NEW YORK SET TO CELEBRATE LEGACY OF UNION LEADER MIKE QUILL
KERRY NATIVE, WHO TOOK ON RULING ELITE OF NEW YORK AS LEADER OF THE TRANSPORT WORKERS’ UNION, FOCUS OF COMMEMORATION
LEGENDARY New York trade union boss Mike Quill is the focus of a massive commemoration at the end of the month in the Big Apple.
The Kerry man, who was born in the town land of Gortlouchera close to Kilgarvan, displayed all the political cunning of his native soil in a revered career advocating for ordinary workers.
Famously, he brought New York to its knees in the 1966 all-out strike of the Transport Workers’ Union, when the Kerry man went head-to-head with the waspish Mayor of New York, John Lindsay. He won a huge victory for his members, but the toll of the big fight would prove fatal as Mike succumbed to a heart attack on January 28, aged just 60.
Now, on the 53rd anniversary of his death. both the Transport Workers’ Union and the Kerry P&B Association of New York – of which Mike was a key member – join forces for a ‘major commemoration’ of a man ‘the ages will remember’ as Martin Luther King Jnr famously said of him. The event is to take place at the Kerry Hall in Yonkers on January 26 next.
Mike emigrated to New York in 1926 and was hired as a ticket agent in the subway system by ‘28. The working conditions for all transport workers were disgraceful – long hours, low pay and no healthcare or vacation benefits.
Mike was focused on changing this dastardly situation. With help from some equally determined Irish Republicans and with strong support from the Communist Party in New York, he confronted directly the house unions that rubberstamped company employee policies, and in 1934 the Transport Workers’ Union was founded in Manhattan.
Most of the workers were Irish because, according to Mike, they had the big advantage of being able to speak English. He always kept a photograph of James Connolly in his office, and he claimed that the Irish hero and President Lincoln were the two people who influenced him most.
In 1935 the TWU negotiated a contract for its members which opened the door for a flood of new applicants from other transit groups in New York and, indeed, throughout the whole country. Mike served as international president from the late 1940s until his death in 1966.
In New York, subway contracts always terminated on New Year’s Eve, and Mike – with flair and swagger, mingled with wit and anger – would inevitably warn that, without a contract, a strike was imminent. Somehow the cliff-hanger threat never happened, and a new contract would be signed at the last minute.
In January, 1966, John Lindsay started his term as mayor.
His predecessor, Mayor Wagner, told Mike he could not negotiate a new contract with him because it would intrude on the financial policies of his successor. Lindsay refused to engage in serious negotiations, and Mike called an all-out strike for the first day of the new year. Without transportation, New York City was effectively closed down.
A court issued an injunction against the union, and Mike and the other leaders were sentenced to jail. Mike’s memorable response to the judge was that “he could drop dead in his black robes”.
The Kilgarvan man had a heart problem, which was certainly aggravated by all the tension of the strike, and was only a few days in jail when he was transferred to hospital. The strike was settled with major gains for the workers. Mike was elated with their success, but a few days later, on January 28, he died at the age of 60.
Martin Luther King described him as a ‘pioneer in race relations’ for his efforts on behalf of workers of all ethnicities, leading the tributes back in 1960.
“Negroes desperately needed men like Mike Quill who fearlessly said what was true even though it offended. That is why Negroes will miss Mike Quill,” was how Dr Luther King movingly put it following the sad passing of the man from Gortlouchera.
Revered transport union leader and Kerry man Mike Quill