Teamsters Local 237

Julian Friedman: Hospital Maintenance Man, United Public Workers, Early Local 237 Member

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Julian Friedman, went to work as a laborer for the New York City Housing Authority in 1949. In 1951 he passed the maintenance man test and was hired at Bellevue Hospital, where he remained until he retired in 1984, serving a brief stint as shop steward.

Before joining Teamsters Local 237, which was founded in 1952, Friedman was a member of the United Public Workers, a chapter of the American Public Workers Union (APWU), which was expelled from the CIO for alleged “communist domination” in the early 1950s. Following are excerpts of a Local 237 Oral History Project interview pertaining to this period.

How long did you work for the Housing Authority?

About a year and a half, but I worked for Citywide 34 years. I was in the United Public Workers union. We were in the CIO at that time.

An organizer said a test was going to be coming up for maintenance man, and if you can claim a year’s experience in related trades, you’re eligible to take the test. I took the test and I passed it. They had representatives from all the departments. When the Housing amount was filled . . . I took a job in Hospitals. That was around 1951. That’s how I wound up in Bellevue Hospital as a maintenance man. I stayed 29 years there.

What union was representing you?

That was still the United Public Workers.

Who was the president?

Let’s see. Jack Bigel was a regional director. Ewart Guinier was not the president then. [Guinier was secretary-treasury of the APWU in the 1940s.] I don’t remember. I remember some of them—Frank Herbst, Jerry Janson. Of course, when they finally merged, that’s when the union became real large.

When they merged with what?

When they merged with Local 237. At that time it was Local 111.

. . . During the Cold War, the United Public Workers was thrown out of the CIO. So they set up a splinter group called Government and Civic Employees Organizing Committee. A person by the name of Ray Diana was the head of it. And then Ray Diana got some nice jobs with the city, and they saw he wasn’t producing. That’s when the Teamsters came in. At that time, the Teamsters were in the AF of L (American Federation of Labor] only.

And then it became Local 237. Do you remember, just to put it in context, about how much your salary was in 1951-52?

When I started as a laborer, it was $1,920.

Was that a year?

Yes, a year. And when it became Local 237, with the Teamsters, it was something like $3,000,.

How did the maintenance men get to the Teamsters, since they started out with the UPW?

There were four active leaders who were originally in the Teamsters—Henry Feinstein, Bill Lewis, and two others. . . . Then there were four from the United Public Workers—Al Katz, one who passed away who went to Local 1199 . . . It was a coalition, four on each side, and they merged. With the prestige of the Teamsters, they said you’ll have so much more strength, being in the largest labor union in the world, or in the United States.

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They had the maintenance workers at the Housing Authority. Did that have an impact on the decision of the maintenance workers in Hospitals?

Yes, because it was all under the same title. But they got certain benefits in the Housing Authority that the other departments didn’t get, because, it’s called a quasi-government organization, there’s some federal money for Housing.

Jerry Janson was a foreman of painters. Originally he was the head of the Housing Chapter in the United Public Workers . . . . Since he was a foreman of painters, it worked naturally that he could have union meetings in different housing projects to get the people while they were eating their quick lunch. That’s the way he got around and helped in the organizing. He was really a sparkplug.

You said that Local 111 merged with Local 237. Were there any changes on the job?

Well, not yet, not in mine, because I always was a member of the union. But others were hiring lawyers, who delayed the negotiations so that they [the lawyers] could get a 15 percent retainer for the back pay [issues]. Savage was one of the lawyers, and then there was a Gabrieli and Gabrieli.

Tell us a little bit more about that.

There were some who were in the union. The majority were not. . . . [The private lawyers] who signed up maintenance men [for back pay] . . . went to Bellevue Hospital and many other departments. When they were exposed, when people started talking and saw the hearings and how [the lawyers] delayed [the negotiations], and how [the lawyers] didn’t fight for the best conditions, or if the city delayed them [the negotiations], they [the lawyers] didn’t challenge the city on the delays—-that’s when they [the workers] came into Local 237 for the maintenance title. That’s when we did the best of all.

There was also factionalism.

Do you want to tell us a little about that?

Well, there was Jerry Wurf from the A-F-S-C-M-E [executive director of District Council 37], and at that time [Henry] Feinstein didn’t [get along] with Jerry Wurf and got out [of DC 37], and that’s when they formed the Teamsters, in 1952. When Jerry Wurf attacked some of the [Local 237] leadership [some of whom were from the UPW], there were jurisdictional disputes in the hospitals, and Wurf won in the election. But meanwhile he went to the Daily News and put on the “red scare.” It was damaging to the Teamsters. They lost a lot of good leaders.

What did Jerry Wurf say?

He really red-baited them, saying that they were “taking orders from a foreign power” and things of that sort. That’s when we lost Jack Bigel, Jerry Janson, Frank Herbst, and a few more. So they paid a terrible price. The disunity cost both the Teamsters and AFSCME a fortune of money in union dues. We have unity now, but in those days it was a disaster. Once they got unity, that’s how Local 237 came up to 24,000 members now.

Oral History Project

Hercules Cornish: Caretaker J Stores Man

Herclules CornishHercules Cornish 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.

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