many times before. Procrastination was nothing new to the transit managers. Only this time, it appeared that the new mayor either did not believe Mike Quill would make good on the strike threat, or he thought he could beat the transit employees down into submission. Whatever the motive, he was wrong.
The new mayor showed up at the last minute on New Year’s Eve and the Transit Authority finally put a package on the table. It was too little and it came too late. On the morning of January 1, 1966, TWU members finished their last runs and by 8:02 A M., the last train had rolled into the terminal. No buses or subways would run for 10 days.
On that first day, an injunction was issued to halt the strike. In one of his dozens of press appearances, Mike Quill tore up the injunction in front of the television cameras. During the strike, 64 camera crews from all over the world covered the event and its leader Mike Quill. The four major networks kept their television crews on call for 24 hours a day at the Americana Hotel in case of a late-breaking event.
On the second day of the strike, TWU reduced its economic demands. the TA made no response. In fact, the only response was an arrest order issued by a judge for violation of the injunction. Six TWU leaders and three Amalgamated Transit Union leaders were to be arrested at 11 A.M. on January 4. Mike Quill responded: “The courts may have their finest hours, but they’ll not break us. We will not settle for one penny less than our objectives.”
The next morning, Mike Quill walked into the Americana Hotel ballroom to meet the press, mediators, and TWU negotiators. Clearly, the strike was taking its toll on the TWU leader but brazenly he announced: “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.”
Taken to jail, Mike Quill’s condition worsened and he was rushed to Bellevue Hospital for treatment. Arrested along with him were International Secretary Treasurer Matthew Guinan, International Vice President Frank Sheehan, Local 100 President Daniel Gilmartin, Local 100 Secretary Treasurer Ellis Van Riper, Local 100 Recording Secretary Mark Kavanagh, and ATU officers John Rowland, William Mangus, and Frank Kleess.
TWU’s second line of leaders, headed by Secretary-Treasurer Doug MacMahon, stepped in to head the strike efforts. Negotiations continued and on January 10, City Hall witnessed a massive labor demonstration of 15,000 pickets. Joining the TWU strikers were members from other TWU locals and other New York trade unions. The next day brought movement from both assisted by the mediators. At 1:37 A.M. on January 13, Doug MacMahon announced that the union was recommending settlement. Mike Quill listened to the announcement of the settlement from his room in the hospital.
The package was worth over $60 million and included raises which would increase wages from $3.18 to $4.14 an hour. Included was another paid holiday, increased pension benefits, and other gains. But the cost of the strike could not be measured in dollar amounts. Mike Quill had been transferred to Mt. Sinai Medical Hospital for further care and was finally released three weeks after his jailing. He addressed his last press conference in the Americana hotel ballroom that day. At night he celebrated victory in a speech to thousands of TWU stewards, the troops who helped pull off the successful strike.
Death took the founder and builder of the TWU on January 28, 1966. The TWU EXPRESS reported that month: Mike Quill “did not hesitate or equivocate. He died as he lived fighting the good fight for TWU and its members.”