Talking about public-sector unionism in 1975, New York City labor leader Victor Gotbaum, who died on Sunday, told the press: “There’s no question about it—we have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.” Gotbaum’s words have been quoted ever since by government labor leaders, who lionize him—for good reason.
By the 1970s, New York’s government unions—which had won the right to bargain collectively less than two decades earlier—had already become perhaps the most influential players in municipal politics, backing candidates whom they thought would burnish worker wages and benefits. But Gotbaum’s track record in supporting candidates for office in New York City, especially during the crucial years leading up to the city’s brush with municipal bankruptcy, illustrates how that union power became not only a burden for taxpayers, but also for the city’s workers themselves.
Gotbaum became executive director of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees early in 1965—a city election year. As a newly appointed labor leader, he played little role in that year’s mayoral race, but he was soon clashing with John Lindsay over the new mayor’s plans to balance the city’s budget by freezing city hiring and cutting the workforce. Lindsay also proposed a ban on strikes by city workers, which infuriated Gotbaum.
But the discord didn’t last. Lindsay quickly abandoned fiscal conservatism, raising taxes and negotiating favorable contracts with city workers. Gotbaum credited Lindsay with, as the New York Times observed at the time, “virtually giving the union the right to exclusive representation rights for municipal employees.” He also appreciated Lindsay’s pushing for state legislation that required workers who refused to join the union to pay fees to District Council 37 nonetheless. District Council 37 grew robustly during Lindsay’s mayoral tenure.
In 1969, Gotbaum and his 80,000-strong union endorsed Lindsay for reelection—defying the city’s Central Labor Council, which backed former Mayor Robert Wagner’s comeback bid. “This is basically a vote to support a progressive candidate,” Gotbaum said. Though Lindsay lost the Republican primary, he was reelected as the Liberal Party candidate in a three-way race with just 42 percent of the vote. In his next four years, Lindsay ran up big deficits, paying for them with borrowing and even higher taxes as corporations fled the city and the economy tanked, losing nearly 450,000 jobs. In the midst of that meltdown, Lindsay switched to the Democratic Party and ran an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972. Gotbaum himself would eventually call the Lindsay years “a disaster.”
With Lindsay out of the way in 1973, Gotbaum and District Council 37, now boasting 125,000 members, lined up behind city controller Abe Beame in the next mayoral election. It was a significant endorsement from a union that put “its money where its mouth is,” in Gotbaum’s words. Though Beame had failed in his first bid for mayor, against Lindsay in 1965, he prevailed in 1973 with the union’s support, only to inherit a fiscal mess.
Within months, Gotbaum was excoriating Beame’s leadership, as if the union leader hadn’t backed the new mayor. When Beame, facing a meltdown of the city’s budget, announced layoffs of more than 1,500 workers in late 1974, Gotbaum called the move “atrocious” and “incredible” and compared Beame’s actions to cost-cutting by Fiorello La Guardia during the Great Depression. Gotbaum didn’t seem to understand that New York was heading into its own 1970s version of the depression. The city’s economy continued plummeting, losing an additional 200,000 jobs over the next three years. When banks stopped underwriting the city’s debt in 1975, New York came to the brink of insolvency.
Most biographies of Gotbaum focus on what happened next. As a leader of the city’s biggest government-worker union, he played a key role in the negotiations to help New York avoid bankruptcy. As such, he’s typically considered to have helped save Gotham. But in Gotbaum’s case, he saved the city largely from the policies of two men whom he helped elect—and from the burden of the costly worker benefits he had won. New York’s road back from the brink of bankruptcy was painful. The city laid off tens of thousands of union workers, cut services, and reduced benefits.
The city’s brush with insolvency didn’t humble Gotbaum. When a tough-talking Democratic congressman named Ed Koch ran for mayor in 1977 on an agenda that included asking unions for further concessions, Gotbaum tried to recruit an alternative candidate, then deputy mayor John Zuccotti. District Council 37 later endorsed Mario Cuomo. But New York’s buffeted voters were finally in the mood for some tough talk, and they elected Koch. Gotbaum denounced the new mayor, telling the New York Times that Koch “may be in over his head” and that he was “not a bright mind.” For good measure, he added, “I find him a complete disaster.”
The irony, of course, is that Koch was by far the most able mayor elected during the 21 years that Gotbaum, who retired in 1986, served as a New York labor leader. Though Koch had his failings, he is generally credited with guiding a revival of New York City in his three terms in office. Much of that revitalization entailed picking up the pieces of the city’s political, fiscal, and economic cultures shattered by the candidates whom Gotbaum had previously endorsed.
In labor circles, Victor Gotbaum is celebrated for articulating the strategy that public unions have followed vigorously ever since—wielding their power to elect sympathetic politicians. Gotbaum’s own career, however, serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of such power.