In 1951, Woodrow “Woody” Asai, holding a degree in floral culture and ornamental horticulture from the Cornell College of Agriculture in Ithaca, New York, was hired as a gardener by the New York City Housing Authority in 1951. That was a year before Teamsters Local 237 was chartered.
Thirty years later, in 1981, he retired from his job as supervising housing groundsman. He became active in the newly formed Retiree Division, including a three-year stint as chair of the Activities Committee. He also launched a second career as an actor and joined the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
Asai, now 82, lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his wife, Hisayo, a retired teacher and a member of the United Federation of Teachers. They have two grown children.
Following are excerpts of an Oral History Project interview with Asai conducted last November.
My family started out on a farm in Houston, Texas. My oldest brother was ready for college, and my father heard about a wonderful agricultural school in New York State, in Ithaca. He decided to move the family in two trucks. That was in 1918 or soon after. My father didn’t drive, so my older sister, who was only 13 years old, drove the Model–T Ford, with the passengers, and my oldest brother drove the truck.
All nine of us—my four brothers and four sisters and I—studied at Cornell.
I grew up in Ithaca and lived there until November 1940, when I volunteered for one year of military service. After Pearl Harbor they told us we had to stay for the duration of the war. So I was in the service all during the war. I was part of the occupation force in Germany. They wouldn’t send me to the South Pacific because my facial features looked like the enemy and it was dangerous for me.
In 1946 I moved to New York City because most of my family had moved here, and I’ve lived here ever since. I met my wife here.
My wife grew up in the state of Washington and she was involved in the internment business. The West Coast states were under executive order: People of Japanese descent were transported to “internment camps.” Many of them were citizens, and their citizenship was violated. They only had a week to get rid of their possessions, businesses, and so on. Once they got out of the relocation camps, or concentration camps, they had to start from scratch. The only thing they had was memories. Eventually, they received a written apology from the federal government, and a piddling reparation.
In 1951 I was unemployed. My wife, Hisayo, saw an advertisement for gardeners at the Housing Authority in the New York Times employment section. I went for an interview. Mr. Schwank, head of grounds responsibilities, interviewed me. He was a Cornell man and so was I, so we had something in common. It was just a coincidence. I was 32 at the time.
I started as a provisional gardener. The title “gardener” was a general title in the city employment system then. City employment was a new experience for me: If I wanted to become certified, I had to take a test. I passed it with pretty good grades, and I was called early. I was pretty happy, because that status is better than provisional.
My first contact with the union was at Fort Greene Houses. Fort Greene was a baptism in fire for me. It’s a large project in Brooklyn. It was large enough so that we had two gardeners. The other gardener, Harry Abramowitz, talked me into joining the union. He was a former Parks Department employee [and had been in a union there], so he was more familiar with them. He believed that if there’s a union, workers should join it. I was naive and ignorant about unions. My father was a restaurant owner for awhile and he had some problems with a union. I was the first member of my family to belong to a union.
My yearly salary then was $3,170.
At the time we weren’t sure who was going to be our union—the United Public Workers or the Teamsters.
I was at Fort Greene Houses for a number of years. My job as gardener included taking care of grass areas, shrubs, hedges, major and minor trees, and guarding against insect infestation. I loved outdoor work.
Eventually there were a lot of title changes in the Housing Authority. That was when Local 237 came in. Supervising housing groundsman took the place of the title of gardener. The difference was that the supervising housing groundsman had a little more responsibility than just doing gardening work. We had to supervise people. That way, we could negotiate for a higher salary. [The union succeeded in removing some HA titles from the city Career and Salary Plan in 1958, making it possible to negotiate pay increases.]
I was a “working supervisor,” which is a peculiar title. Supervisor usually means you get work done through other people, but the Housing Authority said we had to work. I gave my crew their assignments and then I helped them out by doing work myself. But I enjoyed the work. That’s why I stayed there. I got commendations for good work at Millbrook Houses. It was a fairly large project, so I had provisional, seasonal, and some civil service caretakers, but it was small enough so that my work showed.
I kept asking for a transfer closer to home. In the 1970s I was transferred to Drew Hamilton Houses, near Central Harlem, on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard. I liked Drew Hamilton the best. It was close to my home, and, because it was small and since I was a working supervisor, the work I did showed in the appearance of the grounds.
In those days the workers were all men. That’s why I was called a supervising housing groundsman. After women came, of course, it was changed, to supervisor of grounds.
At meetings leading up to the strike [winter of 1967] we talked about better working conditions, higher wages, better benefits, and above all, about getting a contract, or a memorandum of agreement—something in writing between the Housing Authority and the union. [Before the city agreed to collective bargaining.]
We took a vote on the strike. In the labor movement, the strike is one of our strongest weapons against the employer. There were some people who didn’t want to go out. People are afraid of strikes because they don’t get paid. Now, city workers can’t strike because of the infamous Taylor Law.
A strike was something I had never experienced before, although I had heard about them. There were a lot of bitter words between the factions involved, but that’s natural in our country.
When you go on a strike, there has to be a good reason for management to want to negotiate with you. At the Housing Authority, they needed fuel oil—it was winter. Other Teamsters drove the trucks that delivered the oil, and of course, if we hit the bricks, they would back us up. That gave us more negotiating strength.
By yourself, you can’t get what you want from your employer, but in unity, you have more bargaining power. That’s the union. If I had a grievance, I could go to the union and they would listen. The union could correct things much better than I could alone, because unity gave us strength.
Our medical plan, the welfare fund, the retiree fund—all those benefits came through the union. That’s why I believe so much in uniting.
I was a charter member of the Retiree Division, with Maggie Feinstein [the founding director]. Many members from the Housing Authority came to the Retiree Division, from many different titles. The Retiree Division allowed us all to get together, whereas on the job there were protocols.