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“We’re Talking About Living Conditions:” Anne and Al Filardo Recall the Struggle for Union Benefits in New York City’s Carpenter’s Union

Despite the presence of unions in construction trades, and a postwar construction boom, workers during the 1950s had to struggle and organize to win seemingly small benefits like vacation and paid holidays. Al Filardo, a carpenter who worked in the construction industry in New York, recalled how difficult it was to win any concessions from employers during the union-hostile 1950s, when bosses could initiate FBI investigations of union activity. His wife Anne recalled that workers and their families had a difficult and emotionally draining experience, despite high hourly wages, because of the uncertainty of not knowing when they would find or lose work.

Listen to Audio:

BERNHARDT: I noticed in that leaflet that you showed me that you were suggesting that the employers put into a fund so that carpenters could draw vacation pay. Did that finally materialize?

AL FILARDO: Yes, about ten of fifteen years later, after much struggle on our part. It’s interesting though, when we put out that leaflet back in 1955 and maybe fifteen years after we finally won it. Apparently it upset the bosses so much that they got the help of the government, the FBI came snooping around asking all kinds of questions. “Who put that leaflet up?”

ANNE FILARDO: They asked the printer

AL FILARDO: They bothered the printer. They went over to the printer’s shop and bugged them. So you can see that the government has only been there to help out the bosses. If you needed an FBI man to help you, when the union needs hem, you are not going to get him. But when the bosses called for them they came running quickly.

BERNHARDT: Do you want to tell me what gave rise to the platform and what the demands were?

AL FILARDO: Well, in this leaflet it’s quite clear when you read it. We’re talking about living conditions, holidays — there weren’t any holidays at that time with pay — and vacations were not in existence. Some of the unions already had vacations — the electrical unions had them — we didn’t. Union pensions were measly. The only pensions at that time were national pensions. They were very measly. We were trying to get a pension that was related to the district in New York where we were working. We had a very limited welfare plan, we wanted to improve that. We were very much, more than anything else, concerned with the hiring. We wanted real 100% hiring which had yet, to this day, has not succeeded. There still is not 100% hiring, although many of the other things we have succeeded in bettering through our struggle and the union improving and forcing the bosses to give holidays and some vacation pay, money put away for use. Also, of course, in increasing the wage scale. Those were the things we were successful in.

ANNE FILARDO: I believe I already mentioned the reaction as a wife and as a child to my father coming home with his tool box when he was laid off and my husband when he came home. People who were outside the field would look at the hourly wage and in that sense it was an aristocracy of labor. But in terms of the annual earnings and the insecurity of never knowing what you were going to earn in any one year or in any one week or in any one month of over a three month period, is something that people have to understand. The fact that there was no paid vacation. That before we had children, for instance, I was off during the summers. I would go away for a week and Al would come up on weekends because there was no way that he was going to take time off without pay during the summer when he knew that there would be so much time he would lose in the winter when there was either no work, or bad weather. So those were factors that affected not only the way you lived in terms of the economics, but it affected your attitudes and your psychology toward life because of the insecurity. You were afraid to take a chance, you were afraid to plan, afraid to buy a house, afraid to buy a car, because you could never know . . .

Source: Interviewed by Debra Bernhardt 10/10/80
Courtesy Wagner Labor Archives/Tamiment Library