When Public Transit Workers Ground New York City to a Halt

In 1966, New York City public transit workers went on strike for a better contract, paralyzing the life of the city. The strike showed that New York couldn’t function without their labor and forced reluctant bosses to concede to their demands.

At a press conference TWU president Michael Quill tears up a temporary strike-barring injunction issued by State Supreme Court Justice George Tilzer. Quill said: "The strike is on." (Paul DeMaria / New York Daily News via Getty Images)

On November 2, 1965, John Lindsay was elected the new Republican mayor of New York City. The next day, Mayor-elect Lindsay received a deceitfully courteous telegram from Michael J. Quill, the fiery, militant leader of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100.

Along with his “sincere congratulations,” Quill attached seventy-six contract demands his union was planning to submit to the New York Transit Authority. It was the first shot in a battle that would eventually grind the city to a halt for twelve days.

TWU Local 100’s demands were ambitious: a four-day work week, a 30 percent wage increase over three years, increased pensions, and six weeks of vacation after a year on the job. When the union sent its demands to the Transit Authority, Chairman Joseph O’Grady was outraged, telling reporters, “There isn’t enough gold in Fort Knox to pay this bill.”

But for New York City transit workers, these demands were fair. Despite clearly providing an essential service, transit workers were dramatically underpaid. In 1965, they did not make what the Bureau of Labor Statistics deemed an adequate budget for a family of four.

A train conductor said of the situation, “I have four dependents and I take home a net pay of $90 a week. That’s not much for the type of job I do. . . . We make less than sanitation men.” A subway operator said, “I got a ten-car train with maybe 2,400 people, flesh and blood lives in my hands. One wrong move and 400 people go to the hospital. Pay a man for his skill and responsibility.”

Mayor Lindsay and Quill were perfect foils for one another. Lindsay was Yale-educated and exuded a cosmopolitan elitism, while Quill was brash, outspoken, and unmistakably working-class. Throughout negotiations, Lindsay made moves that angered Quill and the union. For example, Lindsay’s list of ten possible mediators included none who had any knowledge or experience with the transit system.

As negotiations stalled, tensions flared. Seeking a more substantial response from the city, Quill sent the mayor-elect another telegram saying, “We need from you less profile, more courage.” Quill let his legendary tongue fly during negotiation sessions, telling Lindsay he was “nothing but a juvenile, a lightweight, and a pipsqueak. . . . You don’t know anything about the working class.”

Grinding the City to a Halt

The day after Christmas, TWU Local 100 held a mass rally at which over eight thousand workers voted to authorize a strike. Organizers identified fifty-nine strike headquarters, and instructions were sent to all members.

The city made a last-minute offer of a 3.2 percent per year wage increase, which was substantially lower than what TWU had won in their previous settlement. This proposal was rejected, and on January 1, 1966, New York City’s thirty-five thousand bus and subway employees were on strike.

Mayor Lindsay’s aides advised him to stay tough, calculating that the strike was only designed to be a show of strength from the union lasting one or two days. It started on Saturday; by Monday, it quickly became clear that TWU Local 100 was serious. The strike was crippling the city. Businesses closed down as employees couldn’t get to work, and streets and sidewalks jammed up as people took alternatives to public transportation.

The Commerce and Industry Association estimated that on the first workday of the strike, only eight hundred thousand of the 7.2 million people who normally entered the central business district showed up for work. Over one hundred thousand high schoolers were absent on the return to school. The absence of transit workers had altered the life of the city beyond recognition.

The Lindsay administration, with ample help from the press, tried to frame the strike as a minoritarian act contrary to the will of the public. Lindsay called it an “unlawful strike carried out against the public interest” and “an act of defiance against 8 million people.”

Justice George Tilzer issued an injunction against TWU Local 100, declaring that, “If the fear of God was as great as that of Quill and his union, we would have a better world.” Quill and the top union leadership were arrested and imprisoned on January 4, leaving the second layer of union leadership to take over the strike. Quill was defiant in his arrest, saying, “The judge can drop dead in his black robes and we would not call off the strike.”

For the most part, the press lauded the repression of the union. The New York World-Telegram and the Sun unloaded on Quill and TWU, writing, “The only possible criticism about the jail sentences for Quill and his fellow outlaws is that they weren’t imposed last Saturday.” Writing for the Journal-American, conservative commentator William F. Buckley called for the National Guard to be brought in to run the trains.

But the imprisonment of TWU’s leadership galvanized the city’s labor movement in solidarity. On January 10, over fifteen thousand union members surrounded City Hall to demand the release of Quill and the rest of the union leadership.

The conflict quickly became a national issue. New York governor Nelson Rockefeller phoned President Lyndon Johnson, requesting that he declare New York City a disaster area and make low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration available to businesses impacted by the strike. Senator Robert F. Kennedy met with Mayor Lindsay to urge a settlement, calling the strike “intolerable” and a “catastrophe.”

Finally, Governor Rockefeller promised money that was already owed to the city through various tax arrangements on the condition that it be used to reach an agreement. On January 13, the TWU Local 100 leadership arrived at a settlement that they recommended to their Executive Board for ratification.

The contract enshrined some significant victories. The union won a 15 percent wage increase over the two years of the contract, no reprisals against the strikers, and a generous pension plan. They also won two more paid holidays, Veterans Day and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

The settlement angered political elites in both the Republican and Democratic parties. The strike occurred during a period when even Democratic Party leaders had arrived at a consensus that containing inflation was the chief economic priority, and limiting labor unions’ demands was a key method of achieving it. President Johnson had set guidelines for noninflationary wage settlements based on an average yearly increase in national productivity of 3.2 percent. He blasted the agreement as inflationary, and his secretary of labor, W. Willard Wirtz, backed him up by claiming the contract “was unquestionably outside the stabilization anti-inflation policies.”

Though the union celebrated victory, they soon had to mourn. Hours after being arrested, Quill was rushed to the hospital for congestive heart failure. On January 26, not even two weeks after the strike ended, Quill died of a heart attack. Though he couldn’t have known it in the heat of battle with Mayor Lindsay, the strike capped off his long career as a militant, firebrand trade union leader.

Public Sector Worker Power

The 1966 transit strike was the prelude to an era of significant public sector worker militancy. Beginning in the mid-1960s, public workers launched a wave of strikes, oftentimes illegal, for the right to organize and fair contracts. New York City was home to many of these, perhaps most iconically the 1970 postal workers’ strike.

TWU Local 100’s struggle showed it was possible for city workers to command power and respect, and to force their issues onto the national stage. This saga was also reflective of a dramatically different era, when unions had significantly more social power and union leaders like Quill were central characters in the urban drama.

Public sector militancy today falls well short of its peak in the 1960s. But as the historic teachers’ strikes of 2018 and 2019 showed, it’s not dead yet. To reverse austerity and secure better living and working conditions throughout society, we need more of it. The TWU’s 1966 strike can be a model for public sector workers today, demonstrating what it takes to challenge economic and political elites in order to win big for the working class.