Lessons From Our History of Struggle, Part 1
How Local 100 Won the Strike of ’66

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, which betrayed the working class and real communism by supporting capitalist governments in the U.S. and everywhere. After he split from the Communist Party in 1947, he continued with a policy of simply keeping the workers dependent on the capitalist Democratic Party, while ruthlessly purging the union of former political associates from higher-ups to secretaries.

And so it was that before 1966 Quill already had a history of making deals with Democratic politicians that avoided strikes and were not in the best interest of the working class. For a number of contract rounds Quill and Democratic party friends, notably Mayor Richard Wagner, 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 that could have been won. 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 “friend” Wagner 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!