Transit; Utility, University and Services Division

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The Transport Workers Union was born in the early 20th century through many clandestine meetings consisting of New York City’s Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) workers. The IRT shops were prone to yellow dog contracts and company controlled representatives who prevented workers from forming their own representation and aggressively fought any outside unionization attempts. As IRT employees themselves, organizers Mike Quill and Tom O’Shea felt the collective plight of their peers and gained their trust and confidence using smart and determined organizing techniques, and by refusing to discriminate. The early TWU organizers knew they had to move quickly and decisively and needed to create powerful moments of success in order to win the fight against the oppressive IRT.

A major strong point for the early TWU was their dedication to equality. The first organizers never discriminated based on race, creed, sex, sexual orientation or nationality, when many other unions did. In the early 1930s the IRT reserved dead-end porter jobs for minority workers who were discriminated against by most every union except TWU. The union fought hard to open up all job titles to everyone.

Between January and October of 1937 -in just nine months- TWU organized the entire New York City transit system, a success that had never been achieved before. They signed six major contracts which included the unionization of two subways and 35,000 workers.

As company spies were outed publicly, company unions were charged under federal law and ordered to disband. As the scope of pension benefits were cut, wages continued to drop. As the red scare encouraged skepticism, unwarranted firings showed workers in one case after the other that it was in fact the company bosses who could not be trusted.

The road to New York City’s transit unionization was not smooth. There were many defining moments that helped TWU successfully organize one of the country’s most elaborate transportation systems. Read about the defining moments here.

TWU organized transit workers around the country after their big win in New York City and continues to fight for all workers rights today.

Our History |  TWU Fights for Civil Rights |  Air Transport |  Railroad |  Gaming |  TWU Defining Moments