TWU Fights for Civil Rights

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When Your union was born in strife during the turbulent time, it grew and developed in the pioneering democratic tradition of a CIO union, with respect to racial equality. Your crusading spirit — which broke through the open shop stronghold also broke through the double walled citadels of race prejudice.

Read the full text of Dr. King’s moving address to the 1961 TWU Convention here.


TWU President Mike Quill and civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shake hands at the 1961 TWU national Convention. King was the honored guest and keynote speaker at the convention.

Dr. King recognized our tireless dedication to equality almost fifty years ago. We were honored and proud to work with Dr. King then and we are proud today of our continued efforts towards achieving equality and ensuring rights for working people of every race, color, creed, nationality and political perspective. Michael Quill founded our union with this goal and every leader since Quill has upheld his values.

In the middle of the 20th century, during times when a society seeped in racism and ignorance helped to bolster Goliath companies who practiced regular discrimination based on prejudice and racism, we defied powerful authorities and fought those giant companies in the name of equality. Quill started his fight for minorities in 1937 when he worked with Local 100 to negotiate a contract with the New York IRT to raise the minimum weekly wage. He successfully won significant pay increases for minority workers who were relegated to the lowest positions by the IRT’s discriminatory hiring practices. The following year, TWU worked with the NAACP and the Urban League to get six black porters at the IRT promoted to higher paying station agent and platform men job titles, despite great opposition from the company and other workers.

Retired TWU member Patsy Marmo was one of twelve TWU members who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. on the historic march from Selma, AL to Birmingham, AL in 1965. Continuing the effort to fight for hard workers who deserved better jobs, TWU successfully pressured the IRT to appoint two black porters to conductors in 1939. That same year in New Orleans the union defied local authorities who were against integration and held the first ever desegregated trade union meeting in the crescent city.

In 1941 TWU led a Harlem bus boycott so successful that it forced the Fifth Avenue Coach Company to start hiring black mechanics and bus drivers. This started the integration of the workforce to reflect the city minority population. Around the same time, tense race relations in Philadelphia were used as a weapon by the then malevolent Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) and rival union organizers. TWU won representation for Local 234, which prompted the PTC to ally with rejected company union leaders to use racism in an attempt to overthrow the TWU. The rival group created a race crisis by staging a wildcat strike to protest the promotion of minority workers. Federal troops called in by President Roosevelt quelled the fake strike which helped TWU win the fight and start the integration of Philadelphia’s transit system. Ten years later TWU forced the Pennsylvania Railroad to delete the word “colored’ from its company travel passes issued to black workers and their families.

TWU’s Matty Guinen (center wearing TWU hat) and other members held a meeting before the start of the 1965 Selma, AL. march.TWU started a fight for equality in the northeast but was sure to continue the fight in cities across the country as locals formed in places like Miami, where we opened a school to train black mechanics who were barred from other vocational schools in the city, and Tulsa, where we rid the American Airlines base there of its separate white and black facilities.

In 1962 Texas Local 260 uncovered a pattern of racial discrimination in the Pioneer Bus Company. The employer and independent union had two separate units, one for white drivers and shop workers and the other for blacks, with separate seniority lists for each group. TWU demanded and won by a 3-to-1 margin a new representation election of the entire group. The “Jim Crow” hiring pattern died with the first TWU contract.

One of our most memorable and proudest moments came in 1961 when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a moving keynote address to our convention. King praised the TWU for its dedication to the cause of equal rights and liberties for all people and we take great pride in having been a part of Dr. Kings dream. Thousands of TWU members participated in the March on Washington D.C. to hear King’s “I have a dream” speech, and we eagerly joined other civil rights demonstrators in the famous 50-mile Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march in 1965. Three years later over 2,500 of our members joined the Poor People’s March in Washington D.C.

During the 1960s, TWU’s National Headquarters at 50th St. and Broadway in NYC was an active center in the fight for civil rights. Large signs displayed on the building proclaimed, “TWU Says END SEGREGATION”.

Although our country still struggles with racism and prejudice, TWU has always tried to play a big role in the progression towards equality for all. In the 2008 election we were the first union to endorse Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for the presidency, and are proud to have helped President Obama become the nation’s first African-American president.

TWU Fights for Women

As the women’s movement took hold of the country in the 1960s, TWU recognized the need for more protection of women’s rights, in addition to the protection of other minority’s rights. The union, and individual members, confident with TWU’s support, fought against sexual harassment and for maternity and childcare rights for families.

Southwest Airline flight attendants joined TWU in 1975, which promptly ended the company’s corporate marketing campaign that had often resulted in the sexual harassment of female flight attendants.

In 1986, Philadelphia Local 234 stroke and won breakthrough contract language against harassment and discipline. Local 100 won a similar fight two years later by getting a provision made to their contract which spelled out the right of employees to be treated with dignity and to be free from harassment.

TWU first won rights for mothers and for children in 1977 when a Local 101 member won a major court case upholding the New York Human Rights Law which requires private sector employers to furnish disability benefits for pregnancy. Several years later Local 556, representing Southwest flight attendants, won a four month maternity leave. Local 250-A negotiated $110,000 to fund a study of child care and implement recommendations of task force in 1989. Also that year, we established an Equal Rights and Liberties Committee.

Our 2001 Convention established a Civil and Human Rights Department, which is headed by Local 260 President Sandra Burleson. For the past seven years the department has supported diversity and equality in the work place, by urging members to support legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination ACT (ENDA).

In 2001 TWU’s a women’s committee was formed as a constituency of the Civil and Human Rights Department, “to ensure equal pay for equal work. To educate women to seek the confidence to run for leadership positions in their unions. And to elevate the awareness of all working women’s needs in the workplace and outside the workplace. For TWU women to understand the true meaning of ‘Each One Teach One.’”
Today, our ATD and Transit Division Working Women’s Committees, formed in 2005, continue the original Women’s Committee’s mission.

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