Following is an excerpt from Local 237's Retiree Division's Oral History Project interview with Local 237 retiree Anthony Annattone. Annattone went to work for the New York City Housing Authority at Classon Point Houses in the Bronx as a maintenance man in1951 and retired as a superintendent 32 years later, in 1983. He was one of the local's earliest shop stewards. Speaking of Local 237, Annattone said, "Sally Rags [Salvatore Raguso, an early organizer] and Mr. Feinstein [Henry, founding president] were good people. They started it, they really put their life into it. They did a job for all these people. People who have retired and who have been involved with the union should kiss the ground these people walked on."
The Early Union
There was a Bookbinders Union at Classon Point. A guy named Smitty signed us up, but apparently it wasn't very -- I don't know what the word would be, but we were getting nowhere with the Bookbinders Union. We were only making $2,400 a year when I started and we had no benefits at all. It was a five-and-a-half day a week job -- you worked a half a day on Saturdays. It was a rotation, though, between the three maintenance men. And we did get 36 days a year vacation -- that was the only benefit we had. No medical, nothing, nothing at all.
The following year when I went to Edenwald -- Artie Cordioviola (Artie was my partner then; he's my partner today, even -- we are still in very close contact after all these years) and I met a fellow named Salvatore Raguso, whom we got to know as Sally Rags. He was a wonderful gentleman, very nice. He came up and told us they were forming a union, the Teamsters. He talked to us about it and told us about all the benefits that could be had with a strong union. And we decided to join.
Artie and I were two of the first in the union. He [Raguso] invited us down to the headquarters to meet Henry Feinstein. The union headquarters were on Nassau Street in Manhattan then. We went down there on a few occasions and sat around and discussed union things. . . . Henry said with a strong organization we would be able to benefit once we got the power. He was really like a father to us. . . . And he proved to be 100 percent. . . . Artie and I were asked to become the first shop stewards at Edenwald, which we did.
And that was the beginning of our career with the Teamsters. To this day I have to say that's the finest thing that ever happened to us. Believe me, what a difference the Teamsters made in our lives.
The Per Diem Struggle
In June 1951 we were all called to a big meeting at Queensbridge Houses, and the Housing Authority tried to convince the different categories of workers to change their citywide titles to Housing titles -- --maintenance men to Housing maintenance men, porters to caretakers, firemen to Housing firemen, and so on -- --which would have meant accepting an annual salary rather than hourly, or per diem pay, which was based on the hourly pay similar workers in private industry were getting.
There was a whole slew of lawyers sitting up front. I got up at the meeting and said, "You got a whole lot of lawyers up there — if they want us to change, you must be up to no good. I for one don't want to change our title." If we changed our titles, they would have more control over us. The maintenance men refused, but the firemen and everyone else did it.
We went to the city comptroller every couple of years to fight for our increases. They tried to keep our pay down, but the law was on our side. Truly, the type of work we did called for more. The maintenance men didn't just change light bulbs, like some people thought. We did plumbing, electrical work -- you name it . . . .
We also filed Labor Law complaints to get backpay we were owed. I got skunked out of quite a lot of money because a number of us depended on someone on the job to file our forms, and he never did. We got a lawyer, we paid $5 each, to try to get it back. We also started signing our checks under protest, so I ended up losing only $800 instead of $1,500. This was all before 237 came. When we went into 237, they made sure we all filed Labor Law complaints, signed our checks under protest, and went to the meetings with the comptroller.
Our salaries escalated, and everyone benefited in the end -- the supers, the assistant supers, the managers. Because we wound up getting more money than the assistant super. I was up for promotion to assistant super, and I said, Why the hell do I want to be an assistant super with all the problems when I'm making more money as a maintenance man? So for 15 years I stayed away from it. . . . When I took the test, though, I was one of the highes -- I'm going to brag a little: I came out number 2 on the assistant super's test, and the only reason the other guy beat me out was he had 10 points -- I think he was a disabled veteran. I didn't have any.
. . . As the years went by and our salaries increased, we took everybody along with us. Their salaries were increased because ours went up. And eventually, the supers, the assistants, the managers, they all joined the union. A lot of them, especially the managers, were reluctant to join in those early years. But then when they saw the benefits we were starting to get, and of course medical benefits came into the picture, they wanted to join.
. . . I think the maintenance men changed the whole picture. If it weren't for the maintenance men, who knows what would have happened?
I was a shop steward at Edenwald Houses. Artie Cordioviola and I signed up members there. Edenwald Houses had one of the greatest amount of members. Of course Edenwald is one of the biggest projects in the city.
. . . A lot of the fellas didn't want to sign up. You had to sit down and explain the benefits. You had to tell them, Look, if you don't do this you're never going to get anything. You're at the mercy of the city comptroller or whatever. They wouldn't give you anything. You had to fight for it. But salaries were very low, especially the caretakers and the firemen -- they were making hardly any money — so even a dollar or 50 cents a week meant something to them, and we prevailed. When they saw how the maintenance men started to move, that's what convinced them to join. And of course, we got benefits through the efforts of the union -- the hospitalization.
The 1967 Housing Strike
1967. That's the year we shut down all the boiler rooms. Oh, yeah! I was at Bronx River then; I had just become an assistant super. A lot of people froze. There were some bad days. A lot of the people who lived in the project were with us — "Don't give in," things like that. It was surprising, because they were freezing in the apartments.
But it did the job, it got us a good increase. That was the year the strength of 237 really took hold. I think that's when all the people in the agencies, like the Housing Authority, the bridge workers and in the hospitals, saw that there was power in the unions. They gave us a decent wage and a decent living.
And of course a few years later, with the bridge strike, that really put the cream on the cake. I have to give them credit, because the city was shut down. They did a job, boy, they did a job! You have to commend them for what they did that day. And from there, we rolled.