Mike Quill

by John Delach

Don’t you think that the “almost” Long Island Railroad strike scheduled to begin last Sunday morning was settled almost too easily? I know I do and when I saw all of the smiling faces belonging to Governor Andrew Cuomo, MTA officials, union leaders and hangers on as they shook hands and broke bread at Docks, the trendy seafood hot spot on Third Avenue and Thirty-Ninth Street, I knew that Mike Quill was spinning in his grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery. Michael J. Quill, the late, “great” leader of the Transit Workers Union of America, the same Mike Quill, who let the press know in no uncertain fashion how he was treating a judge’s order to halt the  New York City subway strike:

The Judge can drop dead in his black robes and we would not call off the strike. Personally, I don’t care if I rot in jail!


Now that was a top-notch donnybrook.  Quill was a rough tough, take no prisoners union man who was in the top three of the New York labor leaders the public loved to hate because they screwed up life so badly with strikes. The other two, in my opinion, were Bertram Powers of Big 6, the International Typographers Union who killed several New York newspapers starting with the Daily Mirror and Albert Shanker of the UFT, the United Federation of Teachers, who shut down the entire public school system.


But Quill was a special villain having the ability and chutzpah to hold the entire city and its suburbs hostage every other New Year’s Eve. Each go-round, he dragged negotiations beyond midnight agreeing to stop the clock all the while ranting about Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. Wagner, served as mayor from Jan. 1, 1954 to December 31,1965 and  endured being Bud Abbott to Quill’s Lou Costello or Dean Martin to Quill’s Jerry Lewis time and time again. Each go-round, Quill starred in this bi-annual “pantomime making bad faces, shouting ugly threats waving his Irish blackthorn stick, and generally doing his histrionic best to make the city shake and quiver.”


Wagner understood the seriousness of his role and gamely played his part. And serious business this was. During the December, 1963 contract battles, Mayor Wagner was forced to leave the bedside of his dying wife, Susan, or risk Quill’s vindictive retaliation with a last-minute breakdown in his negotiating strategy. And how did Quill react. Asked by a reporter to comment on Wagner, Quill rejoined in his twill brogue:

Mayor Wagner is the only man I know who can speak out of both sides of his mouth and whistle at the same time.


After three terms, Wagner had had enough. John V. Lindsay, the tall, handsome, progressive Republican congressman from Manhattan’s Upper East Side “Silk Stocking District” won the race beating the Democrat, Abe Beam, and William F. Buckley who ran on the Conservative Party line. (A footnote: When asked, “what would you do if you won?” Bill Buckley replied, “Demand a re-count.”)


Lindsay chose to refrain from participating in the negotiations or playing his assigned role in The Quill Show. Although many pundits considered this decision to be crucial to the failed process that followed, I am not so sure this was correct. First off, Quill had a huge chip on his shoulder heading up to the Jan. 1, 1966 deadline. Following the successful settlement of the 1963 negotiations, one of the two Transit Authority associate board members, John J, Gilhooley or Daniel Scanlon, publicly crowed how his side of the table had been able to snooker the TWU. But more importantly, Quill and Lindsay quickly decided that they despised each other. Humbly born Quill and patrician Lindsay rubbed each other the wrong way on sight. ‘Pipsqueak’ Quill sneered. ‘Amateur.’ He belittled the incoming mayor purposely referring to him as “Mayor Linsley.”


Jimmy Breslin take was: “John Lindsay looked at Quill and saw the past and Mike Quill looked at Lindsay and saw the Church of England.”


Quill threw down an impossible gauntlet presenting the incoming mayor with a list of 70 intractable demands including a 30% across-the-board wage hike, a 32-hour work week and six weeks paid vacation. The estimated cost for these demands was $680 million dollars as opposed to the Authority’s offer of $20 million worth of increases.


As the deadline neared the Authority won an injunction banning a strike. Quill came out swinging, “Injunctions make very poor track walkers. We defy the city to run the subway.”


He tore up the court order but cut his demands to an estimated cost of $216 million…a bridge too far!


The strike lasted 12 days. It was a nightmare. Quill went to prison where he promptly suffered a hear attack that put him in a hospital. If the strike had any positive results, the one that was the most lasting involved workplace dress codes. Prior to the strike, pants were off-limits for women in the office. But crossing East River Bridges on foot in the cold and winds of January made slacks acceptable at least on a temporary basis that quickly became permanent after the strike ended.


Mayor Lindsay finally enlisted labor negotiator, Theodore Kheel, to hammer out a new contract. A settlement was reached, Quill was released, but the ordeal finished his already weakened heart and he died on January 29 at age 60.  Pete Hamill wrote, “He stood in the moral wreckage of the labor movement as the last leader to go to his grave cursing the bosses.”


The settlement cost New York City $60 million, an amount Gotham could ill afford. Worse yet, it opened the door to a myriad of municipal strikes to come during the 1960s.


Pleased stay tuned for the continuation of this saga in next week’s blog.