On January 13, 1966, the New York City transit strike ended. This strike was notable both for the public sector unions putting newly elected New York Mayor John Lindsay in his place and in being the end of the line for the legendary Mike Quill, the feisty Irish immigrant union leader who led this strike and then died of a heart attack just after it ended.
Public workers in New York City had the right to collective bargaining beginning in 1958, thanks to a bill signed by Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr. What this did in New York City politics was finally undermine the power of Tammany Hall. Unions emerged as the most potent political force in the city by the mid-1960s. In 1965, John Lindsay won election to be mayor of New York, running on an anti-political machine platform. And while he had his points, this was also an attack on the unions controlling Democratic Party politics in the city. As it turned out, the transportation workers contracts expired on January 1, 1966, the same day that Lindsay took office. The unions had a lot of leverage to show Lindsay who was boss and they determined to use it.
On January 1, 1966, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) jointly declared a strike that shut down New York’s transportation system. No subways, no buses. TWU ran the former, ATU the latter. The TWU was led by Mike Quill, an Irish immigrant who was close to both the Irish revolutionaries of his youth and communists. He came to the United States in 1926 and a family member got him a job on a subway. This led him into the fight for dignity for he and his fellow transportation workers. A communist but also someone independent of the party line, Quill was known for his fighting personality, his great charm, and his ability to give a really rousing speech. He broke with the communists entirely after World War II and drove the last unrepentant reds out of the TWU. He was also extremely close to Robert Wagner, Jr., the mayor who had legalized public workers collective bargaining in 1958. Quill was a big reason why that bill passed. But Lindsay, he did not care for Quill. The union leader had always worked out good deals with Wagner without ever having to go on strike. Lindsay wanted a fight. So he got one. He rejected Quill’s demands. And Quill was ready to show the new mayor who was in charge.
The immediate response of the city was to crack down. It sought an injunction and a judge gladly gave one. The unions actually reduced their economic demands the next day, but the judge ordered all the leaders arrested. Now, Quill was very sick. He would die soon after. His declining health was well-known. Quill used this to his advantage. He told the press, “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.” And he did not. Quill was jailed but his health was so bad that he was sent to the hospital almost immediately. His deputy Doug MacMahon, the TWU Secretary-Treasurer, took over the strike leadership. Some of the battle in this strike was also a larger class war–the immigrants of New York City versus the tony Upper West Side Ivy League-educated elite represented by Lindsey. This was a huge strike. Think about how reliant New York is on public transportation. There were about 5 million daily subway or bus rides in the city at that time. Children could not get to school, workers could not get to their jobs.
Check out this great press conference recording from Quill and his fantastic brogue from strike. This is not a man messing around. Among the great things is that when a reporter asked him who was responsible for the leaders being about to go to jail, Quill responded, “The editorial writers for the New York Times!” I like this guy.
The two sides got serious as the strike went on. Negotiations picked up after a January 10 event when 15,000 workers picketed at City Hall. Finally, in the wee hours of January 13, an agreement was reached. It was a good package for the workers. Wages increased by about 25 percent, workers received one more paid holiday, and won a wide array of additional benefits. Over the next eight years, pay rose for the transit workers by an average of nine percent a year.
Quill was released from the hospital on January 25. His health seemed to be on the mend. He gave a big victory speech to the workers and then died on January 28.
Lindsay learned his lesson. Faced with repeated public sector strikes, with the teachers strikes of 1967 and 1968 and a sanitation workers strike in 1968, Lindsay realized he had to bring unions into his coalition if he wanted reelection. And he did so successfully, gaining their support for his second term.
But also, the state of New York passed the Taylor Law in the aftermath of the strike. This law recognized collective bargaining for the state’s public sector workers but also placed limitations on their striking, making it a fireable offense, though that was often easier said than done. A state labor relations board was created to handle public sector bargaining. Though this all replaced the prison sentences that helped send Quill to his grave, it did definitely incentivize unions not going on strike since it would cost them a lot of money to do so.
You can listen to a 2002 NPR interview with legendary reporter Jimmy Breslin about the strike. The TWU has created this great 22-minute video celebrating their huge 1966 victory. Check it out.
I was in a big hurry to write this post before my Cuba trip and did not have time to research it in the depth I would like. Luckily, there is lots of good material about it online. The best book about the TWU, Quill, and the strike is by the labor historian Joshua Freeman. Check it out.
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