This Oral History Project interview features excerpts of an interview with Anthony Gannatti, a retired bridge operator-in-charge. Gannatti, who describes himself as a “solid rank and file member,” was at the Borden Avenue Bridge on that historic day in June 1971 when 25 of the city’s 29 drawbridges were left in an open position, shutting down the entire city. Today, Gannatti and his wife live in Satellite Beach, Florida.
I first went to work for the city on Sunday, February 15, 1953. I remember it very well, because it was unusual for your first day of work to be on a Sunday. I was 21 years old.
My father and my brothers were all in civil service, working for transit. They told me to get into civil service. Lacking any real professional experience, I applied for the test for what they called the attendant list. Anyone passing the exam could be called for any number of jobs such as process server, park attendant, watchman, bridge attendant (or tender). There were no skills needed. It was a simple question-and-answer, true-or-false type of test.
I passed the test and they called me. I was offered a couple of jobs but I wasn’t familiar with any of them. Bridge attendant, or operator, sounded pretty good, so I took that. I received a letter [from the Department of Public Works, later the Department of Transportation] telling me to report to work, and I did. We worked a 44-hour week; I made $43 or $45 a week.
It was scary. The bridge was dark and dingy and dirty—it was probably built in the late 1800s. In fact, not long after that they knocked it down and built the new Pulaski Bridge. Some bridges were really antiquated.
The union didn’t exist—at least, Local 237 didn’t. We were in D.C. 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFSCME. A few years later, Teamsters Local 237 came around and tried to get us join the union. There was a group who came around. There was a guy, Lenny Gordon—he was a bridge operator, or assistant, active in the Harlem River Section, who I met at the union meetings. There was one main person with the union—I don’t remember his name—who went around to different locations with people who worked on the bridges, who were familiar with the work, and they spoke to us.
THINGS GOT BETTER WITH 237
I was raw at that time and I didn’t know much about these things. I knew very little about unionizing. I went along with the flow, more or less. But I wised up and realized what was the better deal. 237 was good, and they did good by us over the years.
“Before 237 came, the supervisor pushed you around. If you weren’t in favor with him, he would send you to a distant location or to abridge that you weren’t happy with. After 237 came, we established seniority rules. This was a big thing.’
. . . They took a vote and 237 won. After 237 won the election to represent us, things got a lot better. We got fresh, refrigerated, bottled water; we had screens put on the windows; we got upscaled quarters with lockers. Things that made working conditions a lot better. We got wage increases. At one time we got paid every 15 days, twice a month; that was changed. Also, if I remember right, our workweek got cut to 40 hours. Later we got the dues checkoff, right from the paycheck. We got more civil service exams; when vacancies existed, the union called for an exam to get people promoted. The union made a big difference in the long run.
Before 237 came, the supervisor pushed you around. If you weren’t in favor with him, he would send you to a distant location or to a bridge that you weren’t happy with. When the union came in, we established seniority rules, we were able to pick our location when a vacancy existed. This was a big thing.
Before the union came, the supervisor would appoint someone to be in charge— someone he had worked with for awhile, usually an older gentleman. But when 237 came in we actually established official titles, such as bridge operator-in-charge, where we took a civil service test (which of course I took, and passed).
There were three or four titles. The lowest was assistant bridge operator. The next title was bridge operator, then bridge operator-in charge, who was in charge of the bridge, scheduling, making out orders, and things like that. And of course there was the supervisor. That title was in the union. Until then, the supervisor was appointed by the director of bridges, what we called the engineer in charge. When the union came in, we said, OK, there’s going to be a civil service test for supervisor—which by the way I passed twice but I was never appointed. That’s a sore spot. . . . The union stood up for me. Frank Scarpinato, Jr. came to a meeting and represented me, and he got them to state that the next opening for supervisor would go to me. But there was a lot of underhanded stuff and I never got the job. . . .
When I came to bridges, we worked a week or two of 8 to 4, a week or two of 4 to 12, a week or two of 12 to 8. People weren’t happy with that. Some wanted a particular shift. . . . The union got involved and we were able to get schedules introduced into the system. It worked pretty good. People were able to choose schedules they liked, based on seniority. . . .
ON THE JOB
The main job was to see that the bridge opened in an orderly fashion, without any problem, to make sure that there were no cars, no pedestrians, to make sure it was safe. You had to open the traffic gates—the steel gates that went across the roadway—to stop the automobiles and the pedestrians. You had to give an all-clear to the bridge operator to open the bridge and close the bridge.You did your daily chores of seeing that the place was clean, that the roadway was clear of debris.
In the summer when it was hot, the steel on some of the bridges, the Mill Basin Bridge on the Belt Parkway, for example, would sometimes expand and we couldn’t open them, or if we got them open, we might not be able to close them. The fireboats would come under the bridge and spray water up to cool off the steel so we could get them to open and close. In the wintertime the snow and the ice sometimes made it difficult to open or close the bridge, because the locks froze.
In the early days, there were a lot of boats: Greenpoint Avenue—a very busy bridge; Metropolitan, very busy. There was Newtown Creek. You had oil barges, bricks brought from upstate on barges, oil tankers, lumber. Later on, things died down. They didn’t transport as much by boat. . . . . When they modernized bridges, it was easier to operate them. We lost a lot of people.
THE DAY THE BRIDGES WERE LEFT OPEN
The bridge strike. That was the biggest thing that ever happened there in my 35 years.
There was talk about a possible strike, but it was a few top people who were involved, who knew what they were going to do. I think it was the Siciliano brothers from the Harlem River section, maybe Lenny Gordon, possibly somebody from our section. They tended to be more active.
So, we got wind something was going to happen. When I went into work that day for the 8 to 4 shift—I was at the Borden Avenue Bridge, that connects Long Island City and Brooklyn—I found the bridge in the open position. It was 7 or 7:30 in the morning. I didn’t know what was going on. I parked my car on the Queens side and walked into the bridge house. The other worker (I can’t remember his name) told me, “The bridge is stuck open.” I said, “What’s happening?” And he said, “I think we’re on strike.” Then he walked off.
From what I understand, not too long before 7 a.m., someone came and removed something from the bridge, an electrical part, probably one of the high voltage fuses. So I, personally, couldn’t do anything with the bridge, and I wouldn’t have.
An hour or two later two policemen came. They asked a few questions like, could I close the bridge. I said, No, we’re missing some parts, some electrical parts. They took a look around, down in the basement and the attic. They asked questions like, what’s up there? what do you do? And they said, Don’t touch anything. That was it. They sat around all day. They were there to make sure there was no further “vandalism.”
You can imagine the traffic that morning. Cars were making U turns like crazy. Pedestrians tried to get across to the other side. Long Island City was popular, there were a lot of factories. Many people were held up, and they were yelling and screaming and cursing and carrying on. It was a catastrophe all over the city. Especially on the highways, for people trying to get to these bridges. The next day the radio and the newspapers told about the traffic and the turmoil throughout the city because of the strike.
I’m not sure, but I don’t think I went to work the next day. I do know that I lost two days’ pay, because of the Taylor Law. Civil service employees weren’t allowed to strike. They’re still not.
The strike was the highlight of my career. I never was in a strike before. I knew the old stories about scabs and strikes and busting heads and things like that. But it went pretty well as far as we were concerned.
In the ‘70s we still had people to sign up for the union. Not everyone joined. Rudy Petruzzi, who was a bridge operator- in-charge at the time (he later became a supervisor), and myself, also a bridge-operator- in-charge, Eddie Dale, who also became a supervisor, and a couple of other fellas went out at night during the 4 to 12 shifts because they were the ones who couldn’t get to meetings. We went to the different locations—the Gowanus Canal area in Brooklyn, Greenpoint, Newtown Creek, Coney Island, Cropsey Avenue, Mill Basin— and we spoke to the fellas about the union. . . . It was a good experience.
We went to most of the meetings despite our abnormal hours, our ‘round the clock shifts.We would get in a car pool to get to the headquarters. Frank Scarpinato, and then his son, Frank Jr., took care of our group. He was in charge of our meetings. Getting to the union meetings was important, because that’s where you learned what was happening. I worked in the B, Q and R (Brooklyn, Queens, and Richmond) section. I met people from other sections.
If you had any complaints you brought them up and the union told you what their function and their program was, and what we were looking for and what we hoped to bargain for in the next contract. We brought the information back to the men who weren’t able to go to the union meetings. . . . I never wanted to be in the limelight. I was solid rank and file, a good union member.