Following is an Oral History Project interview excerpt with Bert Rose, who was the director of organizing for Local 237, under President Barry Feinstein, from 1969 to 1983.
When did you first come to work for Local 237?
January 1, 1968. I was director of organizing.
Where had you been prior to coming to the Teamsters?
Local 144, Pete Ottlie's local, in SEIU. I stayed there six months. They had nursing homes and stuff like that. Before that I was with District Council 37. I started working there unofficially about 1950. They couldn't afford to pay me. I went on the official pay- roll somewhere around '57 or '58 . . . In those days there was war between the Council and Local 237. Although I spoke to intermediaries I couldn't go direct. Being at 144 was like a hiatus.
Tell us about the war between District Council 37 and Local 237.
It was a natural war because both unions were in the same area, they were after the same people. It became more of a fight because of the bad feelings—I don't know where the hell they came from—Jerry and Henry did not like each other from the beginning. I remember being an intermediary between them. They fought over everything. They fought for the hospital workers, they fought for the clerical workers. DC 37 won the great majority. The biggest fight that 237 won was Housing.
I saw at the Wagner Labor Archives—apparently there's a document that Jerry Wurf was using to get people to leave 237, during the McCarthy period, that basically said, "I'm leaving Local 237 because I'm not a Communist," or something along those lines. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
That was one of the few times that Jerry was behaving like an elite son of a bitch. It was totally unfair, labeling people Communist. He did it to Jack Bigel, and I knew Jack, from the Bronx. I felt very badly. I apologized to Jack. But that's what Jerry was doing. He was going around saying they were Communist. In those days being a Communist was, you know—
It could ruin you.
You were better off committing adultery. Anyway, that was also part of the bitterness. When you use tactics like that you engender bitterness. . . .
So you started in January 1968 as director of organizing. What did you do?
Anything I wanted. I organized, I represented us in collective bargaining, I was practically the whole grievance section for everything except for Housing. I went to meetings. . . . When I first came, there was bitterness between the staff and me because I was identified with the enemy. I was 37. And we had just wonked them in any number of elections. From the time I came to 237 to the time I left, with the exception of the dieticians, we didn't lose an election.
Were you involved with the strategy sessions related to the bridges strike? It was just a small group of people who knew what was going to happen, isn't that right?
It was one of the best kept secrets in the union.
It was a tremendously kept secret. Who was involved with that secret?
Frank Scarpinato [Citywide Director], Barry, and me, Eddie [Cervo], of course—he was in on everything. That was the planning. . . . We had narrowed it down to no more than 20 guys who really had to know. There were certain key bridges and we got those. . . . They were all told to go home and not say anything. That was the night I think when Lenny Gordon and Frank Scarp and Scarp's son slept here. The rest of us went home. We had planned the whole thing out, and the District Council was supposed to help us. The District Council had truck drivers, and they were going to pull their trucks out and block the tolls; they were going to drive in and park there, and then get out. And then we would pull the bridges up and really cut the city off. At 10 o'clock that night I got a call from Nick Cifiuni, who was then with the District Council [he later came to Local 237] saying he wanted to meet with me. He told me [the Council] was pulling out. . . . We didn't worry about that. We'd go on without them. Besides, everything was in place already. We had a sailboat that would start up at Dykman Street and come down and pick the guys up because if you ever look at those bridges, when they open, the men are in the middle. So we had to sail down and pick each guy up. We had a motorboat originally, but it broke down. That's why we used the sailboat. A sailboat is much more difficult to use in that kind of operations. It was a little tricky because there were no landings and the men had to jump. . . . So we had about 20 guys. The thing took off about 4 o'clock in the morning. By 4 we were at the phone setup, we started getting calls. Then we started getting reports from all over—"The bridges are up." And then, I re- member, I turned on the radio and there was a guy saying, "The 149th Street bridge is up— oh my God, they're all up! All the bridges are up!" That was probably one of the biggest kicks I ever had. The whole goddamn city was at a standstill. It was a very effective strike. We had to settle it because the Taylor Law gives you two days, after which there are penalties, so we had to settle within two days. . . .
Who steered the sailboat? This was a pretty elaborate plan.
I don't know the name of the guy. We hired him. . . . I didn't even know how much we paid him. I just knew it was done. . . . By the way, a funny thing about that action: Over the years the bridge guys used to call the Department [of Transportation] when repairs were needed, but the DOT never made them, so the bridge guys would make their own. When the engineers got onto the bridges [during the strike], they couldn't get the bridges to work because everything was switched around; our guys had changed all the contacts and whatnot when they made repairs.
I understand that there were issues related to a new pension plan that had been negotiated and that Governor Rockefeller was refusing to sign.
If Rocky told you no, it was no. An aside: We worked like hell so the Taylor Law wouldn't be passed. A day before it was coming up, Rocky called a couple of us in and said, Fellas, you're not going to do it; it's gonna pass. Come on, we've got everyone lined up, we said. And we did. He said, Fellas, it's gonna pass. I don't know how he did it, but he was right. . . . If Rocky said it was gonna pass, it was gonna pass; if he said it wasn't gonna pass, it wasn't gonna pass.
Could you tell us about the work that you did to get the three-step pay plan with the Housing Authority?
Originally there were eight steps. What the city offered at that time was to condense them. I think they wanted to go to six steps, but the way they wanted to get to six steps, all our seniors would really have gotten screwed. We got into a contest and then we said, Let's sit down and come up with a plan of our own. . . .
We gave John Simon, the housing manager, and a couple of others the plan privately, and they said you'll never get it, and if the Mayor hears of it, he'll kill us. But we convinced them. They tried it—and it went.
The night we were in the hotel negotiating, we submitted the plan to the Authority, and there was quite a tussle. Technically, we submit it to the Authority and the Authority approves. Actually, we submit it to the Authority and the Mayor's got to approve, or there won't be an authority next time. And it got approved. It got written into the contract that we would go to five steps and then to three.
How did new titles come into Local 237?
Every year, we went through every title in the city to figure out which ones we could organize. I knew DC 37 was doing the same thing. They picked up some beauts. We picked up quite a few in there, too. We gave up the court assistants to 37 in return for the cement masons.
We spoke to Harry Bernstein [a retired Civil Service Bar Association member] about when the attorneys joined to the Teamsters. Who else was after them?
DC 37, Service Employees, CWA [Communications Workers of America]. We had a meeting in the Sanitation Building, at 120 Worth, in the auditorium, and all four unions spoke to them about joining. I told them I wanted to be last. So they all came and they all made presentations, they had their charts and all that. Then I came up, no tie on, and in my biggest, broadest Teamster style I said, "When all the bullshit's over, if you want power, come to us; want to play games, go to them." We won.