Mike Quill: The Greatest Irish American

Born in rural Ireland and a veteran of the IRA, “Red” Mike Quill went on to form one of America’s most militant unions — and to stand side by side with Martin Luther King Jr in the fight against racism.

Transport Workers Union president Mike Quill addresses the press outside a Manhattan jail in 1966, just after being arrested for organizing a strike. (Truman Moore / Getty Images)

The Irish in America have a proud tradition of labor radicalism. In the 1870s, the Molly Maguires organized miners in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones fought the workers’ corner in the United Mine Workers and Industrial Workers of the World, where she was joined by another Irishwoman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Even James Connolly and James Larkin, founding fathers of Irish syndicalism, organized workers in the United States for many years of their lives.

But few Irish American radicals have made a more lasting impression than Mike Quill. One of the founders and later iconic leaders of the Transport Workers Union, Quill blazed a trail from industrial unionism to anti-fascism and civil rights advocacy, the latter of which led to a close relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.

“Mike Quill was a fighter for decent things all his life,” King would later say: “Irish independence, labor organization, and racial equality. He spent his life ripping the chains of bondage from his fellow man.”

Born in Kilgarvan, county Kerry, in 1905, into a staunchly republican family, the young Mike Quill soon found himself embroiled in Ireland’s freedom struggle. One of nine children, two of Quill’s older brothers were active service members of the local Irish Republican Army (IRA), and he recalled in later life seeing them arrested by the Black and Tans. In fact, Quill’s family home was the headquarters of the Third Battalion of the No. 2 Brigade, and Mike Quill himself served as a dispatch rider in the War of Independence.

“Michael was only fifteen at the time,” Mary Healy Shea, daughter of the intelligence officer for Quill’s brigade, would later remember. “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.”

But the family’s republicanism was by no means narrow, in keeping with the developing radicalism of Kerry at the time. “My father,” Quill would say, “knew where every fight against an eviction had taken place in all the parishes around.” In fact, one of Quill’s earliest radicalizing experiences was a transport strike.

In May 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, railway workers took part in a national munitions strike, refusing to carry “materials designed for the destruction of life and property” on behalf of the British Army. Quill’s native Kerry, which by this time had a significant Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union organization and a large number of Labour Party councilors, was a stronghold of the strike and remained solid for six months.

In 1921, the War of Independence culminated in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which Quill and his family opposed during the Irish Civil War. Mike Quill participated in the anti-treaty side’s capture of Kenmare, but it proved to be a short-lived success, and failure in Killorglin soon afterwards turned the tide of the war in favor of the Dublin government.

The late historian Manus O’Riordan writes that shortly afterward, Mike Quill “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.” This combination of labor and republican militancy saw Mike Quill blacklisted locally and, on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day 1926, he emigrated to New York.

The Man Who Ran the Subways

By 1929, Mike Quill had settled into a job as a ticket agent with the Interboro Rapid Transit (IRT) Company. The work was bleak: twelve hours per night, seven days a week, for as little as $0.12 an hour.

“I was a soldier who had lost my fight for freedom,” Quill would say. “When I escaped to this city, I discovered that New York had a different battle to be fought . . . and I would have to take a side.”

Around this time, Quill was also reading extensively. He was particularly taken by the works of James Connolly, with the pamphlets “Axe to the Root” and “Old Wine in New Bottles,” which rested substantially on Connolly’s union experience in the United States, helping to convert Quill to the cause of industrial unionism.

Mike Quill was part of a wave of emigration that saw almost a quarter of a million leave Ireland for the United States in the decade from 1920 to 1930. Most of these immigrants were from rural backgrounds and, upon arrival in New York, settled into jobs as unskilled workers. Consequently, there was little interest in their plight among the larger craft unions, organized around the American Federation of Labor (AFL), or in the Irish American establishment, which was hugely influential at the time through its political operation in Tammany Hall.

Instead, as Mike Quill set out to organize his fellow transit workers and drive up conditions, he found allies in a familiar quarter: veterans of the IRA.

Through Clan na Gael, a powerful Irish nationalist organization, Mike Quill met former IRA volunteers Gerald O’Reilly, Tom O’Shea and Michael Lynch, each of whom worked alongside him in the IRT. Eventually, through outreach efforts, this group of IRA veterans in the IRT grew to around two dozen.

The group organized around the Irish Workers’ Clubs, which themselves had been established by another IRA volunteer, Jim Gralton, a communist whose story was recently the subject of the Ken Loach movie Jimmy’s Hall. Gralton and another Irish communist organizer, Austin Hogan, helped to build connections between the former IRA milieu and the Communist Party (CP), which provided full-timers and institutional support to help the early union organizing efforts on New York transit.

As labor historian Brian Hanley argues, these IRA veterans were crucial to building the fledgling Transport Workers Union (TWU). “Firstly, they were not easily intimidated by company strongmen or police; they were used to clandestine organizing; and they also had the kudos of coming from Ireland having taken part in the struggle against the British and the Free State.”

It is also significant that, when the TWU was formed in 1934, it used the term “transport” instead of “transit” in its name. This was the Irish terminology rather than the American one, and referred back to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union of Larkin and Connolly, which itself had initially been simply called the ITWU. Historian Joshua B. Freeman in his book about the TWU, In Transit, estimates that a staggering 50 percent of workers in the IRT were Irish-born men.

Immediately upon its foundation, the TWU found itself in an intense industrial battle. The private companies that owned New York’s public transit system were determined to strangle the infant union in its cradle. Tim Griffin, a trolleyman in the IRT, recalled the system of industrial sabotage that the bosses carried out using spies known as “dollar-a-day men”:

They got an extra dollar a day to hang around and inform on anything they heard. To tell you what it was like: One time the guys were talking — the toilets were downstairs — and there was a bunch of them down there talking about how a couple of them had gotten a dirty deal. One guy said: “What we need in this place is a good union.” So he went upstairs and he was up there a short while and the dispatcher stuck his head in the window and said: “Regan, come on in. The boss wants to talk to you inside.” He went in. The boss said, “So you want to see a good union on this property, Johnny Regan.” He said, “Who told you that?” He said, “Never mind who told me that. Whoever told, you said it.”

Many of the early TWU leaders, including Quill, were sacked from their jobs for this organizing effort and forced to rely on charity to stay afloat. But they remained undeterred. Against a backdrop of poverty pay and demeaning conditions, transit workers were determined to fight for better. Griffin remembers the proselytizing, “Somebody would say to you ‘See the light?’ That meant, ‘Did you join the union yet?’”

Most did see the light. Within a couple of years, its ranks had swelled, and the union was capable of carrying out a successful transit strike in 1935 (previous attempts by other unions in 1905, 1910, 1916, and 1919 had all been crushed). Despite Quill and his fellow leaders being first attacked by company thugs and then arrested by police, the TWU won — and was able to represent fourteen thousand IRT workers.

Red Mike

However, the TWU had its sights set much higher than organizing just one private company. Before it came along, there were already yellow unions in each of the transit companies in New York, and they had comprehensively failed to improve conditions. Quill and the rest of the TWU leadership were convinced industrial unionists who believed that workers had to be organized across companies and without regard to their particular jobs or trades in order to maximize their leverage. They set about a campaign to unionize the entire New York transit system, starting with the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) Corporation.

The effort began in early 1937, when the BMT fired union members at a powerhouse in Brooklyn. The TWU responded by occupying the building with a sit-down strike and threatening to shut off power to the BMT’s entire operation. The company folded and, even though it was initially refused recognition, the union was soon able to win its campaign with the National Labor Relations Board.

By the late 1930s, membership in the TWU had grown to over forty-five thousand. It had recognition in three New York subway companies and had even expanded to buses, streetcars, and taxicabs. The union had also joined the nationwide Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and was an increasingly powerful representative of its left wing.

Mike Quill himself had become a public figure by this time, even winning a council seat in the Bronx for the Labor Party in 1937. But he was not without his detractors, most notable among which were Irish American right-wingers.

The fascist Christian Front, led by celebrity radio priest Fr Charles Coughlin, and the Americans Against Communism, organized by another reactionary priest, Fr Edward Curran, were especially virulent opponents, and battles between their supporters and Quill’s frequently became physical. Their opposition to Quill centered on his progressive attitudes to race and his support for what they called “Judeo-Bolshevism.” In the latter case, these Irish organizations took their cue from European fascists with a particularly disgraceful campaign of antisemitism, which alleged that Mike Quill, who they called “Moe Quillinsky,” was not a supporter of Irish workers but merely an agent of international Jewry.

Quill’s remarkable victory in the densely Irish South Bronx, where he had topped the poll, knocked back these efforts somewhat. But the question of his links to communism continued throughout World War II. This wasn’t helped by a split in the TWU, which had led Quill’s erstwhile ally Tom O’Shea to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee that the union was controlled by the Communist Party.

Quill was probably a member of the Communist Party early in the union’s life — after all, the CP had provided crucial assistance in establishing the TWU — but was never a loyalist. He did, however, maintain a clear line of opposition to anti-communists, saying he would “rather be called a Red by the rats than a rat by the Reds.”

Quill had supported the New Deal coalition and, in the 1940s, riding the wave of popular support for labor, the TWU expanded to become a national union. However, Quill also faced considerable industrial challenges throughout the war. The most significant of these came from the newly elected New York mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, a man who had once run alongside Quill on a Labor Party ticket.

With the city bringing its subway system into municipal ownership, La Guardia threatened to strip the TWU of its right to bargain on behalf of workers and strike for better terms and conditions. Quill pushed him back with a bus strike, but it was only to be the first salvo of a much larger battle over public-sector strikes. It combined with pressure from the Red Scare to force the TWU onto the back foot.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Quill finally broke publicly with the Communist Party. Ostensibly, the dispute centered on two issues: fare hikes and political endorsements. Quill, thinking primarily as a labor leader, was in favor of proposed fare hikes, which were linked to pay increases for his members. The Communists, who by this stage were emphasizing community organizing, were opposed to the hikes on the basis that they would hit lower-income New Yorkers.

Then, in the 1948 election, the Communist Party insisted that the TWU back Henry Wallace. Quill, believing the Wallace campaign to be hopeless and seeing support as likely to split the CIO, which he hoped to make the dominant force in American unionism, rejected Wallace in favor of Truman. This led to a bitter falling out which even pushed some of Quill’s closest friends out of leadership of the TWU — although many, such as O’Reilly, would later leave the CP and return to Quill’s side.

But unlike many labor leaders who split with the Communists, Quill never turned to the right. In fact, he continued to represent a left-wing approach in both the industrial and political sphere. In 1950, he was elected as a vice president of the CIO and used this role to publicly argue against a “labor statesman” approach, which would turn the movement away from the class struggle, as well as to oppose the proposed merger between the AFL and CIO.

But it was Quill’s commitment to the burgeoning civil rights struggle that really defined his distinctive leadership in the movement.

A Man the Ages Will Remember

Since its foundation in the 1930s, the TWU had aligned itself with the radical traditions of the American labor movement. This was especially true when it came to race.

While the largest confederation, the AFL, had a lamentable record of propping up segregation, the TWU was committed to full integration of the working class at work and in broader society. It opposed the transit company’s policy of forbidding black workers from all but the lowest-grade jobs and insisted on equal status for its members. The TWU’s first executive featured a black porter, Clarence King, and the union hired black staff, who would engage on members’ behalf with the transit company.

But its most controversial position — especially among its early, largely Irish membership — was the integration of social events. Many opposed the presence of black workers at largely white dances and dinners. Quill’s position, however, was unequivocal: “If we, black and white, Catholic and non-Catholic, Jew and gentile, are good enough to slave and sweat together, then we are good enough to unite and fight together.”

He deepened this stance by forging a close relationship with Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This was a controversial position at the time in the labor movement. Today, King is feted by figures across the political spectrum in the United States. That was far from the case in the 1950s and ’60s, as King himself recognized:

Mike Quill was also a pioneer in race relations. When it was hard and often bruising to stand up for equality, he was tough enough and bold enough to make himself clearly heard. Today, it is much easier to oppose discrimination, to be with the many who speak easily of equality. But thirty years ago, a leader who worried about his image and measured his popularity carefully, kept his silence in order to keep his image popular. Negroes desperately needed men like Mike Quill, who fearlessly said what was true, even though it offended.

One memorable episode in Mike Quill’s relationship with King came in 1961. A small but determined rebel faction in the TWU threatened to quit the union unless Quill broke his support for civil rights. Quill responded forcefully, by inviting Martin Luther King Jr to address the TWU’s annual conference.

At the conference, King praised the union, its politics, and its leader. “Your crusading spirit . . . broke through the double walled citadels of race prejudice. It is pathetic that our nation did not begin decades ago, as did you, to deal with the evil of discrimination. Had it done so, in 1961 its American ambassadors in every nation on the globe would not be embarrassed and apologetic because our democratic garments exhibit some gaping moth holes.”

Quill’s radicalism in this era wasn’t just confined to race. He was also one of the earliest labor opponents of the Vietnam war, going so far as to compare the Viet Cong with the IRA of his youth. This position inevitably drew the ire of the national press and saw his “Red Mike” moniker reemerge, but he never wavered from his views.

“Most of my life I’ve been called a lunatic because I believe that I am my brother’s keeper,” Quill said. “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.”

While some radicals have been known to mellow in their twilight, Quill’s final years saw the defining battle of his life. In 1965, New York elected John Lindsay, a Republican, as mayor, and he set about making an impression by taking on the labor movement. As the TWU’s contract wound down, Lindsay rested on the 1947 Condon-Wadlin Act, which effectively prohibited public sector strikes in New York, to try to force the union into accepting weak terms. Quill and the TWU, he believed, would not risk a strike if it meant a court injunction and the threat of imprisonment. But, as 5:00 a.m. rolled around on January 1, 1966, Quill took just such a risk, bringing his thirty-six thousand members out on strike and shutting down the city’s buses and subway system.

As the media filled with images of thousands queuing to cross bridges into Manhattan and traffic jams across New York, Lindsay loudly condemned the strikers, calling their action “defiance against eight million people.” The New York Times called for the police and army to run the buses; William F. Buckley Jr wanted the National Guard. The courts injuncted the strike and threatened its leaders with imprisonment.

But Quill had faith in the union he had built over three decades. “If we go to jail, the second line of leadership will take over,” he said, “if they think they’re going to scare us by flooding the place with blue documents, they have another thing coming. . . . The judge can drop dead in his black robes, we will not call off the strike!”

Soon after that speech, Quill and his fellow leaders were arrested at the Americana Hotel amid great media furor and imprisoned. Douglas MacMahon, one of his fellow founders of the union, took over. What wasn’t widely known at the time, but is recorded by Quill’s wife, Shirley Quill, was that he had been given medical advice not to lead the strike. Soon after his imprisonment, he was taken to hospital seriously ill.

Shirley Quill was sent around pickets with a simple message from his hospital bed: “keep the lines firm.” The TWU members did just that and, within twelve days, had won the strike.

The transit workers had won a $62 million offer, with a 15 percent wage increase over a two-year contract, no reprisals for strikers, and even two new holidays. It was an immense industrial victory.

Sadly, however, it wasn’t one that Mike Quill could celebrate. Before January 1966 was out, Quill was dead. His heart, weakened by an initial attack while in prison for contempt, failed. His funeral drew massive crowds and saw his coffin draped in the Irish tricolor.

Mike Quill died as he lived, as a fighter for the working class. Few can have given as much to as many struggles for human dignity. Whether it was the Black and Tans in the fields of Kerry or a Rockefeller as governor of New York, he never shied away from an enemy of freedom. In the end, that cost him his life.

But it also bought him a page in the annals of history as a son of Ireland, America, and the labor movement. As Martin Luther King Jr said upon his passing, “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 has not died.”