International President Emeritus Sonny Hall (center) at the TWU Constitutional Convention in 1997
Harold “Sonny” Hall, former President of TWU Local 100 and the International Union – and one of TWU’s most memorable and charismatic leaders – has died at the age of 89.
According to his niece, Patricia, Sonny had been in failing health for some time. He passed away in his sleep in hospice care on Jan. 13, 2021.
TWU International President John Samuelsen said, “It’s a sad day for the TWU. I knew Sonny as a young Trackworker, as Local 100 President and now as International President. Sonny was one of the last direct links to Mike Quill and the founders of the TWU. He was an anchor for the TWU and his departure will be deeply felt.”
Sonny Hall came on the job as a Bus Cleaner at the old 146th Street Depot (now Mother Clara Hale Depot) in 1953. At the time, the union was in the midst of its epic fight for the five-day, 40-hour work week in the private bus industry.
Sonny recalled with a chuckle, in an interview with the Transport Workers Bulletin in 2016: “I was way ahead of the union on that one. I was on the four-day work week.”
Unfortunately for the young transit worker, the company bosses weren’t all that amused.
“I remember getting taken out of service for my poor time and attendance record. I wasn’t sure if I would get fired, but I was sure I was going to get a long suspension,” Sonny said in that interview.
He credited union organizer Frank Gavin with saving his job. “Frank was an old time, old fashioned union rep. He went into the hearing with management and really fought for me. When he emerged from the meeting he told me that I was going back to work the next day but also told me that if I kept doing what I was doing I was going to end up on the street. That cured me of my time and attendance issues.”
But ironically, the positive interaction with the union was not Sonny’s springboard to his union career.
“I really wasn’t a union activist in my early years on the job,” he recalled. “But I did like to go to union meetings to find out what was going on.”
It was his good record of attending those meetings that finally got him involved. “Our depot chair at 146th Street was retiring, and the person who was running for the job, Jimmy Hood, needed someone else on his slate. I was one of the few people who had the required number of meetings to qualify, so Jimmy asked me if I would run with him. That’s how it all started.”
Sonny was born January 30, 1932 in the Bronx. His father, Harold Sr. was a Bus Operator at the 100thStreet Depot (now Tuskegee Airmen Depot). “My dad was Harold, and I didn’t particularly like being called Harold, so he started calling me ‘Sonny’ and it stuck. I’m sure a lot of people over the years didn’t even know my real name.”
Sonny served in the military as an Army MP at a nuclear facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He had enlisted in the Marines when he was 16 with his older brother’s papers, but was sent home after being discovered.
He started out with Omnibus as a cleaner and shifter and then to Bus Operator.
Despite his initial reluctance to get invovled in the union, once he did his trajectory was straight up.
He formed a team with his partner Jimmy Hood. “If you were ever in trouble, Jimmy is the guy you’d want in your corner. He was relentless. Management was never right in Jimmy’s eyes. He would just push and push until they finally caved in.”
He served as Vice Chair at 146th Street beginning in 1964 with Hood as Chair. “We must have done something right for the members, because we kept getting elected.”
During the City-wide transit strike in 1966, Sonny was assigned to picket outside the old City jail where TWU International President Mike Quill and other union leaders were being held after their arrest for defying a court order. “I was at the press conference where Mike Quill famously told the judge to ‘drop dead in his black robes.’”
He also recalls that “it was freezing cold on the picketlines. The Police supported the strike and kept coming outside to give us coffee and donuts. We felt like we were fighting for all public employees.”
Sonny continued his climb up the ladder. When the union went out on its second city wide strike in 1980, he had risen to Vice President for MaBSTOA Division 1. “I told the reporters that the Executive Board was split and we were really going to strike. They thought we were crying wolf, but we weren’t.”
As Vice President, Sonny was responsible for all contracts for the private bus companies. He oversaw an 11-week strike against New York Bus Service in 1984.
In 1985, the Executive Board thrust Sonny into the role of President when then Local 100 President John E. Lawe moved up to TWU Interational President after the unexpected death of William G. Lindner.
For the next 9 years, he guided Local 100 through three major contracts with the MTA and numerous other agreements with the private bus lines.
In 1991, he succeeded in launching Local 100’s Union Assistance Program (UAP), which he personally negotiated with then Gov. Mario Cuomo after the tragic Union Square crash on the L line that claimed five lives. The Train Operator was arrested for being intoxicated and spent five years in jail.
“Everyone hated management’s EAP because it was punitive. I insisted that ours be competely confidential and non-disciplinary,” Sonny recalls. “It’s my proudest achievement. It’s helped so many transit families over the years.”
As President, he also instituted the bargaining unit protection program to preserve the union’s traditional work, and bring back in-house some of the contractor’s work. He beefed up the union’s political department in Albany as well.
In 1993, Sonny was elected TWU International President, a position he held until his retirement in 2004. During this time, he broadened TWU’s brand nationally, and launched an aggressive buildup of the union’s political operation on Capitol Hill.
In 1998, he was elected President of the 2-million member AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, where he brought all elements of transportation labor together into its most unified political force in decades. His influence was felt in Congress, the Federal Agencies overseeing transportation and the White House.
Looking back on his amazing career, Sonny always begins and ends with his beloved days in the trenches fighting management with Local 100.
“I think the one thing I can point to in life is that the good Lord allowed me to be elected a union officer,” Sonny said. “I loved every minute of it even when I was getting booed. I miss it every single day. I would come back in a minute. Being a union man is very importnat to this country.”
Sonny continued: “Was it fun, oh absolutely. I was just a normal joe who liked to play the horses too much. But the union gave me direction. I really enjoyed saving a worker’s job.”
Sonny’s wife of nearly 65 years, Maureen, passed away after his retirement and left a giant void in his life.
“With Maureen gone, if I didn’t have some of my union memories to look back on, I would be very lonely. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I review some incident or big fight we had in the union and will fall asleep with a smile on my face.”
Sonny always wrote his own columns for the union newspaper, and he did so with great passion.
In his final message as International President to TWU members in the September 2004 edition of the TWU Express, he revealed once again the selfless dedication to the union that had always marked his career.
Here’s what he said: “One should never forget where they came from. Here in New York City, where I was born, TWU Local 100 was my life, as it was for my dad.
“I leave TWU as an active member, but will always pay dues to my Union until the day the good Lord takes me.
“Regrets, sure I have a few, mistakes–heck, yes, but I did my very best, and I am proud of what I have accomplished and I am proud that I have respected every TWU Sister and Brother, even when we disagreed.
“This is your union; understand that it is a working person’s partnership. One must not always take from their union, we must give of ourselves as well.”
Survivors include nieces Patricia and Suzanne; daughter-in-law Shari, and granddaughters Skyler and Colby.