The Kerryman (Tralee Edition) - - NEWS -

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

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