Pauline Dyer-Woodson, a dietician at Cumberland Hospital, played a major role in the union’s organizing drives. She was appointed to the board in 1967.
Today, Local 237 members take it for granted that women serve on their executive board, but that wasn’t always so.
For 15 years after the local was founded in 1952, the board was all male. Then, in 1967, Pauline Dyer-Woodson was named a trustee by then President Barry Feinstein, becoming the first woman, and the first African American woman, on Local 237’s executive board.
Pauline Dyer-Woodson was born in McAlister, Oklahoma, in 1925. After graduating from high school, she got married and in 1944 moved to New York City, where she attended Manhattan Community College. In 1953, she went to work at Cumberland Hospital as a dietary aide. Angered by the working conditions, Dyer-Woodson quickly joined a union organizing drive being waged by the recently formed Teamsters Local 237.
“The early days were rugged,” recalled Dyer-Woodson in a recent telephone interview from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, where she and her husband, Woodrow, moved after retiring two years ago. “After working all day, we would rush to City Hall to demonstrate [for union recognition]. Some of the women had baby carriages—there were some powerful women who were very union minded. In those days, the union had to collect dues from each member individually. It was hard work. We had to get the $2 on payday or we knew we wouldn’t get it. We would take each member’s book, get it stamped, and return it. Finally, after we won recognition and collective bargaining rights in 1954, we got dues check-off and the city began to deduct dues from paychecks. That helped stabilize the union.”
In addition to organizing at Cumberland, Dyer-Woodson organized at Coney Island Hospital for a month. “We worked around the clock getting cards signed,” Dyer-Woodson said. Local 237 was competing with D.C. 37 for members in the hospitals, and the campaigns got dirty. Several Local 237 leaders were forced to leave when they were red-baited, Dyer-Woodson said, adding, “That’s the kind of stuff we were dealing with.”
Up to the time of the vote, it looked like Local 237 would win the aides, but at the last minute the vote went to D.C. 37. “It was a hard defeat,” said Dyer-Woodson. Bill Lewis was president at that time.
Lewis died in 1967 and was succeeded by Barry Feinstein, who asked Dyer-Woodson to join the Local 237 staff. By that time, Dyer-Woodson had become an electrocardiograph technician at Cumberland’s out-patient clinic, having gained certification at Manhattan’s Medical and Dental School. She was chairwoman of the union’s EKG section and represented them on the collective bargaining committee.
She accepted Feinstein’s offer and became the local’s first woman business agent. She was joined soon after by Lois Lundy from Kings County Hospital. Shortly later, she was named trustee, and in 1970, recording-secretary. She was then 44, the mother of four children, and the grandmother of one.
By the time Dyer-Woodson retired in 1997, she had represented at various times maintenance workers, the stores division, special officers in the hospitals and the Health Department, cooks, food service supervisors, tailors, seamstresses, EKG/EEG/ X-ray technicians.
The highlight of her years at the union, Dyer-Woodson said, was the successful organizing drive among the special officers in the 1970s. She recalled a phone call from organizers at Bronx Municipal who reported that there was “hanky panky” going on and they were having trouble getting the officers out to vote. “I don’t know how I did it,” Dyer-Woodson said, “but I squeezed ten guys into the car and drove them down to vote. I said, ‘The hell with the car, we’re going to win,’ and we did.”
Asked if she has a message for Local 237 women for Women’s History Month, Dyer-Woodson said, “Women workers should be in a union and always fight for a better life.”