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Victor Gotbaum’s Legacy: Strong Public-Worker Unions

May 11, 2015
By Steven Wishnia

Victor Gotbaum, who died last month at the age of 93, was a major figure in the third great wave of the American labor movement—organizing public and service workers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Gotbaum headed District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees from 1965 through 1986, the period when it more than tripled its size, growing from 36,000 to 125,000 members and becoming the largest single union of City of New York employees. Its 53 locals represent city workers from accountants to zookeepers.

“His leadership of District Council 37 improved the lives of tens of thousands of city workers and their families, and he keenly understood the union’s important role defending public services for all New Yorkers,” Henry Garrido, the union’s current executive director, said in a statement.

Today, four of the nation’s seven largest unions represent public workers, either exclusively or partially—AFSCME, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Service Employees International Union—and the 1950s and early ’60s are remembered as organized labor’s golden age, when one-third of the nation’s workers were union members. But public employees were largely unorganized back then. Federal employees did not have the right to collective bargaining until 1962, when President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order allowing it. New York City teachers did not win their first union contract until 1962. City parks workers, under the autocratic rule of development czar Robert Moses, had to work 72 hours a week and could be fined a week’s pay for wearing the wrong color socks—a situation they protested in 1955 by towing workers around in a cage labeled “Bob Moses’ Zoo.”

“When my father and Albert Shanker and Barry Feinstein [of Teamsters Local 237] came around, that completely changed the game,” says Gotbaum’s son Noah.

Born in 1921 in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Gotbaum served in the Army during World War II and took part in the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. After the war, he finished college, got a master’s degree, and worked for the State Department doing labor education. In 1955, he moved to Chicago to work for the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. He got fired in 1957, but was then named head of AFSCME’s Chicago district council. DC 37’s Public Employee Press described his tenure there as “eight frustrating years,” as Mayor Richard J. Daley’s patronage machine ruled the hiring and promotion of city workers.

Gotbaum returned to New York in 1965 to become DC 37’s field staff coordinator at a dramatic turning point for the union. On Jan. 4, his first day on the job, more than 8,000 Welfare Department workers went on strike, protesting low pay and caseloads that made it impossible for them to do their jobs with any effectiveness or compassion. The city responded by firing the strikers. The strike was further complicated because the workers were represented by two rival unions, Local 371 of DC 37 and the more militant Social Service Employees Union. But after 28 days on the picket lines, the city agreed to raise salaries, lower caseloads, and review its overall collective-bargaining policy.

DC 37’s next major organizing campaign came in the city’s hospitals, among its clerks, nurses’ aides, and kitchen and laundry workers. Mostly black women, they were paid less than $80 a week—poverty-level wages even in the era of the 15¢ subway fare and the $62.50 railroad flat. Over the summer, the clerks voted to join DC 37’s Local 1784 (the predecessor of today’s Local 1549), and in the December election, a narrow majority of the 20,000 workers opted for DC 37’s Local 420 over Teamsters Local 237. That victory established DC 37 as the largest city workers’ union. Within a few years, the city had established the Office of Collective Bargaining to negotiate with the rising municipal unions, and the hospital workers nearly doubled their wages.

Crucial in the hospital campaign was field organizer Lillian Roberts, a former nurse’s aide from Chicago who had become an AFSCME organizer and moved to New York along with Gotbaum. “She spent endless hours roaming through hospital corridors, locker rooms, cafeteria, and wards,” Jewel and Bernard Bellush wrote in Union Power & New York: Victor Gotbaum and District Council 37. “She knew how to appeal to people spotlighting their exploitation and then inspiring many of them to join the union.”

DC 37 won not just wage increases but benefits—health care, pensions, and legal services for members. It set up education programs, from helping people get GEDs to a union-run program at the College of New Rochelle, and extensive career training, such as for nurses’ aides to become licensed practical nurses and inhalation therapists. Gotbaum “set landmarks there,” says Carol O’Cleireacain, who came to the union as an economist in 1976. DC 37 members were the lowest-paid workers in to country “who had rights to a divorce lawyer, somebody who could write them a will,” she explains. “It’s very easy to take this stuff for granted, but it took a vision to come up with this stuff.”

City workers defended their newly won pensions in a 1971 strike best remembered for drawbridge operators leaving the bridges up during rush hour. Preserving those gains in the mid-1970s fiscal crisis was much more difficult. The city’s budget was battered by the flight of the middle class to suburbia, the drastic loss of manufacturing jobs, and the concurrent rise in the number of people on public assistance. In 1975, banks refused to make it any more loans and demanded radical austerity measures: They forced the city to raise the subway fare by 43% and begin charging tuition at City University. Mayor Abraham Beame threatened to lay off 38,000 city workers and withhold a 6% pay increase workers had coming.

Led by Gotbaum, the unions prevented the city from going into bankruptcy by agreeing to lend it $3 billion from their pension funds, but at the price of deferring the 6% raise, a wage freeze, and substantial layoffs, including more than 15,000 teachers and more than a quarter of the police force. The wage deferral was ameliorated somewhat by reducing it to 2% for the lowest-paid workers. Gotbaum told Village Voice writers Jack Newfield and Paul DuBrul that the union’s main goal now was to “survive.”

“The most important goal for him was to save the institution of collective bargaining,” says O’Cleireacain, now a deputy mayor in Detroit. “No one could tell them what would happen if this got thrown into a federal bankruptcy court. Looking at Detroit, we now know that everything is on the table.”

DC 37 regained some ground as the city recovered from the fiscal crisis. In the 1978 contract talks, it won raises of 4% a year and blocked all 60 givebacks demanded by Mayor Edward Koch. In 1980, it won a two-year deal with 8% annual raises. Those increases have to be measured against the era’s explosive inflation, the near-doubling of the costs of rent, subway fares, and gasoline, but they still seem titanic next to today’s hard-won raises of 1.5% and 2.5%.

Under Gotbaum, DC 37 became a potent political force, and not just on strictly labor issues. It was one of the first unions in the country to oppose the Vietnam war. In the 1980s, it successfully pushed for the city to boycott apartheid South Africa, and won Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a paid holiday. In 1986, he testified before the City Council in support of a bill to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians. “He took an enormous amount of crap for that,” says Noah Gotbaum. He was also a strong advocate of equal pay for women; some DC 37 locals were 90% female. It was his idea to start having conferences to develop women as union leaders, says O’Cleireacain: “He understood who was paying the dues, and it wasn’t white men any more.”

DC 37 went through hard times after Gotbaum retired, weathering corruption scandals before Roberts became director in 2002. The union “was not an easy place to run,” says O’Cleareacain. “You have to be a skilled diplomat as well as a forceful presence,” she explains. “You have to decide your priorities and not make everything a fight. Victor was really good at strategy. That’s a really hard job to do. He just made it look easy.”

“He had a very, very strong belief in fairness and justice. He felt very strongly that everyone deserves a living wage,” says Noah Gotbaum. “Building that union into a force, insisting that public employees deserved a living wage and benefits, that’s his legacy. In the age of Scott Walker and Andrew Cuomo, that’s substantial.”

“This was a guy who instinctively understood the underdog,” says O’Cleareacain. “He never forgot where he came from. He was very Brooklyn. He had strong opinions, likes and dislikes, and he didn’t hold much of it back. He was a mensch.”

Gotbaum also strongly believed, she adds, that “if you don’t have free trade unions, you don’t have a democracy.”

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