Monday, April 20, 2015

Flashback, April 1980: The NYC Transit Strike With a Better Ending

New York City Mayor Ed Koch (pictured) averted the mess that hit his predecessor once removed, John V. Lindsay, when a 12-day strike by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 ended in April 1980.

It was not an unalloyed victory for Hizzoner—warnings were immediately issued about yawning deficits in transportation funding that could only be met with subway and fare increases, after all. 

But it was a far cry from January 1966, when a strike by the union on the very day Lindsay took office signaled to many that the forces of dysfunction were gathering in the city. 

And it was probably as good a settlement as could be reached, given the countervailing pressures among the major parties in the dispute: for Koch, a fear that a cave-in to union demands would undercut the city’s negotiating posture with other municipal unions, just as New York was emerging from insolvency; for New York Governor Hugh Carey, a desire to prevent massive disruption; and for John Lawe of the TWU, a hundred-member negotiating committee, many taking a hard-line stance.

As a student commuting from New Jersey to Columbia University, I found the strike to be enormously inconvenient. But I was able to stay with a friend in his dorm during the period, and felt, in fact, glad to put extra time in at my college paper and to enjoy the early spring days that begin what are, in many ways, the most wonderful time of the year on that urban campus.

In a small way, my experiences mirrored that of many of the city’s 5.4 million other commuters in how we managed to make accommodations to get through the crisis. That, no doubt, gave a stronger hand to Koch than Lindsay had.

In length, little separated the two work stoppages by public employees, since the one in 1966 lasted only a day beyond the later one. But there were four differences between the strikes that were crucial:

*Season. Fiery union head Michael J. Quill led his men out on January 1. Not only was this the time of year when everyone was returning from the holidays and were unlikely, because of snow and cold temperatures, to want to be outside, but the Lindsay administration had not even gotten used yet to the elementary routine of running the city. In contrast, in 1980, schools were off for several days because of the Passover / Easter break; other area transportation services helped to mitigate the inconvenience of the TWU strike; and the Koch administration had been in office a couple of years, giving them time to learn the levers of power.

*Personalities. The 1966 strike occurred in no small measure because of the two fire-and-ice figures at its center. The fire was supplied by Quill, who, over the prior three decades, had won the fierce allegiance of his union’s rank and file (including my grandfather) through wage gains that lifted their standards of living. Despite a reputation for radicalism indicated by his nickname “Red Mike,” he had secured many of these gains through canny dealings with Democratic mayors (e.g., agreeing to back Mayor William O’Dwyer’s desire for a fare increase in 1948 in return for a generous labor contract). The “ice” was supplied by the Republican Lindsay, who, coming into office, was intent on reining in what he saw as excessive giveaways to labor. The WASP, patrician-looking mayor “looked down on blue-collar workers,” admitted Edward Herlihy, who later served in his administration as a labor aide. Understandably, the mayor’s high-toned calls for the union to exercise “civic responsibility” endlessly enraged the Irish-born Quill, who intentionally mispronounced the name of the new occupant of Gracie Mansion as “Lindsley.” In contrast, while the TWU disliked Koch, the mayor also did not exhibit toward Lawe the condescension that fairly oozed from Lindsay toward Quill.

*Mood. The timing of the 1980 strike put a spring, so to speak, in many New Yorkers’ steps. They had survived just about anything thrown at them in the last five years—a brush with municipal bankruptcy, the Son of Sam serial killer panic, a blackout—and they were still standing. By comparison, a transit strike, called at a time when the weather was improving, was nothing. Many took to riding bikes to work; many women took to wearing sneakers on the way to the office, a fashion trend they continued when the dust settled. The newspapers took to printing photos of crowds crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot. Through it all, Koch did not so much play chief decision-maker (particularly at the start of the strike, he stepped back, allowing Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) head Richard Ravitch to take the lead in negotiations) as chief cheerleader. When a heckler accused him of being a strikebreaker, the mayor shot back, “And you’re a wacko!”—and countless numbers cheered his give-as-good-as-you-get style. Nearly a quarter century later, Koch laughingly told AP reporter Larry McShane that the strike was “the high point of my 12 years as mayor." The 1980 strike took place about 10 days after the start of spring, and it was about to turn warmer; the 1966 strike occurred a comparable time after the start of winter, and the climate, meteorological and otherwise, was about to worsen.

*Outcome. The 35,000 workers who walked off the job in 1980 had hoped to make up the ground they lost during the 1975 fiscal crisis—a desire that many might have been expected to sympathize with, except for the size and nature of the union’s opening demands-- a 30% wage hike and a new holiday to honor Quill. The Koch administration was still not pleased with the contract won by the TWU-- a 9% raise in the first year and 8% in the second year along with a cost-of-living adjustment—but it did win some productivity increases. In addition, the mayor insisted on levying stiff fines on the strikers for violating the Taylor Law. But Koch’s expressed ambivalence about the settlement at the time (“We won this strike in the streets, and the MTA lost it at the bargaining table") was still more positive than the general feeling after the ’66 strike. The $52 million provided by the Lindsay administration over two years might not seem bad at first glance today, but it represented twice the amount negotiated previously by Robert Wagner. Moreover, the pact opened the door to other union leaders, who would not be satisfied with anything less than what the TWU won. Over the following eight years, Lindsay would have to contend with strikes or sick-outs by the city’s police, teachers, bridge workers, sanitation workers, and firemen. To close the growing deficits, he would have to press for a new municipal income tax--along with a new commuter tax--that managed to simultaneously alienate two groups who could not normally agree on anything: business leaders and blue-collar workers.

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