John Hartter, who lived to the age of 92, was a founding member of Local 237, which was chartered in 1952. He retired from his job as water use inspector for the New York City Water Department in 1975 after 27 years on the job. After he retired, he pursued his long-neglected talent in art and developed a new talent for gardening.
Following are excerpts of an interview with Hartter conducted in April 1999 at his home in Brooklyn, New York, where he lived with his wife, Marie, until his death in 2005.
I graduated from Brooklyn Tech in 1931. I had taken the electrical course there, but they weren’t paying much for electricity then. . . . The fellow I was working for—every once in a while a check would bounce and my mother would be embarrassed when she went to the grocery store. So when I was offered a job as a plumber, I took it, and I went to evening trade school.
... Around 1936 there was a possibility of getting into the Navy Yard as an apprentice. I applied but I never heard from them.
Then I heard the city was going to hire water inspectors. I was doubtful if I wanted to work for the city because they had a bad reputation. That was approximately 1936 or 38. I was about 26. . . .
I continued with plumbing. . . . I passed the test for subway plumber, but everyone and his uncle said, Do you want to work in other people’s filth in the subway plumbing system? I was talked out of it. That was just before [transit worker leader Mike] Quill organized the outfit. Not taking it was probably one of my bigger mistakes. My mother said to just go, go, but everyone else said no . . . So finally I just continued with the plumbing.
During this period, around 1941, they were starting to build up the war hysteria. I got a call from the Navy Yard. . . . I thought it was one of Roosevelt’s mandates.When I got down there I found they had dug up my 1936 application for apprentice. . . .
I was assigned to a plumbing division. We were going to build the battleship Missouri. We were on that for a couple of months. Then repairs started coming in—ships being outfit ted with more equipment, destroyer escorts and destroyers, and so on. . . . It was the best education I ever had. Work on ships was much more complicated than apartments. . . .
Going to Work for the City
I met a fellow at the Navy Yard who was roughly in my category. His name was Herman Schultz. He graduated from one of the technical institutes in Manhattan and he had been a union plumber—he managed to get into the union during the Depression years. . .
We got friendly; we be came fishing buddies and all that. After a while we got teamed up in the Navy Yard. The top jobs were handed to us because we worked at it. . . .
He went to the Water Department about a year before me, in ‘46 or ‘47. . . . He had passed the [city] plumbing test, and he was also in a preferred category [veterans], so when they started appointing people for the job after the war was over, he was hired. . . . The supervisor in charge of new construction picked Her man to work there. . . . Any way, Herman invited me to come over to see what it was all about. . . . He convinced me to check up on it. . . . So I took the test. I wound up second on our particular list but I ended up 108 because I wasn’t in the service . . . . When they called me about my appointment, Herman told me to ask for Manhattan, which I wanted to do anyhow because it was easy to travel. . . .
To learn about the meters and their locations and how to gain access, you went out with a meter reader and they would show you how to route out your work, because everything is a block and a lot as far as the city was concerned. . . . I started out with a fellow named Joe Muratore. . . . We had to see if there was increased consumption, and account for it: Either there was waste or someone was bypassing the meter. . . .
A lot of times the storekeepers wanted to keep you out, especially if it was around lunchtime; other times it was: How come my water bill’s so high? So we were between the devil and the deep blue . . . . That’s when I found out about respect on the job: If you have a clean appearance, a neat appearance, you’d have no trouble getting into places.
I was about a year on meter reading when they decided to go into “resurvey,” as they called it. A lot of buildings were altered in Manhattan. Each building that’s altered gets what they called an examination report. Any place they suspected had alterations would have to have examination papers. . . .
Organizing & Political Campaigning
I wasn’t in a union then. There was some social business. Occasionally we would make a contribution if someone was retiring or someone was sick—like an association. That was all we had then. You have to remember, this was close to the time when [public employee] unions were starting to get active.
Bob Wagner was [Manhattan] borough president at that time. Henry Feinstein [the founding president of Local 237] was an organizer for D.C. 37, for [D.C. 37 leader] Jerry Wurf, so originally we all signed up to go in there. [Feinstein was president of D.C. 37 when it was first chartered by AFSCME in 1944.] Well, not all; there were a few dissenters, of course. It had to be close to the time I got there, in late ‘48. . . .
We had a very good support group. It included all the different borough heads, even the man who managed the water register was amenable. Gene Drum, Ormand Burke, and Jim Finnertry—they were the top three. We had the borough chiefs at that time—McCormick, Kuntsler, Evans, George Hauser of Brooklyn, and George Lodis (he was one of our district supervisors when we first came, when we were doing the resurvey).
We recognized the fact that some kind of organization had to be established if you want to get something. In the Naval Yard there had been no union, and we were angry because in the private shipyards the workers made two or three times our salary for the same amount of work. So we [at the Water Department] figured there would be a little justice in having some representation. The other feature was that anybody could get into the union. . . . With a city union, anyone that comes in has to be accepted, and later on they mandated it more or less because you had to pay dues whether you were a member or not. So that was attractive to us—that we would all have representation. That was D.C. 37. . . . Then we found out that Henry Feinstein had decided with some other people that we might be swallowed up by the whole because we would be a little group in a large group . . . . So it sounded attractive to us to pull out, so we pulled out with Henry. We started with Henry, and we stayed with Henry. . . .
When Bob Wagner was going to run [for mayor], that’s when we started electioneering. . . . There was no proselytizing by our group in the field, but there was a deal, and we volunteers, working in our spare time or whatever time we were given, did electioneering [distributing campaign literature]. . . . We would meet in one of the halls or wherever they congregated and be assigned to a location, an area . . . I went with Bill Norton and the fellow Joe Muratore who broke me into the water meter business. We knew how to get into buildings we weren’t supposed to get into. We knew how to get in through the service entrances and how to get upstairs, and we distributed our literature—which was strictly a no-no, but we did it anyway. . . .
We also did poll taking. We worked from lower Manhattan to the Harlem area. Sometimes we were looked at with suspicion, but whatever data we did manage to get together helped us.
We were willing volunteers. We campaigned for Wagner because he was for the unions. He was the son of the “real” Bob Wagner, who was the father of all unions as far as we were concerned. . . .
To me, the payoff, if you want to use the word, was that he would represent us in the fight to get a union, and we were returning a favor. . . .
Henry Feinstein’s wife worked in our office. She worked for the Water Department for a period of time. My association with her was practically nil. . . . I don’t know how Henry Feinstein came to the Water Department. I wasn’t privy to it. That went through the various chiefs. They’re the ones who actually introduced him—the borough chief, Jim (James) McCormick, my immediate supervisor. . . .
The union was something that was needed, they all benefited by it, whatever their title. . . .
I don’t know whether he [Henry Feinstein] had a steady job or whether he was still working for Wagner [as his driver; in the early 1940s, before becoming president of the newly chartered D.C. 37, Feinstein was head of a group of auto enginemen—chauffeurs/motor vehicle operators — in Council 209 of the Civil Service Forum] . . . I don’t know the details, that’s beyond my knowledge. . . .
Chapter Status and the Benefit Fund
We became Teamsters when Local 237 got the charter, in 1952. There were approximately 200 water use inspectors, give or take. Before that we were in D.C. 37. We left D.C. 37 in 1952. . . .
Our reward for the work that we did was chapter status. It meant that we . . . got a refund of some of our dues so we could run our chapter affairs.
We were the first ones to set up a little bit of a benefit fund. We set it up shortly after we were established as 237. I became treasurer. With the amount of money we got back—we had a roster and on the I.D. cards we had next of kin, so if somebody was sick, or for a death benefit. Just about any event was celebrated in one way or another. Once a year we had a meeting at the Hotel Diplomat. We would have libations plus a little food and an entertainer. We were the first to the best of my knowledge that had any kind of benefit fund. It worked out pretty nicely.
Read More: Local 237 First to Establish a Welfare Fund