Legendary Union Leader

View of 153-159 West 64th Street from South.  Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive.

Legendary Union Leader

by Claudie Benjamin

Mike J. Quill who founded the Transport Workers Union and served as its President for 30 years (1935-1966) [1] was one of a rare breed. He fought to the end for what he believed to be right. Quill was already a legend for his role in the fierce, ultimately failed civil war for Irish independence. Blacklisted, he came to New York in 1926 when he was 20, worked odd jobs, and then found steady employment as a NYC subway worker.

“Working conditions there (in the subways) were horrendous.” Quill was often required to be in attendance for 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 33-cents an hour. There was no sick leave, holidays, or pension rights. [2]

Quill made his way up becoming a spokesman for the workers of the subway system. He brashly took on anyone who opposed his efforts to improve wages and work conditions. He believed in and practiced respect for people of all races and religions. He created the Transport Workers Union [3] with its headquarters at 153 West 64th Street. [4] Quill spent long hours there and in the early days used this as his home address. 

Starting in 1934 Quill and early supporters were a successful organizing force among New York City transit workers. He secured the support of the Communist Party, later breaking from that group in 1945. By 1950, 100,000 subway workers had joined the TWU. Today known as the Transport Workers Union of America, the organization expanded during the 1940s and 1950s to establish locals across the country for railroad and airline workers, utility workers, and taxi drivers, among others. [5]

A pattern of threatening a strike, negotiating, and then calling off the strike was turned on its head during the 1960s. As President of the TWU, Quill, a fiery leader, was bold in confronting Mayor John Lindsay by refusing to halt a transit strike in 1966 that paralyzed the city. He and other leaders of the union went to jail for disregarding a New York Supreme Court court order to stop the strike.

He was condemned to a slave-driving schedule of 84 hours a week — 12 hours a night, seven nights a week for 33-cents an hour.

Quill, who had a long-time heart condition collapsed while in prison. He was treated at Knickerbocker Hospital. When a settlement was agreed upon, he returned home.  Within two weeks he died at the apartment he shared with his wife Shirley at 15 West 72nd Street. He was 60.  At his wake, his wife suddenly cried out “it can’t be. It can’t be.” [6] Her pain in many ways was like the scores of workers and labor activists who admired Quill for his devotion to a cause they shared.

Not only was he an advocate for working people, but notably, “Quill was a consistent advocate for the civil rights movement and for the activities of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. [7]

He believed in equality to his core. “He spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man,” Martin Luther King Jr, said in a tribute following Quill’s death. “This is a man the ages will remember.” [8]

NYC’s vast and complex urban subway system has been as important to riders as it has been fraught with challenges. These issues have ranged from accidents during the construction of the subway, the safety and ventilation of the trains carrying thousands of riders every day, schedule delays, (mis)-use of the subways by the homeless, and those with mental health problems, graffiti defacing trains, muggings and other crimes.  Out of the 1930’s the egregious work conditions of subway workers rose to the fore. Quill led others to fight for change.

Quill Announcing Transit Strike

Image Courtesy TWU Local 568, ca. 26 December 1961

In his book about the history of the TWU from 2933 through the end of the ‘66 strike, Joshua Freeman wrote about the outcome of the strike:

“Transport workers won a big pay increase, other benefits.” He commented, “And other workers looked at this and said. ‘You know. This kind of works.’ So it promoted unionization and was followed by a number of very big strikes. [8]

Quill’s wife Shirley, worked with him in the Transport Workers Union from its earliest days in the mid-1930’s. “She also managed his two successful campaigns for the City Council. He served two two-year terms in the Council, from 1937 to 1939 and from 1943 to 1945.” [9] Shirley’s biography of her husband “Mike Quill-Himself,” was published in 1985.

After her husband’s death, she moved to Lincoln Towers on the Upper West Side where she was a leader in representing tenants’ interests in the conversion of the 4,000 rental units into cooperative apartments. In later years, “She was also active in women’s causes and in local West Side politics.” [10]

Michael J. Quill’s name recently came up in the media when Governor Kathy Hochul announced that a fleet of 60 new environmentally-friendly electric buses for under-served communities will be put out on the streets of NYC. She made the announcement standing on the cracked floor of the Michael J. Quill Bus Depot on 11th Avenue and 41st Street. [11] It was reported that because of this accident waiting to happen, at least temporarily, buses will have to be sheltered elsewhere. [12]

Will the Michael J. Quill Bus Depot be repaired?  That is a question for the future.

“Transport workers won a big pay increase, other benefits.” He commented 


[1] https://snaccooperative.org/ark:/99166/w6jf72hg

[2] https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/commentanalysis/arid-20378101.html

[3] IBID

[4] http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/digital/collections/rbml/lehman/pdfs/0753/ldpd_leh_0753_0011.pdf

[5] http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/tamwag/photos_032/bioghist.html

[6] https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1966/01/29/79294371.html?pageNumber=1”

[7] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/quill-michael-joseph

[8] https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/commentanalysis/arid-20378101.html

[9] https://www.ny1.com/nyc/brooklyn/transit/01/7/transit-strike-of-1966-remembered-for-cementing-transport-workers-union-s-

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/1991/09/28/obituaries/shirley-garry-quill-tenant-organizer-76.html

[11] https://w42st.com/post/michael-quill-bus-depot-cracks-rooftop/

[12] https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/earth-day-governor-hochul-announces-mta-expand-next-wave-deployment-zero-emission-buses-six

Claudie Benjamin is journalist who writes for LANDMARK WEST!

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