Quill, Michael Joseph (1905–66), trade union leader, was born 18 September 1905 in Gortloughera, Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, seventh among five sons and three daughters of John Daniel Quill, farmer, of Gortloughera, and Margaret Quill (née Lynch), of Ballyvourney, Co. Cork. He attended Kilgarvan national school until early adolescence. The family had strong republican sympathies and Quill served with an IRA flying column during the civil war. In 1926 he emigrated to New York City. After a series of brief jobs, in 1929 he secured employment with the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) as a subway-station change-maker. Attracted to socialism and militant industrial unionism by his reading of James Connolly (qv), in 1933 Quill was one of a small group of workers seeking to initiate a trade union independent of the IRT's complacent company union. Comprised largely of ex-IRA men linked by membership of Clan na Gael and the leftist Irish Workers' Clubs, Quill's group soon joined forces with a New York transit-industry organising effort by the Communist Party, resulting in the launch (April 1934) of the Transport Workers Union (TWU). With a convivial personality and a flair for oratory, Quill quickly emerged as one of the union's most effective organisers. During 1935 he left his IRT job to work full-time as union organiser; in December 1935 he was elected TWU president, a position he would hold until his death. By autumn 1936 the TWU had established a solid base on the IRT, and intensified organisation on New York's other transit lines: subways, buses, elevated trains, and trolleys. In May 1937 the TWU affiliated with the incipient Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). After winning, mostly by large majorities, a series of union representation elections in May–June 1937, the TWU negotiated closed-shop contracts with various New York transit companies, obtaining for its 30,000 members substantial wage increases and benefits and a work-week reduction to forty-eight hours. The ethnic profile of the TWU (which was colloquially nicknamed ‘the Irish union’) reflected that of New York's transit workforce, about half of which was Irish-born.
First elected to New York's city council (November 1937) as candidate of the American Labor Party, Quill served on the body intermittently until 1949. After 1940 he led the TWU into expansion outside New York, organising in mass transit in other cities, in airlines, and in railroads. Despite modest membership numbers (135,000 by the mid 1960s), the TWU was the USA's largest transit union, and Quill maintained a high public profile, owing to his union's situation in a key economic sector, its base in the country's largest city, and the colourful and the controversial features of his personality and politics. The 1940 municipal buy-out of New York's private subway companies and subsequent evolution of a unified civically operated transport system (including most city bus lines) precipitated a lengthy TWU struggle to establish collective bargaining rights and procedures for the transport workforce as public employees. This campaign, by setting precedents for public-sector union organisation nation-wide, marked Quill's most enduring legacy to the American labour movement.
Quill denied repeated charges that he was a Communist, while retorting that he would ‘rather be called a Red by the rats than a rat by the Reds' (Freeman (1989), 137). Communists held influential positions at all levels in the TWU until the union's December 1948 convention, when, after months of rancorous conflict over policy, Quill secured the expulsion from union office of all Communist Party members. His own politics, nevertheless, remained conspicuously leftist in the America of the 1950s and 1960s, as he condemned both the McCarthyite anti-Red witch-hunt and the Vietnam war. Elected a CIO vice-president in 1950, he eschewed redefinition as ‘a labour statesman’ (Cronin, 13), and advocated a national labour party and nationalisation of major industries. A strenuous opponent of racial discrimination by employers and within trade-union structures, he actively supported the black civil-rights movement. He was the only top CIO official to oppose its 1955 merger with the conservative, craft-dominated American Federation of Labor, which he accused of ‘the three Rs’ of raiding, racketeering, and racism.
Quill's final battle was his most dramatic. On 1 January 1966 he defied public-sector anti-strike legislation and a court injunction and led TWU Local 100 into the first total subway-and-bus strike in New York City history, paralysing traffic for twelve days. Arrested on 4 January, Quill, who had a history of serious heart disease, collapsed during admission to prison and was transferred to hospital under police custody. On 13 January the strike was settled with a 15 per cent wage increase, the highest of Quill's TWU presidency. On 28 January, several days after discharge from hospital, he died of heart failure in his home.
Quill married (1937) Maria Theresa O'Neill (d. 1959) of Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry; they had one son. Quill married secondly (1961) Shirley Garry (née Uzin) of Brooklyn, New York, his long-serving administrative assistant; they had no children. The Michael J. Quill Centre at Ardtully, Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, houses a commemorative museum.