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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 807

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This is the grave of Mike Quill.

Born in County Kerry, Ireland in 1905, Quill fought in the Irish Republican Army between 1919 and 1921, mostly as a dispatch rider. There stories later of him robbing a bank for the revolution, but this is almost certainly hooey, or perhaps since it is Ireland, blarney. He was however involved in direct fighting between pro and anti-treaty factions over the town of Kenmare, which happens to be where my wife’s family is from. Quill is a hero of sorts in her family, sorta because of his union work but really because he is a famous guy from the area who fought for Irish independence. Quill was on the anti-side though and postwar Ireland was kind of a mess anyway. No one had any many. He worked as a carpenter, but certainly didn’t have any friends in politics. So, like so many Irish, he came to the United States in 1926 and got a job on the trains in New York, working as a ticket agent. He quit that for awhile to work at a bootlegger but was back on the trains by 1929. It was not a good job at all. The transportation companies were among the worst employers in the country. 12 hour days were common and sometimes 84 hour weeks. He started reading labor history in whatever time he had off and particularly became inspired by the Irish working class leader James Connolly.

In April 1934, Mike Quill and six others met in a cafeteria at Columbus Circle, along with Communist Party members, and talked about the need to form a real union. As they said, they wanted to fight “the misery, the labor spies, the blacklists, the firings, the yellow‐dog contracts, the discrimination.” But Quill and the other Transport Union Workers of America members, happy to work with the communists, effectively deployed their ties of Irish nationalism. In fact, the TWU name built on the Irish traditions of Jim Larkin and James Connolly, who had formed the Irish Transport and General Workers Union twenty years earlier. Explicitly connecting the new leftism with Irish republicanism was a way to build ideas of solidarity within the workforce, giving them a common identity as workers to rally around. The CP was able to recruit mostly from those who had ties to Irish nationalism. Quill for instance was not a leftist in any real sense when he came to the U.S. But influenced by his life in Ireland, he started making connections between the Irish struggle and that of workers globally, not to mention himself.

Quill was close to both Irish revolutionaries and communists in New York. This was not a guy to be trifled with. 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.

The TWU built upon the longtime militancy of urban transportation workers and were ready to take advantage of the new conditions of the New Deal to demand their rights. These were workers who really needed unionization. At times, they might work 70-84 hour weeks. Quill was willing to take on the very real physical threat of being a lead organizer. Making yourself publicly was a great way to get beaten up or worse. But Quill decided it was a risk worth taking. He was the guy handing out flyers and doing the public work that was really dangerous at that time. The CP convinced Quill and a few others to infiltrate the company union in order to recruit there, which he initially resisted, but which proved to be an effective strategy in industries with large company union structures, including steel.

In July 1935, the nascent TWA began pushing the envelope. On July 9, six squeegee workers, who cleaned the glass of the trains, refused to use the more difficult and heavy 14 inch squeegees instead of the standard 10 inch ones. They were fired. The workers were ready for this and mobilized to protest the termination of their comrades. Two days later, after a strike, the workers were reinstated. The organizing continued. On August 10, as Quill and the others–Herbert C. Holmstrom, Thomas H. O’Shea, Patrick McHugh and Serafino Machado–were about to enter union headquarters, company thugs appeared and beat them up. The New York Police Department, happy to work with the companies, then arrested the union leaders for inciting a riot, even though they had done nothing of the sort. But the workers were ready to act and immediately descended upon the courthouse, collecting their own money to bail them all out. They were released within the day. The courts threw out the charges. And this incident became organizing lore in the TWU.

Over the next few years, 30,000 workers would gain union contracts thanks to the militancy of the TWU and the new organizing framework of the New Deal. It became one of the first unions to join the CIO. It took a few years to build up the union but by the end of the 1936, it pretty much dominated the IRT and was moving on the other companies. They had to contend with growing opposition from the Catholic Church, which was not opposed to unionism per se, but was very strongly opposed to any union with communist ties, which the TWU very much had at this time. On other hand, with Dorothy Day using her column in Catholic Worker to tell workers to join the TWU, the church’s message was divided. Moreover, there was a lot of anticlericalism among the Irish workers at this time because the church had been opposed to violence in the republicanism movement, disgusting many. By the summer of 1937, the TWU was winning election after election in the new labor regime ushered in by the National Labor Relations Act. It soon moved beyond New York and began organizing transit workers in other cities.

Quill broke with the communists entirely after World War II and drove the last unrepentant reds out of the TWU. The reason in the end was, other than him being pretty pragmatic and not someone to take orders, is that William Z. Foster said that the CPUSA was thinking of splitting the CIO into two and create a pro-communist federation. Realizing this was a terrible idea, he left the CP entirely. This hardly meant he became some anti-communist zealot. He did drive all the commies out of his union, but that was much more because they were going to take orders from the CP rather than the TWU. He was furious when the CIO decided to merge with the AFL in 1955. Denouncing the AFL as standing for “racism, racketeering and raids,” probably no CIO leader was more vocal in opposing the merger, though of course all the old communist union leaders already expelled from the CIO would have felt the same.

Speaking of race, Quill was strongly committed to an integrated union, even though that was most certainly not supported by a lot of his Irish-American membership. In 1939, the TWU held the first desegregated union meeting in New Orleans since Reconstruction. In 1941, Quill stated publicly that he would fight until ‘”he color-line is wiped out . . . and that the Negro and white workers will have equal rights in this country.” He actively supported the civil rights movement in the 1950s. In 1960, the TWU started a fund to pay the bail of civil rights activists arrested in the South and in 1961, Quill invited Martin Luther King to be the keynote speaker at the TWU Convention. Quill also paid for many TWU members to join the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. So this wasn’t just lip service from Quill; this was a genuine anti-racist union leader. Quill also took on Father Charles Coughlin directly in the 1930s, denouncing anti-Semitism and that fascist scumbag in a priest’s garb.

Quill 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 John 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. His heart was failing. 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.

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. He was 60 years old.

Martin Luther King said this of Quill shortly after the union’s leader death:

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. Negroes had desperately needed men like Mike Quill who fearlessly said what was true even when it offended. That is why Negroes shall miss Mike Quill.

Mike Quill is buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other union leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. United Steel Workers of America president David McDonald is in Cathedral City, California and United Mine Workers of America Secretary-Treasurer and then American Federation of Labor head William Green is in Coshocton, Ohio. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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