The 1966 Transit Strike was a remarkable chapter of our union’s story. It’s more than a shame that its real lessons have been trampled on by bad union leaderships. Yet its place in labor history and class struggle should make every member of TWU Local 100 proud. Above all it sets a great example for the kind of spirit that must be resurrected today.
At that time transit workers were covered under the repressive Condon-Wadlin Act. Under Condon-Wadlin, striking public employees would be fired – and if reinstated they would be barred from any pay increase for three years and would be on probation for five! This was the punishment of the time for public employees exercising a basic right to strike.
Nevertheless, on New Year’s Day, 1966, 35,000 transit workers began a strike defying this law – and on Mayor John Lindsay’s first day in office at that. For 12 days, the strike was a major display of workers’ power.
On day one of the strike then-Local 100 President Mike Quill had torn up the court injunction papers at a press conference. When he was then thrown in jail, he uttered these famous words: “It is about time that someone, somewhere along the road, ceases to be respectable. Many generations of great Americans before us have taken this road, and if they didn’t take this road, half of you would be on home relief ... The judge can drop dead in his black robes, and we would not call off this strike.”
The point was that it was only through defiant struggle that gains had ever been made for the working class. Quill, along with several other union leaders, faced imprisonment heroically. But it was surely the even deeper heroism of the striking workers which crippled profit-making and upset the social order. So much so that it scared the capitalists and their politicians to their core.
Needless to say, the capitalists so feared a continued strike at a point that Mayor Lindsay was pressured to arrange a special session of the State Legislature to approve a retroactive waiver of Condon-Wadlin and amnesty from its penalties was granted to all strikers – in addition to a hefty wage and benefit settlement.
Not only did the strikers beat the repressive Condon-Wadlin Act, but in today’s dollars, they won $400 million worth of wages and benefits, including a better pension plan. Without a doubt, they set the stage for other city unions to get increases as well. (Further, the notion of paying for wages and benefits through concessions like speed-up and layoffs was unthinkable!) Then-President Quill was willing to fight at that point and his individually heroic acts as a leader certainly helped to win those gains at that time.
But there was another side to him that shouldn’t be ignored – when we tell our history we must tell the truth. Many people called Quill a “red,” but he really wasn’t: in his early days he was associated with the Stalinist Communist Party (CP), which betrayed the working class and real communism by supporting capitalist governments in the U.S. and elsewhere. Quill and other CPers in the TWU leadership didn’t try to share their political ideas with fellow transit workers in order to convince them. Rather they only forwarded a narrow strategy for “bringing home the bacon.” They did win immediate gains for one sector of workers some of the time, but they wasted greater opportunities to make broader achievements.
A big example was when Quill split from the Communist Party in 1948. He didn’t leave in order to better defend the working class, but rather to strengthen his personal power. One of the triggers for the split was Quill’s backroom deal with Mayor William O’Dwyer: Quill supported O’Dwyer’s plan to double the subway fare from 5 to 10 cents, and in turn O’Dwyer agreed to a 24 cent an hour pay hike for transit workers and dues checkoff for the union. The other CPers in the union denounced Quill’s betrayal, even though they did support other pro-capitalist policies. The strategy of making a deal with Democrats for a higher fare in exchange for union benefits kept transit workers dependent on the capitalist Democratic Party, set transit workers against the rest of the working class, and gave the bosses an excuse for attacking all workers with higher fares.
So even before 1966, Quill had a long history of making deals with Democratic politicians that avoided strikes and were not in the best interest of the working class. Quill and his Democratic Party friends would work out deals that gave the TWU just enough to dampen pressure for a strike from the ranks – but not enough to keep up with inflation or win real gains. It was only in 1966, when the new mayor, Republican John Lindsay, decided not to play that game, that Quill was forced to strike and show a temporary fervor for militant action over private deals. (Ironically that one strike ended up with Lindsay giving out far more to TWU workers than Quill’s Democratic “friends” ever had!)
Despite Quill’s overall political failures, one main lesson of the ’66 strike history is clear. With it, the TWU had effectively smashed the Condon-Wadlin Act. But shortly after, politicians gathered together to put through the Taylor Law, which they figured would be more successful in suppressing workers’ struggles than its more extreme predecessor. Instead the Taylor Law would offer the “carrot” of state-guaranteed union bargaining rights and supposedly “good faith” negotiations – while making all public sector strikes illegal and attempting to prevent their spread through bleeding the unions and members with escalating fines.
The analogies with today’s situation are clear. We must render the Taylor Law as useless as Condon-Wadlin, as nothing but a piece of paper that should be swept away along with all the bosses’ other threats. The fight begins with the demand for Amnesty From All Taylor Law Penalties – We Won’t Go Back to Work Without It!
RTW wants to become a voice for all transit workers. So let us know what’s happening in your division, either in the union or on the job. If we think your letter raises issues that are important for all transit workers to read, we’ll publish it in RTW.
Let us know what you think of our views. If you agree, let us know. If you disagree, let’s discuss it.
Write to us at:
RTW, P.O. Box 1936
Murray Hill Station
New York, NY 10156
Or send us an e-mail!