Around 200 people packed into Kerry Hall in Yonkers last Saturday afternoon for a tribute to the legendary, Kerry-born union leader Mike Quill.
Quill was one of the founding members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), established by New York City subway workers in 1934. As President of the TWU, Quill battled against transit bosses for better workers’ rights, who were operating in dreadful conditions with long hours, low pay and no healthcare or vacation benefits.
The occasion was organized by The Kerryman’s Patriotic & Benevolent Association in conjunction with the TWU and United Irish Counties (UIC) and borne from historian Gerry O’Shea and others belief that Quill’s legacy wasn’t being properly remembered.
“Mike Quill was a member of the Kerryman’s Association. He has a history and some of us felt that it was being forgotten, the actual contribution that he made,” said O’ Shea, who served as chairman and emcee of the event, told the Irish Voice.
“He came here in 1926 penniless and over a few years said, ‘We can’t allow this to go on.’ He somehow found the strength in himself, coming from his background to take on and successfully organize the TWU into a very powerful force which they still are today.”
Kerry Hall was draped in Quill photos and memorabilia including election posters, newspaper clippings, letters, union badges and lapels, with ample time allotted for attendees to view and discuss before formal proceedings got underway.
In what was a tremendously well organised and very informative event, Frank O’Keefe, President of the Kerryman’s Association began with a brief overview of Quills accomplishments, whom he described as a “fearless fighter his entire life”, who affected “the lives of thousands of New Yorkers who are still to this day, reaping the fruits of his efforts.”
The Mayor of Yonkers, Mike Spano, presents a proclamation honoring TWU Founder Mike Quill today with @transportworker President John Samuelsen and the Quill Family @NYSAFLCIO @CentralLaborNYC pic.twitter.com/1wLGgtkcm7
— TWU Local 100 (@TWULocal100) January 26, 2019
Quill was brought up in his native town of Gortloughera, Kilgarvan, Co Kerry, where at 11 years of age he became involved in Irelands War of Independence, the same age incidentally as his great-grandson Lucas, who was also in attendance.
Quill fought the Free State Army during the Irish Civil War before immigrating to the United States on St Patricks Day, 1926 and was hired as a ticket agent on the New York subway system in 1928.
O’Shea maintains Quill, a member of the Communist Party until 1948, learned a lot from them. He was also heavily influenced by the Irish insurrectionary history of James Connolly and the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
“He did have the old IRA here who were very supportive, the guys who had fought in the Republican side in the Civil War and then came out here, they weren’t afraid of church or state and a lot of them came in behind Quill and they were a big base for him, Clan Na Gael.”
It has been over a half a century since his signature moment in 1966 when he led the members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) of America in a twelve-day transit strike that crippled New York City.
Which Side Are You On? @mikequillfilm tells the story of what it took to build the unions in the US. We won’t give up the fight. https://t.co/cKZmSdGV3H #janus #JanusvAFSCME #UnionStrong #WeRise pic.twitter.com/uf3XEAq9mn
— Which Side Are You On? The Mike Quill Film. (@mikequillfilm) June 27, 2018
Current TWU International President John Samuelsen remarked that Quill, who was in ill-health at the time, was jailed for initiating the strike, “made the absolute sacrifice.” He suffered a heart attack when jailed and was subsequently hospitalized yet fought on.
“He realized when he did it he might not walk away with his life intact after that strike and that lock up. From when I was a little kid I would hear the story about Mike Quill ripping up the injunction and telling the judge to ‘drop dead in his black robes.’” A few days after TWU successfully held out for a sizeable wage increase, Quill suffered a fatal heart attack.
“Mike Quill has manifold legacies it’s impossible to quantify one thing that the great man did, one thing for sure, in modern day New York City and in the transit and transportation industry across the country, Mike Quill led the TWU into breaking the color barrier in New York City,” said Samuelsen.
“Prior to Mike Quill, if you were black or you were Jewish you were limited in what you could do for the railroad, Quill came in organized, got a union contract and ended discrimination in the New York City subway system in terms of hiring.”
Jim Gannon, Director of Communications, TWU gave an insightfully detailed presentation on Quill’s career and how he skillfully navigated his way through crucial challenges of his leadership. One example was Quill’s powerful use of soundbites. In 1961, the New York Subway Authority announced that it would introduce a crewless “robot” train on the Times Square-Grand Central Shuttle. Quill ridiculed the train as “the headless horseman,” saying it was a threat to union jobs and public safety and threatened strike action. In the end, he negotiated a two-year contract settlement with substantial wage increases, as well as better health benefits, and more pension money.
In between introducing speakers, MC Gerry O Shea masterfully injected some colorful anecdotes including a quote from a journalist covering Quill stating, “My Lord he opens his mouth and the thunder pours out!”
Pat Fenton, who worked directly for Quill at the TWU Headquarters from 1945 to 1951 articulately divulged some personal reminiscences about his time with Quill, for which he received a standing ovation.
After attendees had been treated to some wonderful stories and history lessons, the best dish was served last when independent filmmaker Macdara Vallely presented an inspirational 17-minute clip from his upcoming full-feature documentary, “Which Side Are You On? The Life and Death of Mike Quill.” Combining a mixture of old footage and contemporary interviews with men who worked alongside Quill, Vallely left attendees in awe and crying for more.
As of now, the production is very much a work in progress but when complete, will be shown on Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann). The filmmaker has appealed to anyone with stories to tell or noteworthy materials to contact him via his website www.mikequilfilm.com
Other speakers on the day included New York State Senator Shelley Mayer, Deputy Consul General in New York Eimear Friel, and Tom Tuffy, President of the UIC. The Mayor of Yonkers, Mike Spano, presented a proclamation to the TWU honoring Quill and musician Mike Coleman was on hand to provide some enjoyable entertainment.
This article first appeared in the Irish Voice on January 30th, 2019.