John Lindsay didn’t have a minute’s preparation for what turned out to be the first in an unending series of crises during his years in City Hall. Transit workers walked off their jobs the moment Lindsay became Mayor on Jan. 1, 1966. They stayed on the picket line for nearly a month, while the new Mayor tried to figure out just how to handle this motley group of civil-service workers, the likes of whom he had never met while campaigning for good and righteousness on the Upper East Side. The strike marked the beginning of an awful decade in New York.
Ed Koch had a couple of years under his belt when he had his own memorable confrontation with those very same workers. Those of us of a certain age associate the transit strike in 1980 with two images: Women office workers cleverly donning ratty sneakers for their walk to work (yes, lads and lassies, there was a time when sneakers were considered practical footwear and not consumerist fashion statements), and a smiling Ed Koch shouting encouragement to pedestrians on the Brooklyn Bridge. The 1980 strike, amazingly, actually lifted the spirits of many New Yorkers, who put on a fine show of courage in the face of adversity.
Few who remember the strike of 1980 could say with authority what was at issue and how it was resolved. Not so the 1966 strike, which was memorable because of its timing, and because the strike’s leader, Mike Quill, was dispatched, in short order, to jail and then to the great arbitration panel in the sky. What really separates the two strikes, however, is how management managed them. Which is to say that the 1966 strike was mismanaged from the start, while the 1980 strike was shrewdly managed into a triumph for an ebullient Mayor and a symbolic act of determination by a reviving city.
The question for Mayor Bloomberg is whether he’ll be remembered as another John Lindsay or another Ed Koch in this looming disaster. To a great extent, the issue is out of his control, since the transit-workers’ union is negotiating-or not-with the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But it will be the Mayor’s response to the strike-his language, his actions and his resolve-that could set the tone for the rest of his term. At his news conference in the Blue Room on Dec. 9, Mr. Bloomberg seemed very much in command, outlining the city’s emergency plan and then posing for a picture with his alternate mode of transportation-a bike. That’s nice, and no doubt the image struck a chord with those within, say, five or seven miles of their work place. But for midtown workers who live in the hinterlands of Staten Island, western Queens or the South Bronx, Mr. Bloomberg may as well have posed with a rocket-fueled personal transporter. Without subways and buses, their commute will be impossible.
Beyond the immediate threat of a subway strike, it seems clear that the years of relative peace between City Hall and labor are over. A transit strike could be just the beginning of public-employee unrest, and the C.E.O. who runs City Hall these days is new to the business of collective bargaining. The Bloomberg administration has had just about a year to become acquainted with the delicate steps and movements associated with the dance of the municipal-labor negotiations. So far, the preliminaries suggest a certain awkwardness with the material. The Deputy Mayor for Experience and Wisdom, Marc Shaw, spoke with some feeling the other day about those damn firefighters who spend just 5 percent of their time running into burning buildings, saving lives, etc., etc., and who are “hanging around doing nothing the other 95 percent of the time.” If he considers performing inspections, drilling, responding to medical emergencies and filling in for hundreds of dead colleagues “nothing,” well, perhaps he has a point-but this approach to the firefighter’s work load may not achieve the intended results.
In the meantime, if you’re a transit worker with a family making $44,000 a year-meaning you’re struggling to make a living-you have every right to wonder why the M.T.A. is asking you to live without a pay increase for a year while other workers have gotten raises. Mr. Shaw admitted that City Hall “punted”-his word-rather than demand efficiencies from the NYPD and the FDNY. When it comes to transit workers, however, the punters have left the field to the place-kickers, who have taken careful aim at the union’s posterior.
After years during which subway service has improved-and surely the transit workers had something to do with those improvements-the M.T.A. is now running a deficit. Nobody is demanding the heads of managers. Instead, workers making 44 grand a year are being told to suck it up for the good of the city.
-Additional reporting by Josh Benson