Irish trade unionist Manus O’Riordan pays tribute to life and work of the Kerry-born founder of the Transport Workers Union of America Michael J Quill, fighter for Irish independence, social justice and racial equality
IT IS indeed a great honour that we have among us this evening a delegation from the Transport Workers Union of America who are visiting the birthplace of their union -- south Kerry.
One of the most abiding TV memories of my school days was in 1966 when the newly-elected mayor of New York, John Lindsay, responded to media goading and decided he would try to face down the Transport Workers Union. But he met more than his match when he was confronted by New York’s first ever city-wide transit strike.
It was then that I saw and heard on screen the leader of that strike, Michael J. Quill, denounce, with all his Kerry-accented verbal eloquence, both the mayor and the judge who was sending him to prison for violating an anti-strike injunction.
Quill persevered and led the union, which he had founded in 1934, to win its greatest contract ever. Tragedy followed victory. On January 28, 1966, three days after speaking at the mass rally called to celebrate that new contract, Mike Quill was dead.
Against all medical advice he had insisted on leading his members in that momentous struggle. He had literally given his life on the picket-line.
Mike Quill’s fighting spirit had been nurtured in the Kerry mountains. He was born in Kilgarvan on September 18, 1905. During Ireland’s war of independence from 1919 to 1921 the teenage Mike Quill was a dispatch rider when his family home served as headquarters of the Kerry no.2 brigade of the Irish Republican Army.
His uncle’s house, also in Kilgarvan, was yet another home so renowned for its revolutionary sympathies that the British occupying garrison of Black-and-Tans derisively nick-named it ‘Liberty Hall’.
In the tragic civil war that followed the Anglo-Irish treaty Mike Quill participated in the republican capture of the town of Kenmare. It was, however, a short-lived victory before the defeat of the side on which he fought.
During those years Mike Quill also had his first experience of industrial struggle when he and his brother John were fired for staging a sit-in strike in a Kenmare saw-mill.
Thereafter an employment black-list prevailed against Quill, as both a defeated republican fighter and a sacked industrial activist, leaving him no other option but emigration.
So it was that on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day 1926 Mike Quill first set foot in the New York City he would make his own. Following a variety of jobs Quill finally took up employment in 1929 as a ticket agent with the Interboro Rapid Transit Company (IRT), the largest subway operation in the USA.
Working conditions were horrendous, with Mike often required to be in attendance for four hours without pay until work might finally become available, and then condemned to a slave-driving schedule -- 12 hours a night, seven nights a week.
In 1961 he recalled: “During those twelve hour nights we’d chat about the motormen, conductors, guards etc. whose conditions were even worse. They had to work a ‘spread’ of 16 hours each day in order to get 10 hours pay. Negro workers could get jobs only as porters. They were subjected to treatment that makes Little Rock and Birmingham seem liberal and respectable by comparison …
“I also saw Catholic ticket agents fired by Catholic bosses for going to mass early in the morning while the porter ‘covered’ the booth for half an hour. Protestant bosses fired Protestant workers for similar crimes -- going to church. The Jewish workers had no trouble with the subway bosses -- Jews were denied employment in the transit lines”.
At that time 50 percent of New York’s transit workers were Irish. Mike Quill and other politicised immigrants began to associate in the Irish Workers’ Clubs that had been established in New York by James Gralton, the only Irishman ever to be deported from his native land because of his political activities.
These Irish immigrant workers formed the nucleus of a leadership that would give birth to a new Union in New York.Through the Irish Workers’ Clubs they learned that James Connolly had not only been an executed leader of the 1916 national rising. They also learned that he had been an Irish trade union leader and, more significantly, an American union organiser as well.
In his 1910 pamphlet The Axe to the Root Connolly had written in great detail of how craft divisions had ensured the defeat of a recent strike of New York transit workers and how much a new model of industrial unionism was required.
Quill and his comrades devoured Connolly’s teachings and a quarter of a century later put them into practice with the foundation of just such a Union on 12April, 1934.
But why, then, did these transit (the American-English word for tranport) workers call their new union the Transport Workers Union of America?
It was in honour of SIPTU’s predecessor, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union of Larkin and Connolly, whose history had inspired them to go and do likewise.
Beginning with just 400 members, it fought successfully to organise and represent all 14,000 employed by the IRT. In the next largest subway company -- the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit or BMT line -- the successful 1937 sit-down strike led to further victories which soon brought total union membership to 45,000. In the late 1940s membership was further extended to embrace utility and airline workers.
Throughout this period Quill remained politically focused. In 1937 he was elected to the New York City Council on behalf of the American Labour Party and on the final occasion on which he stood for the City Council in 1945, he was elected on the first ballot. Indeed, he was the first candidate to be elected in the entire city. Nor was he afraid to risk the popularity that came his way when his principles demanded that he should swim against the tide.
In 1969 and 1970 when I was a student in the United States and was protesting against the Vietnam War I knew how much we were still a minority viewpoint. And yet as early as 1965, at his last union convention, Mike Quill had the courage of his convictions to confront his members with his own forthright opposition to that war.
Three decades earlier Quill had also risked unpopularity with much of his membership by supporting the Spanish republic and its right to defend itself against fascist rebellion and aggression.
In Christmas 1937, in the wake of his victory in the New York City Council elections, Mike Quill briefly returned to Ireland in order to marry Molly O’Neill of Cahersiveen. And yet he still found time to have a meeting with a 20 year old Cork volunteer about to set out to fight in defence of the Spanish Republic, my own father Michael O’Riordan.
Quill had already seen a neighbour’s child from Kilgarvan make that internationalist commitment to Spain -- Michael Lehane, who would subsequently serve in the Norwegian Merchant Navy on the trans-Atlantic convoys of World War II and who would give up his life in the cause of anti-fascism when his ship fell victim to a Nazi U-boat attack in 1943.
Mike Quill was a man ahead of his time in so many different ways.
Here in Ireland, as we are still struggling to overcome the situation where this country has the worst provision of childcare services in the European Union, it is worth remembering that in 1944 Quill had introduced a bill into the New York City Council to establish free childcare centres for working mothers.
And as issues of racism in varying guises now need to be confronted in Ireland, we can also learn from Quill’s inspired leadership. An unequivocal and relentless foe of all forms of anti-Semitism, Quill declared at the end of World War II: “We licked the race haters in Europe, but the millions of Jewish dead cannot be restored to life”.
Mike Quill was a Kerryman who was never afraid to court unpopularity by fearlessly tackling any anti-Semitism encountered among his fellow-Irishmen. In the 1930s the anti-Semitism of Father Charles Coughlin’s Christian Front and the associated stormtroopers of America’s Christian Mobilisers was finding a sympathetic hearing among significant sections of New York’s Irish.
Quill took them on head-to-head in June 1939 when he staged a rally against anti-Semitism in a 95 percent Irish district of the South Bronx and won over the overwhelming majority of the four thousand Irish who came to hear him. He was in the best traditions of James Connolly himself who, in 1902, had issued a Yiddish-language address to Jewish immigrant workers in Dublin.
Throughout his life Quill also fought relentlessly against colour prejudice. In marked contrast to other railroad unions of the 1930s, which either excluded black workers entirely or accorded them only second class status, the Transport Workers Union from the very outset declared it was open to all workers without regard to colour.
Indeed, the African-American IRT porter Clarence King was elected to the very first TWU executive board. Here again Quill was prepared to face down reactionary white racism whenever it raised its ugly head among his own Union membership.
In 1944 he successfully brought to an end a boss-inspired wildcat strike of white members in Philadelphia who had been encouraged to rebel against a Union contract which had secured promotion rights to the grade of conductor for eight black porters.
In 1961, when Quill received a letter allegedly written by twenty-five TWU airline workers in Tennessee protesting against the union’s support for the civil rights desegregation campaign, his immediate response was to invite the civil rights leader Martin Luther King to address that year’s union convention. Quill introduced him with the following prophetic words: “We may very well be making history here ... in the presence of 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 was almost stabbed to death, has been shot at, has been arrested more often than anybody in the United States, south and north … Dr. King’s life at this moment is in just as great danger as was Lincoln’s. And he has to walk with care if he is to continue to lead this crusade”.
Quill’s own death in 1966 spared him from seeing his prediction of the murder of Martin Luther King come true.
As for Quill’s philosophy of life, he summed it up as follows: “I believe in the Corporal Works of Mercy, the Ten Commandments, the American Declaration of Independence and James Connolly’s outline of a socialist society… Most of my life I’ve been called a lunatic because I believe that I am my brother’s keeper. 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”.
On the occasion of Quill’s death one speaker paid the following tribute: “Mike Quill was a fighter for decent things all his life -- Irish independence, labour organisation and racial equality. He spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man. This is a man the ages will remember”.
That was praise indeed -- particularly when we recall that the speaker in question was none other than that outstanding twentieth century beacon of freedom the Reverend Martin Luther King.
The above is an edited version of Manus Manus O’Riordan’s address to the SIPTU south west region’s biennial delegate conference held in Killarney, Co. Kerry on 11 October, 2002. Manus O’Riordan is SIPTU’s national head of research.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2002 Manus O'Riordan