Mike Quill of the Transport Workers Union debates Congressman Hartley on the rights of public employees to strike
Michael J. Quill (1905–1966) was one of the founders of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), a union founded by subway workers in New York City that expanded to represent employees in other forms of transit, and the President of the TWU for most of the first thirty years of its existence. A close ally of the Communist Party USA for the first twelve years of his leadership of the union, he broke with it in 1948. He drove his former allies out of the union.
Quill had varying relations with the mayors of New York City. He was a personal friend of Robert Wagner but could find no common ground with Wagner's successor, John Lindsey, or as Quill called him "Linsley", and led a twelve-day transit strike in 1966 against him that landed him in jail. However, he won significant wage increases for his members. He died of a heart attack three days after the end of the strike.
Quill was born in Gortloughera, near Kilgarvan, County Kerry, Ireland. He claimed to have been a dispatch rider for the Irish Republican Army from 1919 to 1921 while still a teenager; then a member of the IRA itself in the Irish Civil War that followed. By one account, he robbed a bank to raise funds for the IRA. Quill worked as a carpenter's apprentice, then a woodcutter after the end of the Civil War. He moved to the United States, following his brothers, Patrick and John, in 1926. In New York City Quill first lived with his O'Sullivan cousins in upper Manhattan.
Quill's account of his activities in Ireland were, however, subject to change over the years. Quill attributed his bad hip variously to a bullet lodged there after he was shot by the Black and Tans or to an accident in which he "fell off a mountainside"; he also admitted to others that the condition had dated from his childhood. Quill was also prone to exploiting his Irish background, particularly when in front of the heavily Irish-American membership of the TWU; as more than one observer noted his brogue got thicker the longer he was away from Ireland and particularly when he was on stage or in front of a microphone.
After working a series of odd jobs in New York, he went to work for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) later that year, first as a night gateman, then as a clerk or "ticket chopper". Moving from station to station, Quill got to know a large number of IRT employees, while using the quiet of the late hours to read labor history and, in particular, the works of James Connolly. The name that Quill and others chose for their new union was, in fact, a tribute to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union led by Jim Larkin and Connolly twenty years earlier.
That union grew out of a unique mixture of two revolutionary traditions: the Irish insurrectionary history of Connolly and the IRA and the Communist Party. The IRT was, in fact, filled with veterans of the recent Troubles in Ireland, to the point that some jokingly referred to it as "Irish Republican Transit". All of the founding members of the TWU belonged to the Clan na Gael, a secretive Irish organization, and the first discussions of forming a union took place across the street from a Clan meeting.
The other factor, the Communist Party, supplied organizers, operating funds, and connections with organizations outside the Irish-American community. Two Trade Union Unity League organizers, John Santo and Austin Hogan, met with the Clan na Gael's members in a cafeteria on Columbus Circle on April 12, 1934, the date now used to mark the foundation of the union.
The CP was at that time in the last years of its ultrarevolutionary Third Period, when it sought to form revolutionary unions outside the American Federation of Labor. The party therefore focused both on organizing workers into the union and recruiting members for the Party through mimeographed shop papers with titles such as "Red Shuttle" or "Red Dynamo". The new union appointed Tom O'Shea — who would later become a witness against Quill before the Dies Committee — as its first president, assigning Quill a secondary position.
Quill proved to have more leadership potential than O'Shea, however. He was a persuasive speaker, willing to "soapbox" outside of IRT facilities for hours, and capable of great charm in individual conversations. He also acquired some renown after an incident in 1936, in which some "beakies", the informants used by the IRT to spy on union activities, attacked Quill and five other unionists in a tunnel as they were returning from picketing the IRT's offices. Arrested for inciting to riot, Quill came off as a fighter in his defense of the charges, which were eventually dismissed.
Quill was closely associated with the Communist Party from the outset, but proved rebellious as well. When the Third Period gave way to the Popular Front era, Santo and Hogan directed O'Shea and Quill to abandon efforts to form a new union and to run instead for office in the IRT company union, the Interborough Brotherhood. Quill denounced the plan vociferously, to the point that he was nearly expelled from the union. Quill came around, however, by the next party meeting and began attending Brotherhood meetings — while still recruiting workers there to joint the TWU.
Given the level of surveillance, and consistent with the conspiratorial traditions of Irish political movements, the union proceeded clandestinely, forming small groups of trusted friends in order to keep informers at bay, meeting in isolated locations and in subway tunnels. Those few workers, such as Quill, who were willing to accept identification as union activists also spread the word about the new union by handing out flyers and delivering soapbox speeches in front of company facilities. After a year of organizing, the union formed a Delegates Council, made up of representatives from sections of the system.
In the meantime the new union continued its patient organizing campaign, conducting a number of brief strikes over workplace conditions, but avoiding any large-scale confrontations. That changed on January 23, 1937, when the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT) fired two union members at the Kent Avenue powerhouse plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for union activity. The union launched a successful sitdown strike two days later that solidified the union's support among BMT employees, helped lead to its overwhelming victory in an NLRB-conducted election among the IRT's 13,500 employees later that year and helped bring thousands of other transit employees into the union.
The TWU had joined the International Association of Machinists in 1936 in order to link itself to the AFL in 1936. The union severed its relations with the Machinists and joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations as a national union on May 10, 1937. Quill had already replaced O'Shea as President of the union, while Santo became its Secretary-Treasurer.
The union soon faced challenges within, as dissidents within the union and the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists outside it challenged the CPUSA's dominant position within its officialdom and staff. The CP at that time had almost complete control over the union's administration and CP membership was necessary both to get a job with the union and to rise through its ranks. Former allies such as O'Shea attacked Quill and the CP, both in the publications of rival unions, such as the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees, and in testimony before the Dies Committee.
Quill and the union leadership gave their opponents all the ammunition they needed by following the changes in the CPUSA's foreign policy, moving to a militant policy after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, then coming out against strikes after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Quill shrugged off most of this criticism from outside, haranguing the Dies Committee when it attempted to question him, and disposed of his internal critics by bringing union charges against more than a hundred opponents.
The union faced more serious challenges at home as Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia threatened to revoke the union's status as representative of the employees of the IRT and BMT when the City bought those lines in 1940. Quill had cooperated with LaGuardia when the former ran, successfully, for City Council in 1937, as a candidate of the American Labor Party. In 1940, however, both LaGuardia and Quill became bellicose opponents of each other, with Quill calling a bus drivers' strike that served to demonstrate the union's power if challenged while LaGuardia came out in opposition to collective bargaining, the closed shop and the right to strike for public employees.
The invasion of the Soviet Union changed the Party's opinion of strikes. It is simplistic, on the other hand, to treat this change in strategy as solely the result in the change in Comintern policy. Throughout his career Quill preferred to threaten strikes as leverage to calling them and provoking a decisive test of strength. In addition, the union leadership had reservations in 1941 about the depth of its support among the general public and the employees of the IRT and BMT, many of whom believed that civil service protections gained as employees of the City made union representation less critical. National leaders of the CIO and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration intervened in 1941 to avert a subway strike with an ambiguous agreement that preserved TWU's right to represent its members, even though the City continued to deny it exclusive representation.
The pressure on CP-led unions intensified after the end of World War II. These pressures fell especially hard on the TWU: the government arrested Santo for immigration law violations, and began proceedings to deport him. At the same time, Quill found the CP's political line increasingly hard to take, since it required him to oppose a subway fare increase that he considered necessary for wage increases in 1947, while the CP's support for the candidacy of Henry Wallace threatened to split the CIO. When William Z. Foster, then the general secretary of the CPUSA, told him that the party was prepared to split the CIO to form a third federation and that he might be the logical choice for its leader, Quill decided to break his ties to the CP instead.
Quill applied the same energy to his campaign to drive his former allies out of the union that he had during the union's organizing drives of the 1930s. He was able to enlist the City, in the form of Mayor William O'Dwyer, in his support, winning a large wage increase for subway workers in 1948, that cemented his standing with the membership. After a few inconclusive internal battles, Quill prevailed in 1949, purging not only the officers who had opposed him, but much of the union's staff, down to its secretarial employees.
Unlike some others, such as Joe Curran of the National Maritime Union, "Red Mike" Quill remained on the left within the labor movement — albeit in a political atmosphere in which the boundaries had shifted drastically during the Cold War — after his split with the CP. Quill was the most vocal opponent within the CIO of its merger with the AFL, attacking it for "racism, racketeering and raids". He and the TWU were early supporters of the civil rights movement and Quill was one of the first in the labor movement to oppose the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
Quill and the TWU became even more important figures in New York City politics in the 1950s. He was a key supporter of Robert F. Wagner, Jr.'s campaign for mayor of New York and became a lightning rod, based on his radical past, for Wagner's Republican opponent and unfavorable press attention. While the union repeatedly threatened to take the subway workers out on strike, it managed to settle with the Wagner administration short of a strike on each occasion.
The TWU did not have the same relationship with the administration of John V. Lindsay, a liberal Protestant Republican who had rebuked Quill shortly before taking office in 1966. Lindsay decided to take on the TWU, provoking a twelve day strike. The world's largest subway and bus systems, serving eight million people daily, came to a complete halt. The City obtained an injunction prohibiting the strike and succeeded in imprisoning Quill and seven other leaders of the TWU and the Amalgamated Association, which joined in the stoppage, for contempt of court.
Quill did not waver, responding at a crowed press conference: "The judge can drop dead in his black robes!" The union successfully held out for a sizeable wage increase for the union. Other unions followed suit demanding similar raises.
Ironically, it was Quill, who dropped dead at age 60, three days after the union's victory celebration. He had an initial heart attack when he was sent to jail for contempt. He was interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, NY, after a funeral Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral (New York), his casket draped by the Irish tricolor.
He was first married to Maria Theresa O'Neill, who predeceased him, and had a son, John Daniel Quill (named for Quill's own father). His second wife, who survived him, was Shirley Quill.