Bridge Up! City Down!
Daniel Siciliano went to work for the city as an assistant bridge operator in 1966 at the Willis Avenue Bridge in the Bronx. At the time, the workers had a different union. After hearing about contract gains Local 237 was winning for its members, Siciliano and some of the other bridge workers decided they wanted to be represented by the Teamsters. Two years later, the Teamsters won a union representation election—by six votes, 148-142. Siciliano was elected shop steward at the Willis Avenue Bridge.
At the time of the bridge strike in June of 1971, Siciliano was a bridge operator-in-charge at the Unionport Bridge in the Bronx (his brother Matteo also worked there), and recording secretary of Local 237’s bridges chapter.
Following are excerpts of a Local 237 Oral History Project interview with Siciliano on May 28. The excerpts focus on the bridge strike.
What led up to the bridge strike, the job action?
Rumors of a strike came up weeks before we actually did it. . . . We were going for better pensions and the legislature didn’t want to okay it. Rockefeller nixed it. We were trying to get a 15-year pension plan—-not so much for us, I think it was for the cops, the firemen, a whole array of city unions. We were supposed to go out in tandem. . . . .
What happened at the planning meeting the night before the strike?
Lenny Gordon [an assistant bridge operator who was the liaison with then Local 237 President Barry Feinstein] called me on Sunday evening around 4 or 5 o’clock, and he said, “Danny, Barry wants us downtown.” So we go downtown. . . . Basically, they told us there may be a strike, or a job action, the next morning—Barry liked to call it a “job action”—and he said, I want you to make all the preparations now. The reason we called it a job action was to try to take the sting out of what the city could do to us. A strike, a job action—whatever.
We said we needed a boat because there would be no way the guys could get off the bridges. Once you swing out the bridge, it’s impossible. One of the guys, Mitch Storey, said he could get a boat. . . .
So we started seeing who, what, where, and how. I knew a lot of guys weren’t going to take part, they were too scared. We started with the Harlem River. We called each bridge and spoke to the guys. Some guys said, Okay, fine. If they didn’t, then we tried to get a replacement to cover that spot. We had one bridge in the Bronx, the guy would-n’t do it at all, we didn’t even waste time with him. You can’t force a guy. . . . On the Harlem River, we got every bridge but the last one, the Broadway Bridge. The Broadway Bridge would have been significant because the trains run over the top. Had that bridge gone up, they would have shut down the Broadway subway line. But what happened, the operator says, I’ll let you know. I said, Let me know now. He said he’d do it. But when the time came, he wouldn’t.
|Left: top, pin made from a photograph of one of the bridges left in an open position during the 1971 bridge strike; bottom, Daily News article on the strike and his indictment and the indictment of Danny Gibson and Victor Echavarry for their role bridge strike, from Danny Siciliano’s scrapbook. Above: Daniel Sciliano’s ID card|
In the Bronx, we had to get Unionport; that was the key bridge. I was part of the Unionport crew. We had three night crews . . . I was scheduled to be off. I had already spoken to the other night men, and to the day men, because I didn’t know what time the strike was going to come about. We made it mutual; I work for them, and they’ll work for me another time. So I had alerted them all in case I had to come in.
. . . That night, after the meeting, I called up this guy Ronnie Goss [who was scheduled to be on duty], I says, Ronnie, I gotta take over the bridge tonight. I said, I’ll doyour midnight and at a later date you’ll do my midnight.
That’s how we did it.
When I got to the bridge at 11 o’clock— the shift used to run from 11 to 7—the assistant bridge operator that was there working with Ronnie already knew what was going to happen, and he said, I gotta go home, I’m a sick man. I said, Okay, you can go home, take it easy. So I got on the phone with my
brother Mattie and I told him, Mattie, you gotta come in, we may have to open the bridges. I still didn’t have any definite word. When I first got to the bridge, it could still have been settled. At 6:00, Lenny might have called and said it’s off. All that night I was saying to myself, Migod, it’s going to be murder around here, because I knew how that traffic builds up. That Unionport Bridge was a disaster. . . .
Then at 6 o’clock in the morning, Lenny called. He said, “Danny, we’re gonna have it, it’s on.” He says, “You go first because you’re the recording secretary; Barry wants you to lead.”
I said, “Okay, what time do you want me to go?”
I had 20 minutes to get the leafs up, get all the stuff out, and get off the bridge before people realized what was happening. They would have killed me. You know what I’m saying?
On the bascule bridges you got the regular set of leafs that go up and you got an emergency set . . . So me and my brother removed the handles and the fuses from the emergency set. Once we got the other leafs up, we locked them into place, we removed the handles and fuses so it was impossible to get them down, put them in a bag, went downstairs, locked the door. The people who were caught up in the traffic thought we were just changing shifts.
When we left, I gave the parts to Mattie to take home, for safekeeping, and I went to the train because I had to go to 14th Street, to the union headquarters.
So Mattie took the parts home.
He took the parts home for safekeeping.
And you just left the bridges up.
Just left them up. The funny thing, riding on the subway I could almost hear the people blowing their horns. Because the bridges weren’t coming down. . . .
And this was rush hour.
And in those days, the Unionport Bridge—there was no overpass then. Every major road came through the Unionport Bridge. Cross Bronx, down from the New England Thruway, parts of the Hutch—everything. You had to go over that bridge. There’s no way you can get around it . . . .
So, I went downtown, and I’m saying to myself as I’m riding on the train—Now remember, at Unionport it’s not like on the Harlem River, where when one bridge opens, the guys can see each other because they were on the same waterway, you give each other encouragement. . . . So I’m riding on the train thinking to myself, I’m saying, Those son of a guns, they better come through, because if they catch me alone I’ll probably wind up in jail.
And you couldn’t tell because you were in the subway.
I’m in the subway, I don’t know what’s going on. I said, I can’t ride the subway, I’m just too intense, I gotta get into a cab, so I got off at 125th Street. I get into the cab and the first thing the cab driver says to me is, “You know, I can’t get home. All the bridges on the Harlem River are open. I can’t even cross.”
That’s when I knew everybody did it!
How did you feel?
I felt a load off my back, because now I had everybody with me.
I got down to union headquarters and guys were coming in from all over. Some guys brought handles into the union! They walked in and said, “Look what I got.”
Then we talked, and Barry told us this, this, and this. And then we went home.
I took the train home and I had to change at Parkchester. At Parkchester, the station goes over the Cross Bronx. I looked down on that Cross Bronx and it was solid sitting still. People were walking around like in a daze. I said to myself, Oh, migod, those people will kill me. . . . To make it worse, it was a 93-degree day, it was very hot. You could see hoods up all over the place, cars overheating. The noise of the people blowing their horns. Those people were mad. I don’t have to tell you how mad they were. . . .
That morning my wife was taking my son to school, and she could hear the mothers saying, They should get those bridge guys and put them in jail for the rest of their lives. . . .
When I got home, I told my kids, Don’t tell anybody I work on the bridge.. . . .
Tell us more about that day.
Danny Gibson and Victor Echavarry were also in the Bronx. The guy who was supposed to open the Hutchinson River Bridge wouldn’t do it. . . . And he wouldn’t leave the bridge. He was screaming. So Frank Scarpinato [former Local 237 secretary-treasurer and Citywide director] got on the phone with him . . . He finally left, but Danny Gibson and his ABO [assistant bridge operator] had to open the bridge after the people already knew there was a strike on. He had all kinds of trouble getting to his car in the parking lot, and they were cursing at him.
There were two cops on the bridge when Danny got there, but they didn’t interfere. They said, You’re opening the bridge? and they walked away. Because they knew the action, the strike, was also for their benefit, because of the pensions.
Echavarry was okay. Echavarry did the Pelham Bridge. The Pelham Bridge, all you really affect is the City Island area. . . .
In Brooklyn, because some of the guys wouldn’t do it, they had to call in union guys [who didn’t work there] to open two or three of the bridges. . . . There was tremendous damage. . . . They had to rip out the wires. . . . [One] bridge didn’t work for weeks after. . . .
Barry Feinstein estimated that there were only 13 operators that did everything. . . .You got to remember, some guys had a lot of years on the job. They were just scared. It’s hard to put it into words—but you’re messing with the public. . . . It was not an easy thing to do. It took a lot of courage.
After the strike was over, every bridge had two cops assigned around the clock for two solid months because of the threats we were getting. Some guys had their car windows smashed.
When did you go back to work?
Two days later. . . . I lost two days’ pay. I worked seven and a half hours of that eight-hour shift and they docked me for it. Plus, they gave me a punishment day. . . .
I opened [Unionport Bridge] at 6:20 [on the day of the strike]. They worked on that bridge right away. By 9:00 that night they finally got the four leafs down. . . . They called in the Army Corps of Engineers—for the first time ever in the history of unions. . . . But by that time it didn’t matter, the damage was done. City employees got the day off with
pay because buses couldn’t run, nothing ran.
The Army Corp of Engineers didn’t know how to operate the bridges. They took the leafs down with cranes, one at a time. When we went back we brought back the fuses and the handles. And then the bridge operated normally. . . .
They talked about that for years. When Barry went to the International he got a standing ovation from the Teamsters union, from all the groups.
It was really for you guys, for you guys who did it.
Right. Well, we shut down the city of New York. Barry used to like to say—he used to always want me at his dinners—he would say, “With 13 guys we shut down the city of New York, and I got one of them sitting here tonight.”
What happened after the strike, in the courts?
Right after the strike, about two or three days later, we got called down to the grand jury. I’m talking about the Bronx; only the Bronx got involved. Me, Danny, and our ABOs got called down. I gave them my name and address, and then they started asking me questions. I didn’t tell them nothing. I kept saying, I invoke the Fifth Amendment, I got nothing to say to you. So they let me go. . . .
Then about a month after that Lenny said, “Danny, I got bad news for you: you’re being indicted—you, Danny, and Echavarry, Victor Echavarry. You’re being indicted.” On the day we were being indicted we surrendered down at the Bronx district attorney’s office. The lawyer from the union was there. And they took us—they didn’t handcuff us—they drove us down to Manhattan for the arraignment. The three of us were arraigned, we pleaded not guilty. That was it.
. . . For four years we were in and out of that court. Once a month, twice a month, postpone, postpone. Back and forth. What I found out later is that they wanted to put me in jail. They said they’d let the other two guys go if the union agreed to put me in jail.
Who wanted that, the Bronx DA?
Yeah. They had me down as a union official, because I was the recording secretary, so if they could put me in jail, they would let the other two guys go. But Barry wouldn’t go for that. After four years, they finally decided: Plead guilty to a Class A misdemeanor, you get $1,000 fine, for three years we could not take a promotion test.
But by that time I had become a provisional supervisor and the test was coming out. In those days those tests came out only every 10-15 years. So with that sentence, I was shut out. But the lawyers went to the
next higher court, to the appellate division. And the judge overruled it and said I could take the test. Judge Sullivan is the guy who settled this, Bronx Court Judge Sullivan.
After we were sentenced, we got three years supervised probation. That means I reported to a probation officer like any common criminal. . . .They made our lives miserable. . . .
If you take the four years in and out of court and the three solid years of probation, they had us for seven years before I started breathing a sigh of relief. It seemed like forever.
. . . Kids were throwing rocks through the window because my name and address appeared in the papers. . . I got letters after I was indicted from people threatening me, from all over the country, from Florida, from California, people I never heard of. . .
Why were you guys in the Bronx the only ones who were indicted?
The Bronx district attorney was the only district attorney who did it. Burton Roberts. He’s a judge now. I don’t know why he did it. The other DAs did not do anything, and those guys did the exact same thing that I did.
Later on Barry was indicted, from Manhattan. And me and about seven of the guys were indicted along with Barry, but we were called co-conspirators, not co-defendants—for the night that we planned this. I think it for super . . . I came out number eight. Now, eight, you can’t get to me. You could only get to three or four . . . Barry goes down and gets four more supervisors made. Now, all of a sudden we had an eight-supervisor group. . . . So that’s how they did it, and since then we’ve had eight supervisors. . . . So Barry paid me back for Unionport. . . .
Here’s another thing. We had the test for supervisor, and I was going to be promoted, but they had those three years that I can’t take a promotion, remember? So they worked out a deal—this was great— the day I got promoted to supervisor, I immediately took a leave of absence and went back to BOIC [bridge-operator-in-charge] for the years I was on probation. After my three years of probation was up,probation was up, the union called up and I was made supervisor. So I lost the three years as a supervisor, but I got it back when my probation was up. That’s how they got around it. . . .
Did you realize there would be legal ramifications?
Well, no, I didn’t know I was going to be was six months later or a year later, and my name came up with seven or eight, like Lenny Gordon, his name came up, Mitch Storey, the guy who did the boat, his name came up.
So Barry was facing 55 years. . . . But nothing happened. The funny thing is, in between all these other indictments, do you know Barry threatened them with another strike? We were going into negotiations. At that time, each group had about 20 different pay scales, and Barry wanted to compress them down to four. So the guy from the city says, I don’t care what you do, we’re not gonna do nothing. That night, Barry went on TV, I was standing behind him, me and Lenny Gordon and a few other people, and Barry says, “We’re gonna have a strike. I’m not gonna tell you when. I’m gonna make you guess.” Now, this is a Friday. By Monday the city said, You can have anything you want. Calls started coming into the union headquarters. It was such a scare that the city said OK, you got it. . . .
At the time that this happened, we had two supervisors at each section. . . . Now, when the tests came out, when I took the test
was a union deal. One year the sanitation workers go on strike, they’re not indicted. The transit workers went on strike. They indicted the head guy, [Transit Workers Union President Mike] Quill, but they didn’t bother the workers. You know what I’m saying? We didn’t know we were going to be indicted. But the thing is this, I weigh everything, and I’m happy the way things worked out because, like I say, they made me a supervisor, I made more money, I have a better pension. So if you take it all said and done, I came out ahead. Even with the seven years.
So this is my feeling.
You guy were really loyal union members.
Yes, we were, we were. I always believed, if you want to join a union, you want to, you got to, be part. There’s no halfway measures here. You know what I mean? I figure, you’re a union member, you do things, and that’s it. . . . The bottom line,when I agreed to become recording secretary, I had to put my money where my mouth is. You got to either fish or cut bait. So when the time came for the strike, I had to take part.