Mike Quill: The Irishman Martin Luther King described as ‘a man the ages will remember’

Mike Quill greets Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King at a Transport Workers Union convention in 1961. Picture: TWU Archive

In 1966, an Irishman was blamed for bringing New York to a standstill. Described by Martin Luther King as ‘a man the ages will remember’, Ryle Dwyer chronicles the life of Mike Quill 

This time 50 years ago, people throughout the US were talking about an Irishman who was being blamed for a transport strike that was crippling New York City. The New York Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the strike, but Mike Quill, president of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), tore up the court ruling order in front of television cameras.

“The judge can drop dead in his black robes,” Quill said. The strike was continuing and he would go to jail, but as he being taken to jail, he suffered a heart attack and ended up in hospital instead.

Quill was born in Gortloughera near Kilgarvan, Co Kerry, on September 18, 1905, the second youngest of eight children. As a 14-year-old, he became a message carrier and scout for the No 2 Kerry Brigade of the IRA during the War of Independence. His family home and his uncle’s house in Kilgarvan were renowned for revolutionary sympathies.

Quill participated in the Civil War as an IRA volunteer. Free State troops seized Kenmare on August 11, 1922, but Republicans retook the town two days later.

The 17-year-old Quill was one of those who took part in that engagement, one of the few real military victories enjoyed by the Republicans.

After the civil war, Quill felt he had little chance of a job at home and his only real option was emigration. He arrived in the New York City on March 16, 1926.

Still only 20 years old, his first job there was in construction on the New York subway, but he did not feel suited for construction work.

After a variety of jobs, he went to work as a ticket agent for the Interboro Rapid Transit Company (IRT), which was the biggest subway operation in the US.

Working conditions there were horrendous. Quill was often required to be in attendance for four hours without pay until work might finally become available, and then he was condemned to a slave-driving schedule of 84 hours a week — 12 hours a night, seven nights a week for 33c an hour. There was no sick leave, holidays, or pension rights.

While moving from station to station, he got to know many of the IRT employees, especially those Irish migrants who had fled to the US in the wake of the troubles at home. He jokingly referred to them as the Irish Republican Transit.

Although he had only had a national school education, he studied at night and read up on James Connolly, whom he greatly admired for patriotism and his drive in unionising workers. Quill and Thomas H O’Shea, a native of Queenstown (now Cobh), were the two main founders of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) on April 12, 1934. At the time it had close ties with the Communist Party.

O’Shea was selected as the union’s first president, but he was soon replaced by Quill, who worked fulltime as TWU president for almost 30 years.

With the help of trusted colleagues to identify union activists, Quill built up the union in a patient manner, conducting some brief protests, or strikes over working conditions while avoiding major confrontations. The union, which began with 400 members, quickly won over all 14,000 IRT employees.

The first strike that Quill called was on January 23, 1937, in support of two men who were fired by Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation for union activity. The sit-down strike won the enthusiastic support of other company employees and helped to boost the TWU’s membership to 45,000.

On July 4, 1937, the TWU signed its first contract with the IRT. Union membership stipulated that all members should be treated equally and justly, regardless of race, or creed. Hitherto a black person could only work as a porter on underground trains, but this rapidly changed under Quill’s leadership.

Unlike other unions, which treated black people as second-class citizens, Quill was a quarter of a century ahead of his time in insisting on treating them properly. The TWU appointed Clarence King, an Afro-American porter, to its executive board. “If we, black and white, Catholic and non-Catholic, Jew and gentile, are good enough to slave and sweat together, then we are good enough to unite and fight together,” Quill proclaimed in 1938.

He opposed the Irish-American demagogue Fr Charles E Coughlin, who was famous for his radio broadcasts throughout the US. In the process, Quill provoked the ire of Fr Edward Lodge Curran and his Christian Front movement.

The two priests were rabidly anti- Semitic, but Quill took them on openly. In June 1939, he organised a rally against anti-Semitism in the South Bronx, which was predominantly Irish-American. Christian Front literature denounced Quill as “Red Mike,” an agent of “Judeo-communists.”

In 1940, Quill was called before a Congressional hearing of the notorious House Committee of un-American Activities about communist involvement in the TWU. He confronted the chairman Martin Dies, who promptly decided to go into private session.

“You are afraid to hear the truth about our union,” Quill snapped. “You can’t take it, but the American labour movement will live.”

That committee was building the notorious reputation that it developed during the 1950s when Senator Joe McCarthy poisoned American politics with his red smear tactics. Racist opponents tried to smear the civil rights movement as a communist front. It was a measure of Quill’s standing that he managed to avoid the worst of the smears.

Quill successfully ended a wildcat strike of white members in Philadelphia who were trying to block the promotion of eight black porters. In 1961, when 25 TWU airline workers in Tennessee protested against the union’s support for the Civil Rights desegregation campaign, Quill’s response was to invite the Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King to address a TWU convention.

He introduced King to the gathering as “the man who is entrusted with the banner of American liberty that was taken from Lincoln when he was shot 95 years ago.”

“Dr King’s life at this moment is in just as great danger as was Lincoln’s,” Quill added. “And he has to walk with care if he is to continue to lead this crusade.”

Quill was a crusader himself. “Most of my life I’ve been called a lunatic because I believe that I am my brother’s keeper,” he explained in summing up his philosophy of life. “I organise poor and exploited workers, I fight for the civil rights of minorities, and I believe in peace. It appears to have become old-fashioned to make social commitments — to want a world free of war, poverty and disease. This is my religion.”

The conditions of his union members had changed beyond all recognition during Quill’s tenure as TWU president. Yet throughout his career, until his final month, he only initiated one strike. Some thought he was afraid to lead a major strike, but they were wrong.

On January 1, 1966, the mayor of New York called TWU’s bluff, but Quill was not bluffing in threatening to paralyse the New York subway. “The Transport Workers Union is on strike,” Quill announced on television during the early hours of the New Year. “The issues will now be decided on the streets of New York.”

After 12 days, the subway bosses capitulated and offered the TWU acceptable terms. Quill had won, but he had little time to enjoy his success. He died just days later on January 28, 1966.

“He spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man,” Martin Luther King declared in a tribute following Quill’s death. “This is a man the ages will remember.”


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