Mike Quill, founder of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), was an IRA legend who took the fight to the corrupt bosses exploiting workers of all ethnic backgrounds in America.
I vividly remember sitting in a car, waiting for a traffic light to change, on Perry Street in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early days of 1966. The radio was on and the voice of Michael J. Quill came on. “The judge,” roared Quill in a thick brogue, “can drop dead in his black robes!” My County Louth-born father howled in delight. I think, now, it was my introduction to Irish revolutionary politics.
In those cold January days Quill—whose Transit Workers Union (TWU) had struck the subways and buses and brought the world’s greatest city to its knees—was vilified in the eyes of New Yorkers. How dare he, that Commie, “Red Mike”! But he didn’t care. Nothing could frighten Quill.
He had fought the Black and Tans back home in his native County Kerry. He had gone against the Treaty and fought the Free State army during the Irish Civil War. And he had come to New York and fought the thugs the transit bosses used to terrorize subway workers to keep them in their place.
To understand Quill, you have to understand the Irish and what makes the Irish so Irish. Quill was a unique combination of revolutionary Michael Collins—a brilliant organizer who was not afraid to innovate on the go and use guerrilla tactics when he had to—and Barry Fitzgerald, the Oscar-winning Irish actor who was never afraid to steal a scene no matter how big the star he was playing against.
Quill even looked like Fitzgerald and you could image Quill leading John Wayne by the hand in The Quiet Man. It was a rare combination of wit, guile and charisma that made him one of the greatest American labor leaders of the 20th century.
From the IRA to the IRT
Michael Quill was born in Gortloughera, Kilgarvan, County Kerry, on September 18, 1905. [See Michael Quill in the 1911 Irish Census]
His father was a farmer with a keen sense of justice. “My father,” recalled Quill, “knew where every fight against an eviction had taken place in all the parishes around.” This sense of justice resulted during the War of Independence in Quill, as a teenager, becoming a member of the 3rd Battalion, Kerry No. 2 Brigade Headquarters of the IRA.
Mary Healy Shea, daughter of Tim Healy, the intelligence officer for Quill’s brigade, remembered his exploits: “Michael was only fifteen at the time. He was on a scouting mission and stumbled on a patrol of Black and Tans asleep in a ditch at the foot of the mountain. He was alone. Instead of running away, he stole all their ammunition without rousing them and gleefully returned to Gortloughera with his loot.”
We know much about Quill because of the work of his second wife, Shirley, and her outstanding biography, Mike Quill—Himself: A Memoir, which was published in 1985. “Michael,” wrote Shirley, “graduated to a rifle and organized thirty lads in the village into an IRA Scout group, which conducted drills several times a week.
“Almost every important leader connected with the movement passed through Gortloughera at some time: Liam Deacy, Tom Barry, Sean Moylan, Seamus Robinson, Dan Breen, Liam Lynch, Eamon de Valera, Erskine Childers, Humphrey Murphy. Michael met them all. Before he left Ireland, many were dead, ambushed, executed. He had had the rare opportunity as a teenager to be in touch with the minds and hearts of some of Ireland’s most inspired patriots.”
Quill went against the Treaty and fought Michael Collins’ National Army. Of all the western counties, Kerry suffered the most. Led by General Paddy O’Daly, the former leader of Collins’ Squad, atrocities were committed by the Free Staters at Ballyseedy and elsewhere resulting in the deaths of 23 anti-Treaty soldiers who were murdered by dynamite. This unbelievable brutality and injustice was to mark Quill for life.
Being on the wrong side of the Treaty there were few jobs available and Quill set out for America. Quill arrived in New York on the day before St. Patrick’s Day in 1926. He stayed at his Aunt Kate’s railroad flat on East 104th Street in Harlem. He had $3.42 in his pocket.
To say Quill became an American jack-of-all-trades would be an understatement. Quill’s occupations in the years after his arrival in New York included salesman, elevator operator, able seaman, railroad trainmen, booze smuggler during Prohibition, ditch digger, coal passer, peddler of roach powder and religious pictures.
It was during his peddler days he saw the terrible conditions that people in the Pennsylvania coal country lived in and wrote his father, according to Shirley Quill, “that the cows and pigs in Kerry were better housed and fed than were the miners’ children in America.”
An Acolyte of James Connolly
After his ramblings Quill returned to New York and secured a job working for the Interboro Rapid Transit Company (IRT) where he became ticket agent Michael J. Quill, Pass Number 3355, making 33 cents an hour.
The IRT was becoming a haven for the diaspora of Irishmen who were on the wrong side in the Irish Civil War. Why were there so many Irish working the subways? “Because they spoke English,” Quill said. “They could read, write, make change and communicate, in some fashion, with the riding public.
The immigrant wave of the twenties brought strong young men from the farmlands; they could withstand the rigors of working twelve to fourteen hours each day, seven days a week. They were a hardy breed.”
But the Irish were not the only ones working underground for the IRT and Quill knew all of them. “Negro workers could get jobs only as porters,” remembered Quill. “They were subjected to treatment that makes Little Rock and Birmingham seem liberal and respectable by comparison…I 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 not employed in the transit lines.”
Working the twelve-hour overnight lobster shift, Quill began his education. He brought with him a 100-watt light bulb to replace the generic 15-watt IRT-issued bulb. Then he began to read.
His greatest inspiration was James Connolly, the leader of the Transport Workers Union in Dublin who was executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Rising. “Connolly’s two basic theories,” wrote Shirley Quill in her biography of her husband, “were to guide Mike Quill’s thinking for the next three decades: that economic power precedes and conditions political power, and that the only effective and satisfactory expression of the workers’ demands is to be found politically in a separate and independent labor party, and economically in the industrial union…
"James Connolly had provided the blueprint: raise an army to fight the exploiters as once the Irish had fought the British tyrants. The instrument of liberation was theirs to create. The torch had been lit. Mike Quill had stumbled across the threshold of a new cause.”
Years later when Quill was the president of the TWU he only had two pictures on the wall in his office—Abraham Lincoln and James Connolly.
Organizing the TWU
The terrible working conditions in the IRT had to end and Quill knew that the only way that would happen would be to organize the workers into a union.
At first, Quill went to Irish-Catholic organizations in New York for support. “We went to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick,” remembered Quill, “but they would have nothing to do with the idea of organizing Irishmen into a legitimate union. We went to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and they threw us out of their meeting hall. They wanted no part of Irish rebels or Irish rabble. That was the reception we got from those conservative descendants of Ireland’s revolutionists of a hundred years ago.”
Quill soon found himself embracing the old Irish adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and found himself courting the Communist Party. “Sure,” said Quill, “I worked with the Communists. In 1933 I would have made a pact with the Devil himself if he could have given us the money, the mimeograph machines and the manpower to launch the Transport Workers Union. The Communist Party needed me, and I needed them. I knew what the transit workers needed. The men craved dignity, longed to be treated like human beings. The time had come to get off our knees and fight back.”
As Quill often noted, “You will get only what you are strong enough to take. You will have to fight for your rights—they will never be given to you. And you cannot win if you fight alone.”
The union was organized using the methods of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the secret society pledged to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland. “For now,” wrote Shirley Quill, “the organizers evolved a plan to form secret groups of five; that way no man would know the names of more than four other workers in the organization.
Should there be a spy amongst them, only four men would be in jeopardy. Their inspiration: the Fenian movement in America.” Messages were sent in half-Gaelic and half-English to confuse company spies, known as “beakies.”
The charismatic Quill became the star of the union movement and was fired by the IRT in 1935. Quill, according to Shirley, “performed as if to the microphone born.” He proved irascible on many fronts, even towards his new communist friends. Quill had a dim view of the Communists and knew he wanted no part of them when they thought he should attend “Workers School” for indoctrination. Mike Quill would be indoctrinated by nobody.
“He had a dream,” said Shirley. “Connolly’s dream—that the working people could be liberated from lives of despair, disease and degradation, that they could be the instruments of their own liberation through the power of industrial unionism.”
New Deal, New Times
But, as Bobby Dylan would write thirty years later, the times they are a-changin’. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was now president and Senator Robert Wagner of New York had succeeded in getting his Wagner Act through congress and signed by the president.
The Wagner Act (aka, the National Labor Relations Act) guaranteed workers in any industry engaged in interstate commerce “the right to self-organization, to form, join or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representation of their own choosing, and engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Mike Quill and the TWU were in business.
Quill succeeded in getting his nascent union into the Transport Workers Union, Lodge 1547, International Association of Machinists, American Federation of Labor. He then started unionizing the other transportation companies of New York: The Third Avenue Railroad system (the “El”), the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) and Independent (IND) subways systems, Fifth Avenue Coach Company, and the New York City Omnibus Corporation.
In January 1937 the BMT dismissed two boiler room engineers from their power plant in Brooklyn because of their union activity. Mike Quill had his battle and he was going to win it. He immediately called a sit-down strike.
“This is no seizure,” Quill told the public, “This is an orderly stay-in for legitimate union demands—reinstatement of two competent workers discharged for union activity, and recognition of the union in the spirit of the Wagner Labor Relations Act…The labor policy of the BMT—low wages, long hours, union discrimination—has been so vicious and ruthless that the men have taken this action as the last remedy.”
Fourteen-and-a-half hours after the “stay-in” began, the BMT surrendered to Quill and the TWU.
Soon the TWU separated from the Machinists Union and the AFL and joined John L. Lewis’ militant CIO. With Lewis handling the negotiations, the TWU won a $2,500,000 contract package. The TWU was here to stay—and so was Michael J. Quill.
Mike Quill: Irish Sex Symbol
Mike Quill was a man way ahead of his generation. The same can be said for his sex habits. Today, Donald Trump’s sexual escapades make Quill look like a monk. But in the 1930s and ’40s in Irish-Catholic New York they would have been considered sinful and, if known, would probably have ended his career.
Quill was never much of a Catholic and that can be traced back to the Irish Civil War. Shirley recalls that “Mike and [his brother] John were cut to the heart when their parish priest refused to request temporary amnesty for them to attend their mother’s funeral [when they were on the run]…[Mike] remained hostile and angry.”
His experiences in New York with “respectable” Irish-Catholics also left a foul taste in his mouth. “When we first started to organize the union,” he said, “we asked for help from the Knight of Columbus and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. We were booed and booted out. The Irish organizations did nothing for us and the Church campaigned actively against us.”
He was also incensed when a Catholic nun went against the wife of a union member: “She was given a lecture about the Godless, Communist subway union; it was a sin for the child’s father to belong—the woman must help save her husband’s soul by insisting that he quit TWU immediately.”
“Mike could not separate,” Shirley said, “what he called church politics from basic spiritual concepts. He was bitter over the church’s open hostility to the nationalistic cause during the Irish Civil War, outraged by the Vatican’s accommodation with Mussolini and the devotion of the church in Spain to the fascist Franco.”
Mike Quill’s religious beliefs were succinctly summed up in these words: “I believe in the Corporal Works of Mercy, the Ten Commandants, 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 organize 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.”
So, Quill had little time for the New York Catholic power structure when it came to politics—and even less when it came to marriage and sex. His first marriage to Mollie Theresa O’Neill was one of the strangest courtships in the annals of Irish romance. It was so odd that it could be filed under the old joke about an Irish marriage proposal: “Would you like to be buried with my people?”
Quill and Mollie had met at a dance for Irish exiles in New York. They had courted, but with the onset of the Great Depression Mollie became unemployed and decided to return to Ireland. They continued their “courtship” with 3,000 miles of ocean between them for years. Finally, after Quill was elected to the New York City Council he returned to Ireland, married Mollie, and the two returned to New York. The union soon produced a son, John, but it was a cold arrangement between two people who barely knew each other.
“His fiancée had been patient and undemanding,” wrote Shirley in Mike Quill Himself, “writing dutifully every week about the nonevents of her little village; for four years Mike (or his secretary) had sent envelopes bulging with newspaper clippings. No intimacies exchanged, none expected.
He was en route to the most important event of his adult life, his marriage, and he felt nothing…Two well-intentioned people had married, only to discover they were strangers. It was a marriage of convenience.”
During Quill’s reelection bid in 1943 for the City Council, a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn named Shirley Ukin was brought in to help Quill’s campaign in the Bronx. Shirley, a fire-breathing ex-communist, soon became a star on the flatbed sound truck that worked the various neighborhoods of the Bronx. Quill took notice and as Bogey said in Casablanca, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“After the first painful year [of marriage to Mollie],” Shirley wrote, “Mike found a weekend ally in a bottle of whiskey. Later he found the companionship of women far more satisfying than a quart of scotch.
It wasn’t the first time I had listened to the story of the unhappy husband looking for extramarital romance, but this man I believed, and I could not refuse to see him. It no longer mattered that people were gossiping about us. What was important was to be with Mike…Sometime during that campaign we became lovers.”
Shirley couldn’t contain herself. “His healthy appetite for sex was interwoven with a sizable chunk of guilt for being ‘unfaithful’ to his long-absent fiancée. ‘It was part of the baggage I brought from the other side,’ he explained uneasily.”
“Mike was the most exciting man who had ever stumbled across my path. We had an enormous physical attraction for each other. I was in love with everything about him: his keen intuition, his sensitivity, his restless searching mind, his sharp wit—the passion, the fun, the blazing energy that charged everything he did. When I was with him, I was alive and knew it.”
But, of course, Mollie was still in the picture—and Quill had no intention of divorcing her. Shirley was patient—to an extent. During their twenty-year affair, Shirley married twice but quickly returned to Quill’s side. “He had jettisoned many of his orthodox religious beliefs,” wrote Shirley, “but he was obviously not prepared to become the first divorced Quill in the family.”
They finally married after Mollie’s death in 1959—but strangely not until 1961. Perhaps one Shirley quote explains this strange, yet loving, relationship: “You’ve had me and your Irish respectability.”
For America and Against Bigotry
“I never forget how it feels to be an immigrant in the damn big city without a shilling in your pants pocket,” recalled Quill. “You’ll never know what it means to be able to talk to someone from home, someone who understands and cares. You’d have to be an immigrant to know what I’m talking about. I hope I never lose that interest.”
At a time in America where the term “immigrant” is spat out by half the population, it’s important to remember the brilliant egalitarianism of Michael Quill. He did not see people as Irish, or Afro-American, or Italian, or Hispanic, or Asian, or Jewish—he saw people. One of the plays he saw with Shirley was West Side Story and you can just image the kick he would have gotten out of Rita Morena singing “America,” a song that closely resembled his own immigrant experience:
I like to be in America
Okay by me in America
Everything free in America
For a small fee in America…
Skyscrapers bloom in America
Cadillacs zoom in America
Industry boom in America
Twelve in a room in America…
Life can be bright in America
If you can fight in America
Life is all right in America
If you’re a white in America…
Quill hated bigotry and he was early in the fight against Nazism and the bigotry of the likes of Father Charles Coughlin. “Anti-Semitism,” said Quill, “is not the problem of the Jewish people alone. It is an American problem, a number one American problem.
We all know how Hitler came into power—while he was persecuting one section of the people, other sections of the people were asleep. The merchants of hate picked their spot and picked their cause. We too must pick our cause—freedom of all peoples in a democratic America.”
And he had a way of making his membership, still overwhelmingly Irish-Catholic, understand why standing up to the anti-Semites was important: “As a Catholic, I know that if Jews are abused, Catholics will be abused; if synagogues are violated, churches will be violated.
That’s what happened in Germany, and wherever I am and whatever position I occupy, I am going to do my best to prevent it from happening here.”
But not all union members shared his idealism. Especially outside of New York, Quill had to lay down the law as to why he was a friend of Jews, blacks and other minorities. Pan American Airways employees in Miami wanted workers’ rights, but did not want to share these rights with their fellow employees of color. “This union isn’t asking you to love Negroes or to marry them,” Quill bluntly told them.
“The bosses hired you and the same bosses hired the blacks. You are on one payroll, you come to work and leave through the same gate; you punch the same time clock. Unless there is one union to protect all of you, the employer will train these men and use them to displace you—at half your wages.
Unless Negroes are unionized under the same union contract that protects whites, they will be an open-ended source of cheap labor and there will be no future for you in this industry.”
And in the deep south things could get sticky. When organizing bus drivers in Houston, one of the drivers pulled a gun out of his lunch bucket and placed it in front of him. This stunt did not phase the old IRA man. “Without missing a syllable,” wrote Shirley, “he deliberately picked up the gun and examined it. Still talking, he emptied the bullets into his pocket and returned the gun to its owner. There was a burst of applause from the workers, who had not heard a word he said as they followed his performance.”
Quill was a great admirer of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and stately so publicly: “…[W]e are reaching the turning point in America. I don’t think any leader since Abraham Lincoln has done as much to unite the American people, black and white, as Dr. King has done in the past fifteen years.
"His tactics are very similar to the tactics that we use in the trade union movement—the sit-down strike, the outright strike, the boycott…Dr. King adopted the methods of the great Mahatma Gandhi, who after a hundred years, freed the Indian people from imperialism by his special and unusual tactics…We are anxious about this struggle. We are anxious that it be finished in our time.”
When challenged by TWU members in Tennessee for supporting Dr. King and the Freedom Riders, Quill lashed out: “The trials and tribulations of all America are ‘things of the union’! Wherever there are ignorant, racist Ku Kluxers…trying to destroy our country, it is the business of the TWU.
Wherever Americans do not have the right to vote, it comes under the heading of ‘things of the union’…When America is sick and endangered by the cancer of segregation, it is cause for concern by all organized labor—and by each and every member of TWU.”
“Do you know what I’m most proud of?” Quill said near the end of his life. “That in TWU we have eliminated racial discrimination in hiring and in promotions and within the union’s ranks. Blacks, Hispanics, Orientals, American Indians and women are holding appointive and elective office.
A few years ago we finally eliminated the word colored from the Pennsylvania Railroad’s employee passes. We’ve come a long way from the pan and the broom, as Lou Manning, one of our Negro International board members, describes the employment of black workers thirty years ago.”
The Great Transit Strike of 1966
Like his hero, James Connolly, Quill decided it was time to stand and deliver, especially after his young opponent, Mayor John Vliet Lindsay decided that he had to get tough with the TWU. Lindsay was the perfect foil for Quill—the aristocratic WASP sent by central casting. Jimmy Breslin caught it brilliantly, “…[Lindsay] was talking down to old Mike Quill, and when Mike Quill looked up at John Lindsay he saw the Church of England. Within an hour, we had one hell of a transit strike.”
Quill and Mayor Robert Wagner, the son of the man the Wagner Act is named after, got along well. They huffed and puffed, but always came to an agreement. Mayor-elect Lindsay did not want to negotiate with Quill until he was royally sworn in as mayor on January 1, 1966.
He found to his horror his opponent—a man who had taken on the terrorist Black and Tans—was not fighting with the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
“He stands alone in the moral wreckage of the union movement,” wrote Pete Hamill of Quill, “the last man in the country who once worked with his hands and still speaks to us in the voice of the thirties…He may be an anachronism…but the old guy still has some iron in him. This could be his last hurrah and he knows it…Quill is the last union leader we have who will go to his grave cursing employers.”
Quill came out swinging at Lindsay, citing Lindsay’s “abysmal lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of labor relations.” And he didn’t stop there. He tore into Lindsay as “a pipsqueak, a juvenile” and found his intellect lacking: “we explored his mind yesterday and found nothing there.” And, of course, in that thick Kerry brogue he expertly mispronounced the mayor’s name as “Linsley,” delighting men like my father all over America.
Quill, after four heart attacks, knew it was his last hurrah. But he would go out the way his hero, James Connolly, had gone out—with defiance and bravado. Then Lindsay made a dramatic mistake, jailing the old rebel. Quill would not go quietly: “The judge can drop dead in his black robes!”
“No one would have ever called him Saint Mike,” wrote Hamill, “but he went off to jail like a Christian going forth to meet the lions.”
He was treated harshly by New York, its people, its politicians and its newspapers. He had another heart attack and was sent to the shabbiest of city hospitals. The only person to call and ask Mrs. Quill if he could be of service was Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. The rest hoped he would die.
And you know what? Quill won.
While he was in the hospital a deal was hammered out giving a 15% wage increase along with improvements in the health, welfare and pension systems. In all, it was worth over $60-million.
The strike over, he was released from police custody. He came marching out with his wife Shirley, a big smile on his face and flashing his shamrock cufflinks. Three days later he would be dead.
In this age of gutless, useless, amoral politicians, eunuch labor leaders, and Americans consumed by apathy and a thorough lack of decency, we’ll never see the likes of Michael J. Quill again. And that’s America’s loss because men like Quill built America and his passing marked the end of the fighting American worker.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. paid tribute: “Mike Quill was a fighter for decent things all his life—Irish independence, labor organization, and racial equality. He spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow-man.
When the totality of a man’s life is consumed with enriching the lives of others, this is a man the ages will remember—this is a man who has passed on but who has not died.”
Even the august yet stale New York Times, which had been lambasting Quill for years, seemed to know they had lost a favorite antagonist. In an editorial, they declared: “His contemporaries long ago recognized that the acting profession was the loser when Michael J. Quill chose unionism as his career.
He was a man who loved to have the last word and to make his entrances and exits with a dramatic flourish. He enjoyed life too much ever to have welcomed death, but he would doubtless have taken a wry satisfaction from the fact that he made his final exit from the stage of life just as his most memorable scene ended. From conference table to jail to hospital to final press conference, he held the attention of all New York in these last weeks.
We would be less honest if we retracted now our many criticisms of Mike Quill when he was living; but there is no doubt that his departure leaves this city not quite so interesting or so colorful.”
Quill remained a wonderful enigma to the end. He requested a Catholic burial to make his death more “bearable” for his family. “For the first time ever,” said Shirley, “I saw him with rosary beads in his hands.”
The funeral mass was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and his coffin was draped with the Tri-colour of the Irish Republic he had so bravely fought for. But he had one last “respectable” thing to do—he was buried next to his first wife, Mollie, at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester County, New York.
All in all, not bad for a lad from Gortloughera, County Kerry.
*Dermot McEvoy is the author of The 13th Apostle: A Novel of Michael Collins and the Irish Uprising and Our Lady of Greenwich Village, both now available in paperback, Kindle and Audio from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook
Love Irish history? Share your favorite stories with other history buffs in the IrishCentral History Facebook group.