John Toto, who played a major role in building the Sewage Treatment Workers local of District Council 37 and later led its national union's successful campaign to organize 35,000 public employees in Ohio, died Oct. 7 at 91.
Al Viani, whose tenure as a top DC 37 staffer overlapped with Mr. Toto's, and like him also served as a local president, in an Oct. 12 phone interview recalled him as "a very jovial guy; he had a great sense of humor. And he really believed in the labor movement. He was just a very decent, down-to-earth guy who tried to improve working conditions."
More Than Street-Smart
Jim Tucciarelli, who succeeded Mr. Toto as head of Local 1320 at the end of 1983 and claimed "he taught me basically everything I know," said his mentor's greatest asset was "he knew how to talk to people. He was a street guy, but he was very meticulous and smart when it came to reading the politics of the situation."
But internal politics, involving DC 37 Executive Director Victor Gotbaum's decision in the late 1970s to challenge the man he had succeeded more than a decade earlier, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Jerry Wurf, wound up altering Mr. Toto's career and leading him to give up the presidency of Local 1320 to work for the national union.
Mr. Gotbaum, himself a demanding boss, grew weary of being on the receiving end of Mr. Wurf's abrasive style, and his decision to try to unseat him forced local presidents at DC 37 to choose sides. Mr. Toto, who had become a union representative while Mr. Wurf was still building DC 37, sided with his old boss.
That incurred the wrath of Mr. Gotbaum, as did decisions by other local presidents to back Mr. Wurf. As Mr. Tucciarelli put it, "He took retribution for them not supporting him in his challenge to Wurf."
Revenge Cost Gotbaum
Mr. Toto had steadily ascended in the DC 37 hierarchy, serving as head of both its Blue-Collar Division and its White Collar Division. But Mr. Gotbaum, who was known for spotting and nurturing talent, made several bad personnel decisions out of anger with those he believed had been disloyal to him. In one extreme case he forced out a DC 37 president—a job that required its occupant to deal directly with the heads of the union's 57 locals—in favor of someone who associated with mobsters and was known to enter parties at his local to the "Theme From the Godfather."
Mr. Gotbaum's first attempt to unseat Mr. Wurf failed, and his second one was cut short when the latter gentleman died at the end of 1981. The following year, the hard feelings created by the feud among other district councils throughout the country led Mr. Gotbaum to give up his run when it became clear that the head of a Pennsylvania district council, Gerry McEntee, would easily defeat him.
But in 1980, when he forced out Mr. Toto, Mr. Tucciarelli said Local 1320 members rallied around Mr. Toto and elected him president even though he had been released from his duties as a city Sewage Treatment Worker for more than 15 years.
Mr. Viani, who was DC 37's chief negotiator during this period, said of Mr. Toto, "I think he was mistreated when he was on staff at DC 37 because of the Gotbaum/Wurf feud."
Energized His Local
But Mr. Toto's years of organizing employees in other locals throughout DC 37 had infused him with both the energy and the knowledge needed to get Sewage Treatment Workers—who Mr. Tucciarelli said had previously not been engaged by the local—more involved.
"He started a newsletter, which was unheard of then," said Mr. Tucciarelli, who headed Local 1320 for 35 years before retiring at the beginning of 2019. "I remember him sitting in the office at the typewriter doing the old two-finger hustle to inform the members. He really put the local on the map with them."
In 1981, Mr. Toto negotiated the local's first contract that addressed working conditions and the hazards that members regularly confronted at the city's sewage-treatment plants.
But Mr. Toto was frustrated that the local wasn't getting the resources it deserved from DC 37 as another outgrowth of Mr. Gotbaum's hard feelings. He had occasionally done work for AFSCME elsewhere around the country, and after the union persuaded the Ohio Legislature in 1983 to pass a bill giving public workers in the state the right to join a union, he was asked late that year to coordinate its drive to get them to affiliate with AFSCME.
It was a decidedly grass-roots campaign, Mr. Tucciarelli recalled, relying on both a form of show-and-tell and feeding those Mr. Toto was seeking to sign up.
Coffee, Pizza and Contracts
"He brought me out with some of the other local leaders to show the workers we were trying to organize our contracts, so they could see what was possible if you were part of a union," he said. "John would go around with his Winnebago with coffee and donuts, and he'd meet with them after work, bring a bunch of pizzas to the bowling alley." The campaign's slogan was, "Every worker deserves the right to dignity."
Mr. Viani said that while Mr. Toto, a native New Yorker, came from a conservative, blue-collar environment, "The interesting thing is he was a natural and instinctual progressive."
Still working as an arbitrator at age 84, he recalled Mr. Toto calling him a decade ago and expressing shock that a childhood friend had said of President Obama, "He shouldn't be sitting in the White House; he should be cleaning the White House."
Some of those Mr. Toto grew up with harbored racist feelings, Mr. Viani said, but "his degree of upset was really severe" that someone he knew could say something like that.
'An Overall Great Guy'
Mr. Tucciarelli said of Mr. Toto, "The knowledge he gave me was invaluable...just an overall great guy."
Mr. Toto succeeded in organizing people in other occupations, he said, because he understood their work and sometimes shared their interests.
"He loved the ponies, loved OTB," he said. "Local 2021 [representing Off-Track Betting Clerks] was one of the locals he organized" a half-century ago.
Mr. Toto is survived by his wife, Lorraine; three children: John, Steve and Janine; three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
A wake will be held Oct. 13 from 4 to 8 p.m. at Gleason's Funeral Home, 36-46 Bell Blvd. in Bayside, Queens. The funeral will be held Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Sacred Heart Church, 215-35 38th Ave. in Bayside.
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