Union Men and Irishmen: Remembering Labor Hero Mike Quill

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    A man named Larry Hanley said this to a group of scowling just-off-the-boat Irishmen recently at Rocky Sullivan's Bar at Lexington Ave. and 29th St. Hanley chuckled, rubbed his beard and downed a shot. He wasn't done with the Irish guys yet. He'd taken issue with them because they'd heckled Terry Golway, who'd been reading from his book For the Cause of Liberty that night at the Rocky Sullivan's reading series, which I organize. It had been typical pigheaded Irish behavior. Write a book praising the Irish and, inevitably, Irish guys will show up and give you a hard time. But now Hanley was giving it back to them in spades.

    "So what are you guys, anyway? You gonna sing 'God Save the Queen'? You all took the soup from the English."

    The air was tense, but no one moved. Hanley's an immense man?so big that he doesn't sit on a barstool, but leans his girth onto it. There's no way to fight a man like Hanley. His heft alone would smother you.

    The Irish guys muttered and walked away. Hanley laughed and ordered the bartender to set them up with a round.

    Impressed by his guts, I sat down next to Hanley and we got to talking. I saw that he happened to be holding in his hand what appeared to be a religious medal. I looked at it closely and asked if the pendant depicted Mike Quill, the late founding president of the Transport Workers Union.

    "Yeah, that's Quill," said Hanley. "I carry it with me because of the high regard I have for the man. He was amazing.

    "Mike Quill," Hanley said, pausing for effect, "was a real Irishman."

    It turned out that since 1987 Hanley's been the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union for bus drivers out on Staten Island. He knows about unions. Like Hanley, I've always been a fan of Mike Quill, even though he died in 1966, years before I ever became a union member. I've always been proud to call Quill an Irishman. He fought the good fight for labor, for working people of all races and creeds.

    Sitting there, I started thinking about what I remembered of Quill. On Jan. 1, 1966, as a way of welcoming Mayor John V. Lindsay to his first day on the job, Quill had the Transport Workers strike for the first time in years. Quill considered Lindsay an elite blueblood, a man without empathy for labor. Lindsay, for his part, underestimated Quill's will.

    Quill was an immigrant from Kerry, a scrapper who'd started off as a token-booth clerk before, in 1934, founding the union the presidency of which he'd hold for 32 years. He'd worked his way up from nothing. It wouldn't be going to far to say that Quill and Lindsay had been born to fight each other. "John Lindsay looked at Quill and saw the past," Jimmy Breslin wrote at the time, "and Mike Quill looked at Lindsay and saw the Church of England."

    Three days into the strike, a judge issued a subpoena ordering Quill to bring his membership back to work. Quill tore up the document, announcing that Lindsay and the judge in his dirty black robes could go to hell. That got him arrested for civil contempt. He sat in a holding pen in the W. 37th St. precinct building for a mere two hours before he fell to the floor of the cell with a heart attack?he was only 60, but the strain of being Mike Quill in the middle of a strike had taken its toll. Ironically, the ambulance that came for him took two hours to get crosstown to Bellevue, on account of the gridlock the transit strike had created.

    Quill never left the hospital, but the union kept up the fight while he lay dying. The strike ended after two weeks. Its results made no one happy. The transit workers got a raise, but were out of two weeks' pay, Lindsay had come across as a lightweight and commuters got hit with a five-cent increase in the transit fare, which crept up to 20 cents.

    On Jan. 29, 1966, Quill finally passed away. "He stood in the moral wreckage of the labor movement as the last labor leader to go to his grave cursing the bosses," wrote Pete Hamill.

    Mike Quill left a lasting legacy. Today the Transport Workers Union is estimated 60 percent minority, but, as far as I can tell, Quill's still revered within it. He had an inclusive vision of labor, which minority workers respected, and that strengthened the movement. It wasn't just about the Irish.

    Larry Hanley and I ended up sitting together at the bar, talking about labor, and talking about Quill. He and I were both union men, and both Irishmen. In fact, I haven't felt so Irish, and so proudly a union member, in a long time.

    "In today's world of labor accommodation," Hanley said, "where the lines are not clear, Mike Quill is a constant reminder what the fight for unions is all about. He was the quintessential union leader we should follow and emulate. But today?"

    Hanley paused and pulled out a newspaper. "Let me read you this from Investors Business Daily: 'One of the benefits of low pay is the incentive it provides workers. Raising their pay only encourages janitors to remain janitors. Low wages have a way of motivating workers to find better jobs.' That's what big business thinks. You think any janitors would agree with that? A janitor with kids to support? The problem with unions is that not enough labor leaders understand that we're under attack..."

    I nodded my head in agreement.

    "Union leaders who think things are good now are misled," Hanley maintained. "We are in the hottest economy in 200 years. When it ends, where will unions be?"

    We clicked glasses.

    Some of the Irishmen he'd earlier abused worked their way over to us, trying to get friendly. It turned out they worked construction, and so may have liked what Hanley was preaching. They were drunk, but he listened to what they had to say.

    "Yeah, okay. Now go home and break out your Union Jack," he said when they were done, and laughed as they headed for the door.