Teamsters Local 237

Thomas Leath: NYCHA Caretaker

Thomas LeathWhen I got out of the army after World War II I went to school on the GI Bill and married my childhood sweetheart. Then I got news that every man wants to hear: I was going to be a father. So I had to get steady employment. Everywhere I went, it was, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Then I ran into an old army buddy and he told me the Housing Authority was hiring. I said, What the heck, I have nothing to lose.

I expected the same thing. A young lady gave me a lot of papers to fill out, fingerprinted me, and interviewed me. It took a long time. Then she told me to “report tomorrow.”  I said, “For what?”  “For work,” she said. I was shocked.

I started as a laborer at the “Huts,” a temporary project  in Queens. They were later dismantled. I made civil service in 1951.

We had a union, the UPW. It was during the Communist paranoia. The UPW was too pushy for some city fathers, so they said that the union was “communist.” That was the end of the UPW

Then we got the CIO, but that was a disaster. During negotiations, they didn’t get us a raise, but they changed our title from laborers and porters to caretakers without our permission. Then about three months later, when the laborers and porters got a raise, we got nothing because we were no longer laborers.

One day during lunch a guy named Sammy Jackson came by. It was around 1952 or ‘53 and I was at Melrose Houses then. He said, I represent Local 237 and we’re going to be having an election. He said, If you vote for us for collective bargaining we’ll fight to get you time and a half for overtime, health insurance, and other benefits. The health benefits were most important to me, because by that time I had four children. And he said 237 would fight for Social Security. That was very important, because at that time, if you worked for the Housing Authority or were civil service, there was no Social Security—pension only.
We voted for 237; we took a chance. Sammy was transferred to Melrose as a resident maintenance man,  and became our shop steward. I can honestly say that any time we had a gripe, Sammy looked into it.  He was always on the job.

Everything Sammy promised us, 237 delivered. 237 is the best union on the planet Earth—not just in the country, but on the planet.  When I tell my friends what we get, they can’t believe it.

This interview was conducted at Local 237's Founders Day in 1998.

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