Rudolph (Rudy) Petruzzi, a supervisor of bridges when he retired in 1986, helped organize his co-workers into Local 237 in the 1960s and participated in the 1971 bridge strike that shut down the city for two days—although he didn’t fully agree with it. Following are excerpts of an interview for the Local 237 Oral History Project conducted in February 2003 in Hollywood, Florida. His wife, Sally, was also present.
When did you first go work for the city? How did that come about?
In 1953 I came out of the service. I was on a special military list because I had taken the test in 1950. My brother worked for the department. At that time I think it was the Department of Bridges, and then it became the Department of Highways. So I went to work for the city in 1953 as an assistant bridge operator.
At that time we made about $2,000 a year. We worked six days a week and holidays. We also worked nights. We rotated shifts, because the bridges have to be manned 24 hours.
. . . The working conditions were not that good. There was a company union there, and you had to be in a clique to get anything. If you were on the good side of the powers that be, you would get your pick. The supervisor would penalize you if he didn’t like you and send you to the furthest bridge out of your area, so you could be living in Brooklyn and he could send you to the Bronx. We had two divisions— B, Q, and R, which was Brooklyn, Queens, and Richmond, and the Harlem Division.
In 1962, I had a temporary supervisor. I had put in for time off to get married about two months in advance, knowing that these people were a little crazy. It was in October, it wasn’t prime time, it wasn’t the summer or a holiday or anything like that. He came over to me the day before I was supposed to go on my honeymoon and insisted, would I be able to cut my honeymoon short, he needed me. That’s the truth.
. . . There weren’t any promotions. Later on, we started getting exams for different titles. . . . When I left the job in 1986, I was supervisor of bridge operations.
Nobody really cared for the company union. I can’t remember the name of it. It was more of an association than anything else. They didn’t have any clout. They would go to the city with their hat in their hand, and they would say, “We know the city is in financial straits . . . ” ---I’ve never known the city not to be in financial straits.
So we went to Jerry Wurf in about 1962 and we tried to get him to organize us. That was District Council 37. Jerry tried to organize us, but he got in trouble because we already had a union; that was considered raiding. . . . On the Borden Avenue bridge we had a guy who was a pretty sharp guy. He used to read about Machiavelli and all that. His name was Eddie Dale. He’s the one who really started going out and getting a union. Eddie finally went to Barry Feinstein [then president of Local 237]. Barry put Frank Scarpinato as our advisor- –the older, senior. That was his first project, organizing the bridges, which he succeeded in doing. He was our mentor. We got a lot of benefits. We got promotional exams for different titles. We got civil service tests.
What was organizing like?
The bridges were scattered. You didn’t have a central location where you could talk to the men. And you weren’t allowed to put anything on the bulletin board pertaining to the union. It would be ripped down.
Some people at certain bridges were more or less in the “inner circle,” so they didn’t want a change. Everybody is afraid of change. And they were afraid of paying union dues, because we didn’t make that much money. So me and Tony Gannatti would go around to the different bridges to talk to the people on different shifts about getting the union in. We met with a lot of resistance. They had a vote. It was very close. It was won by only about three or four people who pushed us over the top. And Local 237 came in.
. . . The conditions on the job had improved tremendously by the time I left. . . . Primarily, in that you had civil service promotions, you had bids, you had a fair schedule of work and days off. It was all done fairly because of the union. .
. . Prior to the union coming in, we had what you call the Career and Salary Plan. The Career and Salary Plan was a seven-step deal where every year you would get what they called an increment. The last increment, you had to wait three years for. Nobody ever attained the top salary because before it came about, they would negotiate another contract. . . . So we got out of that. I believe the union negotiated the end of the Career and Salary Plan.
. . . There’s only one thing that was bad. There was a conflict, because the supervisor was also represented by the union. If you’re a supervisor, what are you going to do? Who are you going to represent? I was in the union as a supervisor, and it was a bit of a conflict, because you would try to get some discipline, then the union would come in and say, You can’t do that. And you had to have discipline, you know . . .
Who did you supervise?
All the bridges in Brooklyn, Queens and Richmond. That was about nine or ten bridges.
The 1971 Bridge Strike
You could only do a strike like that once. . . . The strike tied up the city of New York. Nothing moved. We went on strike for two days. Because of the Taylor Law, I lost two days’ pay.
How that was done was, we had a meeting, but nobody ever said what was going to occur because they wanted to keep it a secret.
. . . We were in a very unique position, because it’s not like a regular strike where everyone goes out. They went to the people who were scheduled to work at the time the strike was set to occur, which eliminated about twothirds of the men.
My brother was one of the fellows involved. . . He was the “keeper” of the control handles. He’s passed away now, so I can tell. He had the control handles. The control handles operated the bridges. They more or less controlled the power, the resistance, so the bridge would raise or lower.
What were the issues of the strike?
Primarily, the 20-year retirement, as I understood it. . . . We had gone to Albany to lobby. The union provided the buses. . . . We met with a lot of resistance from the politicians. I spoke to Frank [Scarpinato] about it. I said, Why not put this title into the physically taxing category? [which has a pension after 20 years], because there was a certain amount of physical work involved. . . . But he said we were going to get that 20-year retirement that we were lobbying for.
But there were other underlying reasons for the strike. There were other titles involved. . . . The union used us to bring a point across, that the union could tie up the whole city.
. . . I’ll tell you one thing. I’ll be honest with you: I was against the strike, because they never clarified what was going to happen to the guy who was working at the time. In fact, I spoke out against it at the meeting, and I got all kinds of catcalls. I said, Explain to me, what’s because this sounds like a strike to me. [A strike was illegal.] I couldn’t afford it.
[Sally:We had just had our baby.] I wasn’t against a job action. . . . So I told them—and as I said, I got a lot of catcalls—I said, All you guys who are making the catcalls, when I pick up this bridge, you’re not going to be responsible, I am. . . . I wanted to know what was going to happen when the man came over to me and says, Why did you pick up that bridge? (It only involved maybe 12, 14 people, one for each bridge.) . . .What do I tell them? That’s what happened to [Daniel] Siciliano and a couple of other guys. DA Burton, in the Bronx, had them sweating it out for five years, because he was going to prosecute them, he was going to indict them.
What happened to you on that day?
. . . I was on my way to work [when the bridges went up]. I worked at Hunts Point Bridge. I was on the Long Island Expressway and they were saying there was a tie-up because some trucks were blocking the Long Island Expressway in Queens. As soon as I heard that, I said, That’s it! Because my brother never told me, he wanted to keep me out of it.
. . . They met with some resistance, I remember, on the Flushing Bridge—the guy didn’t want to pick up the bridge. . . . They had guys like my brother around in case the operator on the bridge didn’t want to do it. My brother knew how to operate most of the bridges because he had been around most of them. . . .
So you were on your way to work when the job action started. What did you do?
I knew how to get to work, and when I got there the traffic was backed up. Then I got away from the bridge fast, because these people were, to say the least, angry-–they were violent.
[Sally: We didn’t say what Rudy did for a living for the longest time, because people were very, very hostile.]
What happened to your brother?
Well, Jack Marer was his supervisor, and and he was a pretty good guy. Jack said, Listen, Pete, no questions asked, we need the control handle—after the strike was over, you know.
And what happened? The control handle just miraculously reappeared?
Do you have any articles?
I have a few. I have an article about the time I rescued some kids.
It was in January ‘58. I was on the Noels Avenue Bridge in Haughtry Basin near the Cross Bay bit Bridge. The water had frozen on the bay, and there were about six kids walking across the ice. The ice broke, and they all fell into the water. Two or three of them got out on their own, but there was one kid, he was floundering, he was so frightened. I went to the shore, and they made their way fairly close, so I grabbed a life preserver and threw it in. I held one end of the rope, and I figured I’d pull them in. But they couldn’t get the idea in their head that I would pull them in. There was somebody else who tried to help. One of the kids had a boat, and he tried to help, and he fell in, too. I was trying to get to them with the life preserver, but it kept ending up short, and I could see this kid was going to go down. When you’re on ice, you should never stand. You distribute your weight. But it was too late, because then I went into the water. I figured, hypothermia here, you know. Then another guy came along with a ladder.