Teamsters Local 237

Arthur "Sonny" Illery: HHC Dietary Aide & 237 VP

Arthur Sonny Illery I went to work for the city in 1952 as a dietary aide at Metropolitan Hospital. Before that, I had three jobs. . . . and I had three kids. When I got to the hospital, I finally earned enough. I earned $1,100 a year. . . .

One day a guy named Bill Lewis {then president of Local 237] came around and said, We’re starting a union. Do you want to join. I asked, Why? He said, Because you need representation.

He pointed to my supervisor and said, She’s in the union. She has someone to stand up for her. Who do you have?  So I thought about it. I thought about my kids. And I said to myself, If she’s in the union, I better be in the union, too. So I joined.

Then, Bill said, If you get ten people to join, you won’t have to pay dues. So I went and got ten people to join. Then he told me that if I collected dues from those ten people . . . That’s how I learned to drink. The workers used to go to the bar on payday, so I went to the bar to collect their dues.

In 1958 Bill made me a business agent. They put me out on Staten Island, organizing the union. We fought Local 420 like cats and dogs. Once, I started giving out leaflets at a hospital, and the watchman told me I couldn’t do that because they were 420. He took the leaflet and tore it up. We got into a fight. Then we became friends—and he became a Teamster.

At Morrisania Hospital, a 420 guy pulled out a knife and stuck it against my stomach.  We got into a tussle--and he became a Teamster, too. Another time, in Rockaway, they put sugar in my gas tank.

No matter how you see it, we had to stand up against all odds—even when the cops came to arrest us. I had a partner named Max. We were arrested for “failure to obey.” . . . Another time we had a guy locked up at midnight. . . .

At the time, we didn’t have a death benefit. When a member died, we used to pass around a hat.  Bill Lewis said, This isn’t going to work.  We need a death benefit. So we got the agency to pay. That’s how you got your death benefit.  The same with your health benefits, your  dental benefits, your optical benefits.

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

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