Horse Sense

Horse-drawn carriage drivers in New York City’s Central Park recently got in touch with their roots by joining the Teamsters Union. In January, a coalition of owners, drivers and stable workers, all related to the Central Park carriages, joined New York’s Local 553.

When a city council member in New York proposed a bill banning the carriages, in effect doing away with one of the oldest professions in the city, the drivers realized their voices on the issue were not being heard.

“Local 553 has really given our voice some volume,” said Frank Rodden, who has been driving the carriages in Central Park for 22 years. “The representation has been fantastic. It has opened a lot of doors for us that were closed before.”

Demos Demopoulos, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 553, has been staying on top of the issue since the drivers first approached him about joining the Teamsters.

“What these hardworking men and women want is to be part of an organization that has political power and represents working people,” Demopoulos said. “The historical aspect of them joining Local 553 is not lost on any of the new members—they all know that Local 553 originally represented horse-drawn coal carriages when we became a local with the Teamsters Union more than a century ago.”

Critics of the profession say the carriages are inhumane, but spending a few minutes with any of these drivers will dispel that myth quickly. On a recent weekend, dozens of the drivers were happy to talk about the care that goes into their horses, and more than a few pointed out that if they don’t treat the horse well and keep it healthy and happy, the driver doesn’t work.

Recently, one of the new Teamsters in this bargaining unit wrote a letter to Local 553 expressing his feelings on how he and his co-workers look after their horses:

My name is Antonino Salerno. I’m a professional cabinet maker and horse carriage driver. I’m 55 years old and came from Italy 29 years ago with a dream to drive a horse and carriage in New York City in Central Park. I have been driving horses since the age of 14. My grandfather and his eight brothers were all carriage drivers. We are three generations of horse carriage drivers.
I dedicated my life to horses and I never regretted that decision. It has always made me feel rich. If I’m having an off day, when I reach the stables and smell the scent of horses my mood quickly changes. I become happy. When I’m ready to drive the carriage to Central Park, I feel like the richest man in the world. I believe 99 percent of people who drive the horses in New York City feel the same.
Horse carriage drivers are like family, whether in a bar or at home, we talk about our horses, like a parent speaking happily of their children. Like children, horses become sick with colds and fevers. We have good stablemen who care enough to call day or night to inform us of the horses’ condition. When need be, a vet is called and we all do our share to help.
New York City has five stables that are all beautiful and have trained stablemen. The stables meet all New York City standards.
To be a horse and carriage driver, you must first love animals. Horses are beautiful, powerful animals, but also very delicate creatures that need owners who love and care for them.
New York City has the best carriage drivers and the healthiest horses in the world. Horsemen and horse caretakers around the world are impressed with our professionalism.
Keep your eyes open for other stories and photos about the Central Park carriage drivers, and watch for an article in the July-August 2009 issue of Teamster magazine.