Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Donning a “Korea Veteran” hat and a jacket adorned with an Honor Flight badge, 92-year-old William Lewis Anthony Trapani sipped coffee at his regular Main Street Coffee hangout and shared details about his dicey days as a union boss in Florida. His book, “The Takeover,” which will be presented and signed at a spaghetti dinner Jan. 22, 1 p.m., at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in Franklin, is – according to Trapani “fictious.” However cautious the storyline might be with regard to conveying too many actual facts and names, “The Takeover” reveals much about the challenges of operating a union out of Miami in the mid-20th century.
Trapani dedicates the “adult reader” book, published by Newman Springs, to “Big Bobby,” a large-statured man he alludes to only as someone who was there for him when situations became difficult. Trapani’s 67-year-old daughter, Sherry Taylor, who takes care of his wife of 69 years, Joan, typed the book’s manuscript as he relayed it to her. The story’s setting starts in New York, which is where both Trapani and his wife grew up, and quickly switches to Florida, where the action takes place for the real Trapani as well as the book’s fictional “Charlie Trippie.”
“I went down to Florida in the 1960s,” said Trapani, “and at that time the state was wide open. Cubans were coming in frequently and the mafia presence was real.”
Trapani, who enlisted in the Navy for eight years, was no stranger to tension and tight spots. As a hospital corpsman and an operating room technician, he saw plenty of soldiers injured in the Korean War. When he left the Navy, he could have taken a one-year registered nursing degree offered by New York. Yet, he thought he wanted to distance himself from human drama.
Little did he know that taking a New York City dock job as a pile driver would lead him to first become part of the New York Dock Builders Union and then the South Florida Local Union 1966 Pile Drivers and Divers. In 1969, as a business agent, he took charge of the local Florida union and held that position for 17 years. ( A pile driver is one who drives the large piles, or poles, into soil to build piers, bridges, cofferdams and other structures.)
“My job was to direct the activities [of the building projects], inform businesses about the union, share information about salary, benefits, safety …,” he said. “Florida was growing so fast. So many of the condos and other structures down there are built on pilings. But the union bosses were under the supervision of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, so anyone in the union followed regulations and rules for construction. The condo that collapsed in Miami [Surfside; June 21, 2021] was not built by a union company. We drove those pilings 90 feet sometimes before we hit rock.”
Trapani’s territory was from Jacksonville, Fla., south, as well as the Bahamas.
“When I took over as union boss, there were about 200 members in the union. Within two years, there were at least 1,000. Working with pilings is filthy work … hard work … so the men needed the union to look out for them.”
Trapani retired at 56 years old, having experienced untold instances of coercion, threats, and more by entities that did not want their workers to join unions because of threats to company profit margins. Yet, Trapani said he maintained ethical practices, and his steadfastness was respected by many people during his career. The book is intended as a glimpse of the union culture at the time.
“I wasn’t intimidated by outside sources,” he said. “I had to be tough for my members, and the greatest reward of doing the job was dedication to the workers.”
During his career, civil rights among African Americans was front and center. Despite protests, Trapani allowed the first black man into his union as a member.
“He eventually became an officer in the union,” said Trapani.
At his retirement party, more than 600 people attended, according to Trapani, and many of them spoke about how he had helped them.
Since retirement, Trapani has enjoyed a Georgia farm as well as charity work and involvement with veteran-related efforts. He and his wife and only child moved to Franklin 20 years ago. Although his wife suffers from Alzheimer’s, he said she still knows who he is and he reminisces often about how he met her.
“I ended up in a hospital while serving in the Navy and she was a USO [United Services Organization] girl and I met her when I was recovering.”
Trapani’s heritage as an Italian will be shared Saturday, Jan. 22, beginning at 1 p.m., at the Franklin VFW as he serves his homemade sauce over spaghetti for anyone who attends “The Takeover” book signing. For each book sold, $1 will be donated to the Franklin VFW.
(Reviews about books and interviews with authors are in no way an endorsement of the book or the author by Macon County News or the article’s writer. Such articles simply provide to readers information about both.)