Rocco Micari fought to get into Local 237. Micari began his career at the NYC Housing Authority as a provisional junior accountant in 1954 and rose to housing assistant, assistant manager, manager, and, finally, assistant chief of staff development, the title he held when he retired in 1984. He was chairperson of the Managers Chapter and a member of the negotiating team for four contracts.
Micari now lives with his wife, Patricia, in Wayne County, Pa., where he’s frequently in the news for ”making trouble,” as he says, using what he learned as a Teamster.
Following are excerpts of Micari’s interview, which was conducted in June 1999. [Editor’s note: Rocco Micari died in 2007.]
I went to work for the New York City Housing Authority as a provisional junior accountant on September 19, 1954 at Kingsboro Houses, which became Kingsboro- Brevoort; it was the first consolidation. I returned from Korea in January of 1953 and I went to register for Brooklyn College. It was too late to enter at that time so I registered for September under the GI Bill of Rights. My counselor, the veterans counselor, had job postings for veterans outside his office. I saw this junior accountant job—that’s that I was going to school for, accounting—for the New York City Housing Authority, and the pay was $3555 per annum, which in those days was like $20,000 today.
At that time, there was no union involvement in my title, which was a white collar title. None whatsoever. The union came in the early ’60s [for white collar workers], if I’m not mistaken.
Artie Foley [who later became a union trustee and vice- president], who was one of the members of the union, a maintenance worker, and I used to talk about the union. What I got from him was that they didn’t want the white collar workers as part of the Teamsters, they just wanted it to be for maintenance men, the porters, just the blue collar people. We used to fight about it. “Why won’t you let the white collar workers in?”
Then, when they [the blue collar workers] received a backpay check, I think it was $2,000, I went in to see Henry Feinstein [the first president of Local 237] with a couple of white collar workers and we demanded that we be allowed into the union. There were four of us... . The way we tried to sell him on it was, if they let the white collars in, we’d all be a solid group of people, which would give us more power in negotiations. Henry looked at me and he said, “Okay, sign the people up. You bring in the cards, and we’ll let you in. Hey, let’s see what happens.” And that’s all we needed... .
One thing about this union: We will not get involved in management prerogatives. But we will deal with those areas for the workers, meaning, a manager has a decision to make on giving the job out, what the schedule is. The union never interfered in that. We felt that the prerogative had to stay with management, because if the union has too many things in there, then they’re running it, and we didn’t want to run the job ... If it affected a member in a way that was detrimental to him, then we would take it up.
If you looked at our contract, you’d see that there were no management prerogatives in there, none whatsoever. We left that out. We stayed out of that business.
It was also related to the fact that the union represents both the blue collar and the white collar titles [management]. We had to concern ourselves about that, because, for instance, when I was a manager I was still also a Teamster. When I was a local hearing officer, the person coming in was a Teamster, the representative of that person was a Teamster, and I knew every single one of them. ...
Loyalty is so important. They say you can’t be loyal to two people, that you have to pick and choose. It’s not true. I was very loyal to the Housing Authority and to all my administrators. They sent me out, I did exactly what they told me to. I was very loyal to my union. ... The union stops at a certain point on the job, and from that point on it becomes the job that people tell you they want done. You can separate them.
Can you do it in negotiations? No. At negotiations, I’m a Teamster. But I’m a housing employee. I’m there to get what I can. Of course you face the consequences when you go back.
I think the two strikes were the best thing for the union. The first strike was in the ’60s. We wanted more money. I was working at Marboro Houses in Brooklyn as a housing assistant. When we started picketing, I was there very early and the blue collar guys were surprised that I was there. Peter Reni also worked there. ...
A call came down, I don’t know if it was Eddie [Cervo, later vice-president] or Barry [Feinstein, the local’s third president, who served for 25 years], saying, “Rocco, get your ass down to Central Office.” And I did.
Some people who were union members were going to cross the picket line, they were going to sneak into the building. 250 had two entrances, one on Park Place and one on Broadway. The blue collars who were picketing down there did- n’t know the people at 250 like I knew them. These were people in the white collar titles. As soon as they saw me they all went into a diner; they didn’t go in. I said to them, “You go in and I’ll bring you up on charges in the union.”...
I knew I would get in trouble, and I did.
Sometimes you have to take a stand and know you’re going to get in trouble, and there’s nothing the union can do. One of the high officials in the Housing Authority, when he saw me there, he said, “This is uncalled for. You’ve been at the negotiations, you know what’s going on.” And my answer to him was, “You know how much money you’re gonna give. ... You’ve got the greatest workers in the world, bar none. You’re just playing with us.” He looked at me and said, “Do you want to win all the ball games?” ... So we got into a little discussion. ...
Shortly after that I was moved out on a “special assignment.” That’s how they did it. I did rent delinquency in Brownsville... . If I wasn’t involved with the union they would have left me at Marboro, because I came from that community... .
One thing about this union: As family-oriented people, we were very concerned about the guy on the bottom... . And I hated all those steps [before a worker got top pay]. That became an issue any time we negotiated. At one point we had a meeting and I said, “You know, Barry, I’m tired of these cops and firemen and sanitation people getting three steps to top pay,” and he just laughed. ... I said, “You’ll never know until we try it.” ...
Well, the first contract, it’s no. The second contract, it’s no. And then I became an official up in the Housing Authority, where I had to give up my union affiliation (I didn’t give up being a union member but I couldn’t be involved... ). So, I’m home on a Friday evening and Peter Reni calls me up and he says, “We’re having a meeting tomorrow and Sy Grossman can’t be there. Why don’t you cover for Sy?”... I says, “Peter, I’m not part of this.” He says, ”Come on down.” So I go there, and of course my favorite cheese danishes are there—it seems that this union found the best cheese danish place in the world. So there’s this dark brown cheese danish on the table with a cup of coffee. Peter knew that was my favorite. Everyone was just sitting around... .
Former Mayor Wagner was the one who was doing that contract. It had to go to arbitration or whatever. John Simon used to represent the managers on the Housing Authority side, and of course I said hello to John and a few other people. I saw a smile coming over Peter’s face, and I said, Something’s going on over here.
They announced the three-step plan.
I cried. Peter cried. Carl cried. I think those of us who were in the forefront of that really did cry. It was a good feeling . ...
When I retired I was assistant chief of staff development. I was on the administrative management list, but it died before me. I was never made civil service because of the one-out-of-three rule. They didn’t skip over me, they skipped some other people, and by doing that I was blocked... .
Barry used to say, “You gotta move on, upward mobility”— a phrase he used very often. It’s the key to this whole union. For instance, sometimes I would talk to the caretakers, and I’d say to them, “ ... If you’ve got something that has to be negotiated and you feel strong about it, put it out there. Come in with a hundred demands... .
“Look at the job and what’s happening, look at what’s happening to the worker. Look at the machinery you’re using. You’re still using a mop. Why don’t you start talking about doing something with machinery and new products. You want to work smart.” And I told them I’d help them.
And next week, out of that, out of the Central Office came a job called “janitorial planning,” and machinery came in, and products came in.
It has nothing to do with money, but it has something to do with the job. Let’s make our jobs better. Let’s get respect for what we do... . Why shouldn’t a porter have the same respect as a manager? ...
A lot of big shots in the Housing Authority now don’t know what the struggle was. I go through the contract and I say, We did that, we did that, we did that, we did that... . For instance, if somebody gets hurt on the job or mugged on the job ... Annual leave... The benefits for retirees, we started that. We were willing to take less and have some money put into them. That’s a proud moment for all of us, something that we thought of as a group. In those days older people were going out with about $500 a year. So we took part of our money and gave it to them. And now look at me—15 years I’ve been collecting... . Summer hours and the air- conditioning in the bookkeeping office—little things like that... Salary structure—at one time you wouldn’t hit top pay for ten or 12 years.
There were the education programs that came out of negotiations ... For instance, we had a special course to teach entry level things for groundsmen. We combined it with a theory that some of us had: you teach the job, but you also have to teach language arts. The idea was to teach them the nomenclature of the words in the title but also teach them proper English and how to project and how to present... .
When Carl became president it was a very proud moment in my life, because he was a Housing Authority employee, he was very active at the beginning with white collar workers, he became a rep— and a very good rep. Sometimes he and I would tangle. When it came to union-management, Carl said I gave him a harder time than anybody else... .
Carl’s my buddy. I know him a long time. This is a union of people, not a union of officers. We have to serve these people — that goes way back—I think that’s what he’s doing.