This month’s feature in honor of Local 237’s 50th anniversary is an Oral History Project interview with Hercules Cornish, who went to work for the Housing Authority as a caretaker J in 1952 and retired 24 years later as a stores worker. He died the year following this interview, which was conducted in June 1999.
Originally I was from Harlem, but when I came out of the service in 1945 my wife had moved to the Bronx, so I moved there, too. I went to work for the New York City Housing Authority in 1952. I came in as a caretaker J—for janitorial. At that time, after the war, jobs were scarce. My friend Orville Bryan worked for the Authority at Eastchester Houses [in the Bronx] and he said they were hiring. He recommended me. I sent in an application. I got the job six or seven months after that.
The union was in place then, but it wasn’t all together. There was no dues checkoff. You had a shop steward on each job who would collect dues. The salary was so low at that time—35 cents an hour or whatever. Sometimes you had to run the guy down on payday before he spent all the money.
Hercules Cornish’s copy
As time went on things got a little better. Then, when he came around to collect the dues, you could pay him. You didn’t have to chase after people. My salary at that time was $1,200 a year. I think you had a $200 differential, but if things were tough with the city and they couldn’t make the payment, they could take the $200 away from you and you go back to $1,200.
When you become unionized, you’re more together. That’s the most important thing I can say. If a maintenance man had a job to do and he wasn’t sure of the tenants that he was going to perform the job for, he would take a caretaker or another union member to substantiate—because there were keys for the apartment, and people were different when you make an entry into the apartment. So you would go with the maintenance man, and the maintenance man would put your name on the work ticket. So, it was more together; people in the union worked together.
. . . I remember a union meeting with Bill Lewis, when he was first president of the local.. He was the president right after Henry Feinstein. The workers wanted to strike. I think members from other agencies were there, not just from the Housing Authority . . . Bill Lewis told them, “Don’t hit the bricks,”— don’t go out on strike. He said, Stick with the union. You could lose your jobs, you could lose everything you worked for.
They didn’t go on strike. No one went on strike after that meeting. Nobody wanted to lose their job.
I worked in Bronxdale Houses, 1020 Sound- view Avenue—I’ll never forget that address. On payday, you could go splurge. You could buy a Dr. Brown soda with a corn beef sandwich. You didn’t buy this everyday, but on payday three or four of us caretakers all together would go up Soundview Avenue just to get our Dr. Brown celery soda and our corn beef sandwich. I remember what a good day we had.
Hy Katz was the superintendent at Bronx- dale. A real nice fellow. Rosalie was the manager. They were two beautiful people. That’s why I stayed on the job, because like I said, the money was low. When Hy Katz left Sound- view, I told him, Hey, take me along, and I went. Definitely so!
Then you had Sol Magid. He was the district manager in the Bronx. He was a nice fellow; he just made the job nice for everyone. I also worked under Tom Leath, but I can’t remember where. He was a nice fellow. Sal Anello was a good superintendent. He was at Morris Houses. One time I told him I wanted a couple of weeks of vacation because I was going to go to California. He said to me, How are you going to go to California in two weeks? Take a month. You got the time. Take it. We had good managers, too. Those are the people we had to contact—the caretakers, maintenance man, whatever you were. It was like a family.
We were assigned buildings. You had to keep those buildings spic and span, so you cleaned those buildings to the best of your ability. If they had 18 buildings (depending on how many caretakers there were) you had two or three six- or seven-story stories you were responsible to take care of.
Bronxdale was new when I got there. Half of the buildings weren’t completed. So you had tradesmen—cement men, plasterers— working there. These guys would crack a bag of cement or plaster and store them in the basement area—there must have been 500 bags. So anyhow, in this room it was like snow—there was so much cement you could kick it. You can imagine what the basement area was like. So the foreman says to me, Clean up this area. So, to me, it’s a job. I got a bucket of water, swept it up, sprinkle here, sprinkle there. I was able to work with it. After I was finished, I just went on to my regular job. The superintendent, Hy Katz, came around and wanted to know who cleaned the room? The foreman told him I cleaned it. So then Hy Katz came to me and told me, You did a good job. He was impressed. Definitely so.
Eventually, I became a provisional maintenance man. But I didn’t take the maintenance test. I could have, but as maintenance man you had a lot of responsibility. You had keys to all the apartments. Things would happen–people would say they lost things, they lost money—I didn’t want the pressure. So I went in another direction, into housing supply. I took the test there instead. I stayed there until I retired in 1976.
I worked my whole career with the Housing Authority, in different locations. It was a pleasure to work for the Housing Authority. I imagine in other agencies there were good jobs, too, but at the Housing Authority, the people were more together. The people were great, they were A number 1. I enjoyed every minute at the Housing Authority, from Day One.
Reprint from Retiree News & Views February 2002