Defining Moments

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Management at the Jerome Avenue Barn in the Bronx tried to use a speedup technique, replacing the customary 10 inch squeegees used to clean subway cars with 14" squeegees. When 119 men who refused to work with the new equipment tried to air their grievances with managers they were locked out of the barn. Every worker walked off the job and carried out a strike that lasted two days, inspired by and with the help of TWU. Management feared more trouble and reinstated the workers to end the two-day strike and adjusted the squeegee grievance. This was the first IRT strike in almost a decade.


The Grand Central Riot, August 10, 1935

On a sweltering New York summer day, 300 TWU supporters were picketing the IRT offices in lower Manhattan. As they made their way through Grand Central Station, en route to the TWU office, transit company “beakies”, the informants used by the IRT to spy on union activities, jumped Mike Quill. Several union men rushed over to back him as police swarmed the station carrying riot clubs. The beakies identified themselves as company employees and demanded that Quill and four of his supporters be arrested.

Quill, Herbert C. Holmstrom, Thomas H. O’Shea, Patrick McHugh and Serafino Machado were arrested on the spot, charged with simple assault and held on $500 bail each. News of the arrest spread rapidly along “the road” (the system of transit workers who passed messages along the subway lines) and the incident was widely covered in the press.

Hundreds of workers fled to the courthouse to offer their own money to pay bail and refused to leave until the men were released. The charges were dropped but the case moved to a Special Sessions court hearing held six months later.

At the hearing, the union exposed the aggressive company and its intimidating espionage network for the oppressors they were, weakening the company’s power over workers and strengthening TWU’s image for hundreds of transit workers in New York City. The case was dismissed after only two hours of trial and TWU had gained great respect from workers. TWU meetings quickly gained momentum after the Grand Central Riot.


The Kent Avenue Sit-down Strike, January 25, 1937

During the fifth week of a sit-down strike at a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, TWU leaders were faced with the perfect opportunity to try out the seemingly effective and new kind of strike in Brooklyn. At the Kent Avenue power plant, two BMT boil room engineers were dismissed from work and given three minutes to leave the plant because of their involvement with the union. The two men had spent 10 years working at the plant, which was the sole source of electric power for the entire New York City subway network. Mike Quill was outraged by the dismissal and inspired by Flint’s plant workers, who had gained much national attention, staged a sit-in. The Kent Avenue sit-in proved to be the most important and defining moment for the longevity of the union.

Quill and the 35 TWU members who worked at the plant hatched a radical, unexpected and audacious plan, unsure of what to expect but hopeful that the surprise factor would be enough to win the fight against the BMT. Led by two of the plant’s union men, Ed Pollock and Joe Fody, union workers bolted the plant doors from the inside at 3 p.m., as 31 union day-shift workers took their positions at the switches that controlled each section of the subway system. Standing on top of a car in front of the plant, Quill announced that if the fired men were not reinstated by 6 a.m. the next day all switches would be pulled and the BMT would stop, paralyzing the subway system and seriously disrupting the lives of 2.4 million BMT riders.

Only 35 out of 505 men at the Kent plant were TWU members, but the 460 non-union men quickly agreed to help, wore TWU pins and remained loyal to their mission to get the two engineers reinstated.

News reporters broadcast that a “workers’ insurrection” was happening in Brooklyn and the BMT hastily called in goons to threaten the workers and hundreds of picketers who were surrounding the plant. Police, who had never seen such a situation, obeyed Quill and did not rush the plant but allowed the strike to continue without interference. The picketers prevented company police, strike-breakers and strong-arm squads from breaking down the barricaded doors and organized food brigades. Even newspaper men aided picketers in delivering food to the strikers using a make-shift pulley system.

Quill emphasized that the BMT had mistreated its workers for too long and that the firing of the two engineers was in violation of the recently enacted Wagner Act. When goons showed up flashing weapons and muscles, Quill announced that if anyone was hurt the switches would be pulled immediately, which would cause even more trouble for the BMT.

At 5:30 a.m., 30 minutes before Quill’s deadline, the BMT gave in to his demands and reinstated the fired men unconditionally and agreed to confer with the TWU members who worked in the Kent plant. The transit industry—in the most transit dependent city in the country—would never be the same.

Workers had seen the power of a union, particularly the power and determination of Michael J. Quill’s TWU, and they signed membership cards by the thousands. Transit bosses saw that they would no longer be free to mistreat and control the lives of their workers. On a larger scale, the way in which American unions were organized changed once the Kent Avenue strike demonstrated that industrial organization could be as effective, if not more effective, as craft organizations—a change TWU had been pushing to make since its inception.

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