Early on Christmas morning 10 years ago, Jim Tucciarelli got an anonymous phone call informing him that then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg planned to go to the Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant in Greenpoint to bring some holiday cheer to employees there.
Mr. Tucciarelli, who as president of Local 1320 of District Council 37 represented Sewage Treatment Workers, had good reason to believe his members wouldn’t be in a merry mood for the Mayor’s visit. In 2002, Mr. Bloomberg’s first year in office, Mr. Tucciarelli had decided, along with his counterpart at Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who represented those in the higher job titles of Stationary Engineer, Electrical and Senior Stationary Engineer, Electrical, that rather than settle for the same raises as other DC 37 members, they were going to seek significantly higher ones he believed they deserved under the city’s Prevailing Wage Law.
The two unions enlisted the aid of Bob Burzichelli, who worked for the Office of Municipal Labor Relations while a law student in the late 1980s and became a partner in the firm of Greenberg Burzichelli Greenberg, and got a favorable determination by the City Comptroller’s Office that was upheld at the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. But Mr. Bloomberg refused to implement the decision, which potentially meant up to $400,000 in back pay for some of Local 1320’s 840 members.
Plan to Roast Mayor’s Chestnuts
And so after learning of Mr. Bloomberg’s planned photo opportunity, Mr. Tucciarelli reached out to Sean Fitzpatrick, the business agent for Local 3 representing the higher titles, and told him to forget about relaxing on the holiday: it was time to greet the Mayor at Newtown Creek and “put his feet to the fire” on the contract award.
As Mr. Tucciarelli told it Dec. 17, sitting in the Hyland Diner not far from his Staten Island home, Mr. Bloomberg “presented a box of cookies to my shop steward, and the shop steward said, ‘Is that our raise in there?’“
The feel-good media moment the Mayor had expected the visit to produce abruptly dissolved. But, Mr. Tucciarelli continued, “Typical Bloomberg, right in front of the press, he said, ‘Give me a couple of months, we’ll straighten this out.’ Which was all we wanted to hear.”
The long wait between contracts had stretched members of Local 1320 thin. What amounted to nearly a decade without a pay raise prompted some to postpone plans to get married and start families, and led what DC 37 estimated was 70 percent of the rank and file to take second jobs to keep up with the rising cost of living. The Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner at the time, Cas Holloway, was aware of the impact the long pay drought and City Hall’s delay in implementing the award had on employee morale, and by April 2010 a deal closely adhering to the ruling was reached over a long day of negotiation. The following day, Mr. Tucciarelli said, a similar accord was worked out for the employees represented by Local 3.
The Sewage Treatment Worker deal boosted salaries in the title from a range of $31,000-$48,000 to $73,000, and union members who had been at the bottom of the pay ladder for the entire period between contracts got as much as $400,000 in back pay. Mr. Tucciarelli, who by then had been on the job for more than 30 years and therefore was at the high end of the scale, “received about $140,000 in back pay,” he said.
The victory in the case and subsequent award, he continued, was “my highlight, out of all of the years and all of the struggles. I was going through elections all of those years without a raise, and my members stuck with me. I don’t know if I would’ve stuck with me.”
But things generally broke well for Mr. Tucciarelli at Local 1320, which he retired from 11 months ago after more than 35 years as president. He became a Sewage Treatment Worker due to a confluence of circumstances that included the early deaths of his parents and a mid-1970s slump in the construction industry.
A native Staten Islander, he was a student at Monsignor Farrell H.S. with an eye on becoming a business major at college when his father died, leading Jim, the oldest of four kids, to find work as an electrician’s helper. After his mother died when Jim was 20, he took over the task of raising his 18-year-old sister and brothers who were 15 and 7.
“I had no intentions of workin’ for the city,” he said. “I had an electrical background. Unfortunately, everything went bust in the ‘70s,” forcing him to file for unemployment benefits. To qualify, he had to enroll in a jobs program funded under the U.S. Comprehensive Employment and Training Act—as he put it, “They told me if you don’t go, they cut off your benefits.”
A Way to Annul Layoffs
At that time, tens of thousands of city workers had been laid off as the consequence of the 1975 fiscal crisis and the demands made on the administration of Mayor Abe Beame before help would be provided by the financial community and the Federal Government. President Gerald Ford had initially rebuffed the city’s request for Federal loan guarantees, prompting the immortal Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
DC 37 was the municipal union that was particularly attuned to the potential to bring back laid-off workers—many of them cops and firefighters—to their agencies on job lines covered by CETA. Mr. Tucciarelli noted that the union’s then-associate director, Lillian Roberts, and its chief negotiator, Al Viani, “were spearheading the entire CETA program to get the city off the dime. That basically was a gift for 18 months under Jimmy Carter,” who had unseated Mr. Ford in the 1976 presidential election.
Mr. Tucciarelli became a Sewage Treatment Worker on one of the CETA lines in April 1978, assigned to DEP’s Wards Island plant. He knew nothing about the work, but he was willing to learn. And his inability to make a living in the private sector during the construction-industry slump had instilled an understanding of the importance of job security. He took the civil-service exam for the position, but the administration of Mayor Ed Koch, which was doing little hiring at a time when it was trying to get the city back on firm financial footing, wasn’t using the list from the test, and he found himself back on unemployment in late summer of 1979 as the CETA funding for his position ran out.
“It was a lousy feeling,” Mr. Tucciarelli said. “I had passed an exam and studied hard, and the city just wasn’t hiring. I saw the benefits of a union job.”
So he became active in Local 1320, and was tapped by Ms. Roberts and Mr. Viani to be the local’s chief lobbyist in a bid to have the city use the civil-service list and resume holding exams for Sewage Treatment Worker.
‘A New Life’
“It was a new life for me,” Mr. Tucciarelli said, talking about how his universe until then was largely defined by the borough in which he grew up: “a conservative, sheltered life. And then coming into Manhattan and learning from Lillian and Al—two great union pros—and then John Toto,” the veteran president of Local 1320. “I saw a different life in Manhattan.”
His work in getting the city to resume competitive testing for Sewage Treatment Worker was rewarded by his election to the local’s board in 1980. Two years later, after Local 1320’s vice president had to give up the job when a promotion to Stationary Engineer moved him into Local 3, Mr. Tucciarelli was tapped to replace him.
Mr. Toto was among the old-line DC 37 local presidents who sided with their old boss, Jerry Wurf, when the then-president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was opposed for re-election in the late 1970s by the man who had replaced him as executive director of its New York flagship, Victor Gotbaum. Mr. Wurf prevailed, but Mr. Gotbaum made life harder for some of the local leaders who hadn’t supported his candidacy. So in November 1983, Mr. Toto left Local 1320 to run the national union’s organizing campaign to sign up public employees throughout Ohio, and tapped Mr. Tucciarelli to succeed him.
In slightly more than four years, he had moved from the unemployment line to running a local, although he was still expected to work three days a week in his civil-service job. But, Mr. Tucciarelli said, he was given “ad hoc time if I needed it” to do union work for his members, and a year later, when he was transferred to DEP’s training section, his supervisor allowed him more release time until finally, as Mr. Gotbaum prepared to retire at the end of 1986, he was allowed to devote full time to his work for the local.
The restriction on his free time until then, he said, wasn’t strictly a carry-over of the tensions between Mr. Toto and Mr. Gotbaum, who had a large say in how release time was allocated to union officials. “I was a rabble-rouser,” Mr. Tucciarelli explained. “I didn’t go along with the program. I was considered a troublemaker.”
Asked for an example, he said he was one of the local presidents who, if given a union financial report by then-DC 37 Treasurer Arthur Tibaldi, would question it. “You would never get a square answer,” Mr. Tucciarelli said.
Befriended by Hill
But he found an ally in Stanley Hill, who had stepped up from associate director to succeed Mr. Gotbaum as executive director. “Stanley was a big part of changing their minds and telling them, ‘put the kid in there,’“ Mr. Tucciarelli said, referring to his selection to DC 37’s executive board.
By the late 1990s, however, the union was awash in scandal as an aggressive group of local presidents intent of bringing reforms helped unearth corruption, particularly by the presidents of DC 37’s two largest locals, 372 and 1549, that included massive embezzlement and the fixing of the vote on the union’s 1995 wage contract. While reformers led by Charles Ensley of Local 371 and Mark Rosenthal of Local 983 cooperated with prosecutors and demanded internal changes, Mr. Tucciarelli—a decade removed from his “rabble-rouser” days—stuck with the union’s leadership.
During one heated argument, Mr. Rosenthal accused him of trying to physically intimidate him. Asked what he was referring to, Mr. Tucciarelli said then that it was nothing more than an “old-fashioned, trade-union” exchange of views.
Speaking about that confrontation now, he said his temper flared because “Mark would say, ‘you’re part of the Old Guard and I’m gonna kick you out.’ That’s when I got in his face and told him, ‘My members’ll kick me out—not you, Mark.’“
After then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in November 1998 pulled the covers off the corruption with a series of indictments that resulted in criminal convictions of more than two dozen DC 37 officials, including two 30-year local presidents: Charlie Hughes of Local 372 and Al Diop of Local 1549, Mr. Tucciarelli said, “I was surprised and hurt. From Day 1 when I got there, I never got involved with anything that was going on. That was why they didn’t want me on the board—I was never the ‘team player.’“
Asked whether he stood by Mr. Hill—who was never charged with a crime but was removed as executive director by AFSCME President Gerry McEntee soon after the indictments started dropping—because of his help in bringing him onto the board, Mr. Tucciarelli replied, “I was loyaI to him because he was always there for my local. I stayed loyal to Stanley because to this day, deep down in my heart I don’t think he had full knowledge of what was going on.”
‘Didn’t Serve Anybody Well’
Referring to the union’s then-associate director, who was sentenced to prison for his role in the rigged contract vote, he said, “In retrospect, I think Marty Lubin, who was a brilliant man, protected Stanley and kept him from knowing what was happening.”
Questioned about whether Mr. Lubin had done Mr. Hill any favors in that regard, Mr. Tucciarelli said, “The entire thing that was going on didn’t serve anybody well. It cast all of us in a dim light.”
He felt that acutely, he said, when Mr. McEntee and his top aide, Lee Saunders (who eventually succeeded him and remains president of AFSCME), “came into town and announced the administratorship,” a takeover by the national union in the wake of the forced “retirement” of Mr. Hill. “I got up and told them, ‘Not everybody here was involved in this. Please don’t take away everything we’ve got.’“
His plea was heeded. Mr. Saunders, who served as administrator of DC 37 for the next 40 months, said early on that he wasn’t looking to “take out” everyone who had been loyal to Mr. Hill and the discredited members of the DC 37 executive board. As a result, Mr. Tucciarelli said, “Basically, we had a hand in running the Council under Lee’s guidance, who I really got to love and respect for the time he put in there, away from his family,” which remained in the Washington, D.C. area.
“It was a hard time to stomach,” Mr. Tucciarelli continued, “because you didn’t know what the outcome was gonna be, but an exciting time, because we rebuilt the Council.”
He was criticized by union reformers for continuing to support the union’s leadership, and for opposing a push to give DC 37 members the right to vote directly for the union’s officers. That election continues to be performed by several hundred local delegates, and the strongest argument against it was that while Mr. Hughes and Mr. Diop were engaged in embezzling dues money, they also controlled enough delegate votes to hold virtual veto power over whoever was executive director. Mr. Tucciarelli contended prior to a 2004 rejection by delegates of direct elections that rank-and-file members didn’t know enough about which officials within the union were productive to make informed choices for their leaders.
But he retained the support of his own membership, even through the extended period working without a pay raise.
Got Them Earlier Pensions
“I was proud of standing on my record,” Mr. Tucciarelli said. “My members knew what I was doing for them,” which included gaining them the right in 1996 to retire at half-pay after 25 years’ service in return for an additional pension contribution, rather than having to remain in their physically taxing jobs until they were 62. (Member hired beginning April 1, 2012, however, were placed under Tier 6 of the pension system, forcing them to work until age 63 to qualify for a somewhat-discounted pension.)
The rebuilding work, he said, was the best part of his tenure within DC 37, along with “working with [current Executive Director] Henry Garrido and being able to leave knowing the Council is in good hands.”
He hasn’t completely left. He remains chairman of the union’s pension committee and the site committee that coordinates arrangements for its attendees at AFSCME conventions, and is co-chair of the trustees of its health-and-security plan—a job in which he is trying to get an increase in dental reimbursements for union members that would be the first in roughly 25 years. He also coordinated the union’s holiday toy drive that is focused on the children of its lower-paid members. And, he said, while Tom Custance, who succeeded him early this year, had 11 years as vice president to ground him in Local 1320’s operations, “I’m still available anytime he needs me,” Mr. Tucciarelli said.
Asked how he was enjoying retirement on this somewhat-limited basis, he said, “It took a little getting used to at the beginning. Going from 60 to 0 was a little tough at first. Lookin’ at the phone 4:30 in the morning—’cause my guys go around the clock—and not seeing anything…but it’s alright now. It’s somebody else’s headache.”
The primary reason for that is Mr. Tucciarelli’s battle with myeloid leukemia for six-plus years, a form of the disease not yet severe enough to require bone-marrow transplants, but which has required chemotherapy and the taking of four pills a day that would cost him in excess of $10,000 a month except that he’s covered under the Mount Sinai World Trade Center Health Program. DC 37’s Barclay St. headquarters is located just northwest of the WTC site, and in the weeks after 9/11 Mr. Tucciarelli spent extensive time at Ground Zero aiding in the search for possible survivors and later, remains.
“As long as I can continue taking the drugs—the first drug I was taking stopped working after 18 months,” Mr. Tucciarelli said. “The drug I’m on now, the side-effects are a lot more nasty, but as long as it keeps working, I’ll live with it. I have a fantastic oncologist” affiliated with Adventist Care Physicians.
Hasn’t Curbed His Bravery
The toll taken by his illness makes him an unlikely candidate for the role of hero. Yet less than a week before Thanksgiving, while driving to the Oakwood Beach home where he lives with his oldest son, he saw a car in flames and heard a woman in the passenger seat crying for help. When Mr. Tucciarelli approached and she told him she couldn’t move her leg, he responded, “It may hurt, but I’ll move it for you,” and extricated her and carried her from the burning vehicle.” He then returned it, where her boyfriend lay unconscious, but after Mr. Tucciarelli unbuckled his seatbelt, he was overcome by smoke. A police officer arrived quickly and got the man out, but he died two days later.
Mr. Tucciarelli was hospitalized for a couple of days. Once he returned home, he got mail from a Massachusetts woman thanking him for saving her cousin, and he wrote back seeking contact information for her.
“With all of the broken bones she had, she was a trooper,” he said.
It’s a description that could be applied to him. “At the time,” he said, “you just focus on what you’re doing. You’re not paying attention to the flames that are coming in. Thirty seconds later, after I’m sitting on the ground and the adrenaline is leaving me, I started trembling.
“When I was finally sitting in my house, I think, ‘You’re a schmuck. You’re a 67-year-old arthritic man—what the hell were you thinking?’ But I wasn’t acting as a hero. That’s just something you do as a human being.”
He said after a pause, “Also, in retrospect, I probably played it through my mind 100 times over: was there anything I could’ve done different that could’ve saved the man by getting him out quicker?”
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