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Guide to the Transport Workers Union of America Records WAG.235

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
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Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Kerri Anne Burke, Ted Casselman, Johanna Blokker and Gail Malmgreen, 2004-2007

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on August 02, 2022
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Jasmine Larkin added Series X to incorporate 2 boxes from Accession NPA.1999.026 found during the shelf read of Bobst 10 West. Jacqueline Rider added Series XI: Other formats to incorporate Accession 2017.078, 3 boxes of non-print items. Edited by Nicole Greenhouse for updated administrative information and archived websites. Edited by Rachel Mahre to reflect audio materials added from OH.011.  , June 2017 , December 2017 , August 2022 , July 2022

Historical/Biographical Note

The Transport Workers Union of America, founded in 1934 and led until 1966 by its charismatic Irish-American leader, Michael J. (Mike) Quill, initially organized subway workers and bus drivers in the New York City area. Eventually the union chartered locals in cities and towns across the country, and branched out to include taxi drivers, railway employees, airline workers and utility workers among its members.

Transit workers employed on New York's Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) began organizing a union in 1934; the effort soon spread to the other two private transit companies in the New York system, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company (BMT) and the Independent Subway System (ISS, later IND). After a brief period of affliation with the International Association of Machinists, the TWU was chartered by the fledgling Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in May 1937, with jurisdiction over "all workers employed in, on, or about any and all passenger and other transportation facilities and public utilities." The union's early activists were mostly Irish immigrants who came to the United States after the Irish Rebellion of 1916. The men who led the TWU organizing campaign brought the radical legacy of Irish labor leaders James Connolly and James Larkin to the New York transit system.

The Irish leadership of the TWU first approached fraternal associations in the Irish community and the Catholic Church for support, with little success. They finally accepted the assistance of the Communist Party, which had targeted New York City's transit workers as one of several large industrial workforces it wanted to bring under its political influence. The Party provided funds and an office, printed leaflets and brought in volunteers who could distribute them without facing loss of their jobs. Most important, it provided talented organizers who brought the infant union to maturity. Maurice Forge, Austin Hogan, and Harry Sacher became full time TWU organizers on the Party payroll. Forge, a commercial artist, handled the TWU's publicity and developed the Transport Workers Bulletin, the union's newsletter. Harry Sacher, an attorney, handled the TWU's legal affairs. Hogan took charge of day to day organizing efforts. Douglas McMahon, a BMT worker, was also hired as a full time organizer. In 1935 Mike Quill, a Kerry native and former ticket agent who had led early organizing efforts among Irish transit workers, became the first president of the TWU. Quill's charisma and leadership abilities quickly made him a key player in both the labor and political arenas in New York. He ran for City Council three times (1937, 1939 and 1943), first n the American Labor Party ticket and then as an independent. As a Council member Quill sponsored or supported a variety of measures designed to improve working conditions, housing and health care for for workers, and progressive legislation in general.

The unification of the New York City subway system under one transit authority in 1941 greatly improved the union's bargaining position. Aggressive organizing campaigns soon resulted in the formation of TWU locals across the country -- sometimes competing with or supplanting older American Federation of Labor transit unions.. By the 1950s the union boasted a membership of more than 100,000, and had organized the municipal bus lines and most of the private bus companies in the New York Metropolitan region.

In an atmosphere of Cold War suppression of radical influence in the labor movement, Mike Quill broke sharply with the Communist Party in the late 1940s, drove the most prominent Communist sympathizers from positions in the union, and took the TWU into new fields of organizing. TWU locals were established among railroad and airlines workers, utility workers and taxi drivers, among others. In the 1940s and 50s the TWU was a pioneer within the labor movement in its innovative and extensive use of bith radio and television to get its message across to the general public. With a strong anti-discrimination tradition, the TWU pioneered in the formation of integrated locals in the South, and participated actively in the Civil Rights movement.

After a long period of relatively amicable relations between the Union and the City (especially under Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr.), Quill came under increasing pressure to improve wages and benefits, and finally called a city-wide transit strike as John V. Lindsay took office as mayor in January 1966. The bitter strike lasted for twelve days, and the Transit Authority secured an injunction against the Union in an effort to end it. Quill and other TWU officers were charged with contempt for ignoring the injuction (and some were jailed). Quill himself suffered a heart attack, was hospitalized and died, at the age of 61, shortly before a settlement was reached.

TWU Secretary-Treasurer (and President of NYC Local 100) Matthew Guinan immediately succeeded Quill as president. Mild-mannered Guinan was the antithesis of the colorful Quill with his heavy brogue and combative manner, but the new president soon established his credentials as an effective negotiator. He engineered the New York City settlement, and re-negotiated all 27 of the TWU's contracts within his first two years in office. He was noted for his grasp of economic data and the other statistical details involved in hammering out contracts. Guinan expanded TWU organizing efforts in the airline industry and took a special interest in the union's railroad locals. Irish-born, like Quill, he closely followed nationalist politics in Ireland, and was a devotee of Irish culture.

Under succeeding presidents Sonny Hall, John Lawe and James C. Little the union has continued to diversify in membership. As of this writing the TWU has four main divisions: Railroad; Gaming; Airline; Transit; and Utility, University and Service. The Union has 114 autonomous locals representing over 200,000 members and retirees in 22 states around the country. But transit workers, numbering some 130,000, are the still the core group of TWU members. The international union remains based, and its membership concentrated, in the New York area, and New York Local 100 has remained the largest in the TWU. The history of Local 100 is closely bound up in the labor and municipal history of New York City, with the Local facing tough opposition from several mayors, from private employers, and, in recent decades, from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In New York, as in the rest of the country the transit workers have faced severe challenges posed by recession and municipal budget cuts, and downsizing through automation.

Sources:

  • Freeman, Joshua B. In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933-1966. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Marmo, Michael. More Profile than Courage: The New York City Transit Strike of 1966. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.
  • "Michael J. Quill," Current Biography, March 1953, pp. 37-39.
  • Quill, Mike: Obituary. New York Times, January 29, 1966, pp. 1, 30.
  • Quill, Shirley. Michael Quill, Himself: A Memoir. Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1985.
  • Whittemore, L. H. The Man Who Ran the Subways: The Story of Mike Quill. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.