Victor Gotbaum

American Unionism

VTR Date: July 24, 1980

Guest: Gotbaum, Victor


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Victor Gotbaum
Title: “American Unionism”
VTR: 7/24/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I’ve invited as my guest today the head of New York City’s Municipal Workers’ Union, for whether our great cities survive, whether they’re provided the services that alone can maintain them, whether we, you and I, can find in them a decent way of living, and whether their employees can make a decent living, is largely a function of the intelligence, the wisdom, the reason, and reasonableness, and the success in their unions of labor leaders like Victor Gotbaum. So I’ve asked Mr. Gotbaum to join me today on The Open Mind to share his thoughts about labor and its responsibilities in this nation of troubled cities. Victor Gotbaum, thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

Gotbaum: My pleasure, my pleasure.

Heffner: I prepared an opening statement. I even wrote down “Victor, I can’t ask this off the record, for we’re so very much on the record here on television. But you’re an elected official of your union, and I wonder if you have jeopardized yourself, your own position, by being so concerned about the wellbeing of your members, all municipal employees, within the particular context of the wellbeing of this city”. Can you do both?

Gotbaum: You set up your priorities. And the number one priority – and don’t let anybody kid you, nobody is a labor statesman to the extent of forgetting their number one priority – it’s the membership. But I’m being realistic. I’m being practical. I’m not a labor statesman. I am not sacrificing to the point of hurting the power base. You also have to recognize that, if the city goes down, if the city deteriorates, if you get all the market can bear, our members live in the city, they work in the city, they have no escape, so I have to make that balance. First the members. No question about it. But if we disregard this magnificent, vulgar city in which we live, we’re in terrible shape, and we make a terrible mistake.

Heffner: Why do you avoid this “labor statesman” title?

Gotbaum: Because it indicates that I am ready to sacrifice. I am not ready to sacrifice. I am ready to accommodate. But foremost, and most important, is that membership. And you keep your eye on that ball all the time. You don’t grubby for an extra percent if you know that percent is going to jeopardize fiscal aid. But, on the other hand, you don’t disregard the membership in terms of a cruel rise in the cost of living. In terms of working in deteriorating hospitals, or in terms of some kind of job satisfaction, that’s where you’ve got to keep your eye. I don’t’ like labor statesmen because, quite candidly, that isn’t my role. My role really is labor leadership.

Heffner: You know, it’s interesting to me that you talk about – I guess – you’re talking about your membership, people who belong to your union, as citizens of this city. And you would if you were in another city. And the demands you would make and what you would press upon management in a bargaining session has to do with your view of your members as citizens also.

Gotbaum: Absolutely. I think a mistake is made if you don’t. And I think it’s good unionism to understand the environment. Whether it’s a factory or a city. I think a city’s a hell of a lot more important. But if you drive management to the wall, sooner or later you’ve got to take a beating. Sooner or later you’re kidding yourself. Because we have an Achilles’ heel. We have a weakness. And we’ve got to face that. We have a limitation of power. And that limitation of power is, we don’t manage. People say to me, “Vic, you take after Koch. You knock the guy’s ears off”. The truth is, I want Koch to be very able. I want Koch to have a lot of vitality. I want Koch to be a good mayor. Because the better he does, the easier I can sock it to him. And I know it sounds like a paradox, but that’s not so. If the city survives, if the city is fiscally solvent, I can negotiate at the table. But I need him for that. I don’t play any games about it. I don’t wish him any ill health. I don’t wish him failure. I wish he would deal with us in better fashion. I hope that he’s sensitive to our members’ needs. And I’ll be the adversary. But I want him to be a good mayor. That’s a necessity for the people I represent.

Heffner: Okay. You don’t want to be called a statesman. You don’t want that to be called statesmanship. Can you get away with that point of view, that broader point of view which I will not call statesmanship?

Gotbaum: Well, I think we have. I think we have. And if you want me to personalize it, I say that, since the fiscal crisis, I’ve maintained a role of leveling with the membership. I never played games with them. I told them, “Yes you know, yes, Virginia, there ain’t no Santa Claus”. There is now a fiscal crisis, and you’re going to tighten your belt. We communicate with them. So, on the one hand, I let them know that there’s no credit out there, we can’t buy our way to better contracts. We now have to work our way to better contracts. And they accept it because it came out that way. I told them we would have a reasonable contract this time; and we did. I told them last time we were going to have to set, you know, a standard below the par, and we did. But as long as you level with them, as long as you level with the people you represent, as long as you work with them and you don’t patronize them and you don’t kid them. Dick, I love the institution I represent, and I say unto thee that what’s happened since the fiscal crisis is that this union has become very strong. The membership are unified, really based on the facts that they get the facts and they know it.

Heffner: Okay. Now, let me ask this: Generalizing, is this the mode of operation of most municipal unions? Municipal employees unions?

Gotbaum: I think it’s the mode of operation of those unions that have been around and the leadership that’s been around. I think Barry operates that way. I think Hal Melnick and Al Shanker have been operating that way. My colleagues, the people with whom I’m in contact. It’s no accident that they’ve had stewardships of 15, 20 years. That they keep being voted into office. And don’t kid yourself; those elections are incorruptible. Those elections are fair elections. They’re secret ballot, they’re supervised. So that if you get elected year in, year out, you’ve got to be doing something right.

Heffner: But each time there comes a round of negotiations, particularly on the city level – and I’m sure this is true in other cities too – one hears that union leaders have got to play increasingly to dissident groups that are going to listen to the Lorelei cries of those who say, “Elect me, and I’ll get you more”. True? Not true?

Gotbaum: Find out why they’ve had it. Of course it’s not true. Find out why, because the police and fire, they’ve played to dissident groups instead of, you know, really saying to the membership, “Look, this is where it’s at”, why you have that constant turnover. I think the new leadership of police and fire are a hell of a lot better. I think they’ve been more realistic. I may disagree with them on some of their angles, but I think Mancuso and Caruso now give me hope that that leadership will stabilize, because these guys have been leveling more with their membership. They’ve been dealing straight with them. And they haven’t gone, you know, gone to a crazy faction and gone off the deep end.

Heffner: Victor, when you go outside of New York, what do you find? The same thing, in your estimation?

Gotbaum: It’s a large, it’s a large institution, the labor movement. Come on. You’re talking of an institution of 20 million members.

Heffner: If you can characterize it.

Gotbaum: You can’t. You know, can you characterize business? Why do you do that to labor? And yet people do this. We’ve got good guys, we’ve got bad guys, we’ve got skinny guys, we’ve got fat guys; we have almost no women, regrettably, which is an absolute disgrace. And you get variations on this. You hear people about the Teamsters. Well, I don’t know of a straighter guy than Barry Feinstein. A more honorable trade unions than…you can’t do that with the Teamsters, or guys who like Bill Nuchell who come out of the Teamsters, who are really good, progressive unionists. So you can’t, you just can’t take a group of 20 million, any more than you can do with bankers, or you can do it with other business people. I think, in the main, I will take my colleagues nationwide and stack them up against any other institution. Do I complain about some of them? Do we have our differences? Yeah. So what? That’s the name of the game. But I think in the main, it’s a pretty goodly issue. It’s not heterogeneous enough. I think we’ve got to make way for women. I think there aren’t enough Black and Hispanic leaders. And I think there’s got to be a change. I don’t think you have enough youths. But that’s coming about too.

Heffner: it’s interesting, you know. I went back, and I was looking at a transcript of an Open Mind program that I did (God help us) 21 years ago on labor unions and democracy.

Gotbaum: You were 11 years old.

Heffner: No, I was 7 years old at the time. And Abe Raskin and the late Paul Jacobs and Gus Tyler were guests. And that was a period when there was a lot of talk about corruption, racketeering, in labor unions.

Gotbaum: I remember the period.

Heffner: And the concern was that if you emphasize democracy in a labor union, what you were going to have was this frivolous series of promises, and you would wipe out the responsible leaders, and you’d keep putting in their places people who were promising more and perhaps doing less, but were less responsible. I gather you’re not concerned about that, particularly.

Gotbaum: No, I don’t see that. I’m sorry. I don’t see, at that time, Gus Tyler was working for Dave Dubinski.

Heffner: Uh hum.

Gotbaum: he was tough, and he was mean, and he was brilliant. And I learned from Dave Dubinski. I will never forget, you know, one period where this, you know, this man told me, you’ve got to, “The main thing is look at the union mechanism”. Well, look at that mechanism. Look at what the delivery is for the people you represent. And make sure that you have your concerns there. I learned a lot. He says, “Victor, you want to save the world? Save the world. And later on, if you wanted to save the United States from the perils of Vietnam, you save it. But never forget the union mechanism. Keep it strong. Keep your grievance procedure going. Keep your collective bargaining apparatus in tune. Know management. Work at that all the time. Don’t ever leave it”. So you can be a happy intellectual and Gus Tyler is. He’s really one of the best. Brilliant as all hell. Abe, forget about. I think because Abe is in a different category. Gus is with the unions. And you can do all sorts of other things. But you have to look at the union mechanism, you’ve got to look at its purpose, its delivery, and the membership satisfaction.

Heffner: Victor, you said about Dubinski, that he was tough and mean and brilliant. I won’t ask you about brilliant. Do you think you’re tough and mean too?

Gotbaum: No, no, no.

Heffner: Did somebody once say that about you?

Gotbaum: No. I don’t think I am. I’m not tough.

Heffner: Are you just a sweetheart?

Gotbaum: Oh, I’m not a sweetheart. That would be a terrible thing to happen to me, you know.

Heffner: Not mean?

Gotbaum: You’re relegating a splendor I’ll never possess. I don’t think I’m mean. No. I don’t think I’m mean. I think, if you want me to get introspective about it, I know my enemy. And once I define my enemy, then I’m a mean SOB. Then I am. Bu tin the main, no. in my day-in and day-out stuff, no. if you’re a friend, I will go down any sewer. I will do almost anything for you. If you’re an enemy, then I can be mean as all hell. Then I’ll wait my time, and I’m going to get you one way or the other.

Heffner: Well now, in the fiscal crisis in this city, which I guess has been or is going to be repeated in a great many cities in this country, you became friends with, because you were working with them to save the city, a lot of the people who we generally identify with the establishment I gather that has, in a way, plagued you in terms of some public relations problems, that Victor Gotbaum is a friend of the wealthy and the rich, the well-born, and the well-to-do. Hindrance? Help?

Gotbaum: Well, we’ve got to keep the two things separate. I work with the wealthy and the rich. They’re part of the establishment and the system. And in order to help the members. I have to work with the David Rockefellers. I have some wealthy friends. I didn’t plan it that way, but they are friends. I don’t pick my friends because of money. Dick Ravitch is one. Felix is another. I have great trade union friends, and great friends in the academic world. My older friends are, you know, trade unionists, going way, way back. Whether it’s a Bill Michaelson, or whether it’s a Ned Gray, whom I respect and have a tremendously high regard. But I’m not embarrassed by those friendships. I don’t pick friends because they can help me in any line. I have a strong friendship with Felix, but I have it based on the fact that he was sensitive to our members. I started off really disliking the guy. I thought, “Who is this entrepreneurial chipmunk from this off rail?” And I really came loaded for bear when Felix showed up on the scene. But I was amazed, when we talked about layoffs being terrible, that the identified with that. That he accepted an attrition policy when I stated that lower economic workers couldn’t make a great sacrifice, he said, “Vic, you’re right”. He calls up David Rockefeller and did something about it. So that that’s the way our friendship began and grew. Most of the establishment people are not my friends. It doesn’t mean they’re my enemies or I dislike them. That would be unfair. But I think we have to work together. The crisis showed us that. But there’s a difference between friendship and working together. Felix, Dick, are friends.

Heffner: Do you think that would have been possible, oh, the turn of the century? Oh, 50 years ago? Do you think that could have been possible without more of the charges of being co-opted? That they were co-opted or you were co-opted? More likely the labor union leader was co-opted.

Gotbaum: The only reason I’m smiling (and I am smiling_ is it’s now, guess, 21 years ago. That’s about at the time you interviewed Gus and Paul and Abe. Twenty-one years ago, I was on the picket line leading a strike for hospital workers. Workers making 85 cents an hour. One of my friends then, one of, was Charles and Marge Bennett, this is the Encyclopedia Britannica Bennett. They fed me on a picket line. They fed the workers. We became very close. I learned not to turn my nose down on money because I don’t know two more sensitive people than Charlie and Marge Bennett. Now, this was 21 years ago. There was no fiscal crisis. But they were friends. We tried to reform the Democratic Party together. They were on picket lines for equal rights in the Chicago area, you know, for blacks and Chicanos. So that I don’t, you know, i…

Heffner: Maybe you co-opted them. Maybe that’s the Bennett story.

Gotbaum: I don’t know if I co-opted them, but I like to think that I had an effect. I like to think that I have effect upon Felix. And Felix admits that I do.

Heffner: What about your effect on Ed Koch? Because I read in one of these little bits of research, “I have dealt”, said Victor Gotbaum, “with four mayors, and he’s the only one I don’t like”. Is that an accurate quotation?

Gotbaum: Yeah, it is a quote, an accurate quotation. And I won’t deny it. And I also stated that I have to live with him, and we have to get along. And I think something is happening to Ed Koch. You see, not philosophically, but once again pragmatically, labor and management’s accommodation to each other has to be we can’t destroy each other. We really can’t. we can’t demean each other. When you do that, you don’t work together, when you need to work together. There’s an adversarial position, by definition. But there is also a need to work together. Whether it be in Washington or Albany, or producing for citizens, or servicing them. And I don’t enjoy, I really don’t enjoy baiting and beating. It doesn’t help him; it doesn’t help me. I had a feeling Koch didn’t want to play by those rules. And prior to these negotiations just consummated, I really thought we were going to be at each other’s throats, and there was going to be a death struggle. Then, in dealing with humans, that magnificent chemistry that takes place, Koch deceived me. He played it straight. He played it well. He left it to his professionals. He stopped demeaning. He negotiated a fair contract. We finished it. He saw it carried out, and he was straight. I felt foolish, quite candidly. I thought, you know, I was loaded for bear. I was loaded for bear. He put his hand over the muzzle and sad, you know, “We shall negotiate”. And he did it. He let his pros do it, and he did it well. I am hoping that we now understand that, while we can be adversaries in certain situations, that for the good of the city, for the good of our membership, who are also his staff, we’ve got to work together.

Heffner: Do you see any kind of collision course that derives not from personal or interpersonal relationships between the economic situation in this country?

Gotbaum: Of course, of course. I really believe that what’s happening to us now is a crisis that nobody’s paying attention to. That the wealth, the magnificence of this country has always been that he, she who had the least, always had aspirations and hopes of obtaining more. The disparity between the haves and the have-nots is crushing. I think it’s eroding American democracy. The have cities and the have-not cities. It’s becoming a most compelling factor in hurting our economy and hurting this American democracy. If this continues, I really worry for us.

Heffner: Are you suggesting that there is an increasing polarization?

Gotbaum: It has to lead to an increasing polarization, and to a diminishment of democracy. You can’t have mass impoverished base, as you have in developing areas, in this America, and not lead to polarization. A Miami may be the signal. Miami may be the meaning.

Heffner: But a signal…I understand that you’re saying a signal of what; but a signal to what? What do we do?

Gotbaum: I think we’ve got to stop this nonsense of middle-class politics, of Proposition 13s that hurt the poor, of putting it on the top while the bottom gets hurt. I think cities that are eroding, cities that are hurt, need help for capital investment, need help to improve themselves. That lower-economic workers attention must be paid. That in our changing economy now, going to a service economy, training, education must be given to the young, to young Blacks, to the unskilled, to help them move into that economy. It’s criminal, Dick, that in this New York City, jobs go begging while men and young men and women and young women walk the streets looking for jobs. We have the resources to bring it together. We’ve got to bring it together.

Heffner: Wait a minute. You say we have the resources. There are many other people who say we no longer have the resources. Our expectations have grown so that they’ve outstripped those resources. Do you reject that notion?

Gotbaum: Yes I do reject it. I think the disparity that I mentioned to you exists in this city. Why in the hell are we giving tax abatements in the middle of Manhattan when you don’t need it? Why are we afraid to raise real estate taxes in Brooklyn Heights, on the East Side of Manhattan, on the West Side of Manhattan? Why are we afraid to tax those who have so we can now take resources for those who do not have? This is the argument. There, by the way, Koch and I are on the same side.

Heffner: Yes but you mentioned Proposition 13 before, and the psychology that it represents. Aren’t we talking now about something that has happened in this country? And you said, “an end to middle-class politics, “or “politicking”. But it is a middle-class country. And what you’re suggesting is the middle class has to turn itself around and see something different.

Gotbaum: I’m saying that we’ve got to back to our traditional values. Not to turn around. This is where you and I disagree. I’m not suggesting that. Our traditional values has always been a sensitivity on the part of the middle class to lower-economic workers, to the lower class of those who need it. We’ve always been able to deal in this. There’s something happening that distresses me. That those traditional values are eroding. That instead of the sympathy and sensitivity towards that, we’re now talking about, “Let’s keep what we have”.

Heffner: But, Victor, I think you’re absolutely right about what is traditional. But it was traditional within the context of everyone moving up that middle-class America could tolerate doing what it needed to do for those who were less fortunate. The assumption seems to be today that there is not enough to go around. And I wonder what your response to that is.

Gotbaum: Simply it’s just when you look at the GNP, and you look at the money going on the top, there’s enough to go around. The distribution stinks, but there’s enough to go around. We haven’t, as a nation, diminished. Quite the contrary. In terms of our wealth, our wealth is still there. There’s too much going to the top. And there’s no sense kidding ourselves about it.

Heffner: Okay. What’s the solution to that?

Gotbaum: The solution, as far as I’m concerned, is an equitable tax system, a distribution of that money to lower-economic people so they can be trained and educated to enter a society that is prosperous. It’s there. This New York could blossom. Don’t just sweat out the 60 percent you have and worry that they’ll leave the city. How about the 40 percent who are stuck here? The Black, and the Hispanic, and the aged poor who really need to be taken care of. And I’m talking about the Italian aged, the Jewish aged, who are simply sitting and festering because we’re not giving them services either. Let’s move in that direction. My God, this city, which has a tradition of movement and understanding and sensitivity and actualism, let’s recapture it. We had it.

Heffner: Okay. That’s the speech. And you mean it. That’s what you want us to do. Now, guy to guy, with those other people watching, what do you think is going to happen?

Gotbaum: I believe in American democracy. I know I sound like a Pollyanna, but I believe in it. I think we’re a people who work almost like a pendulum, almost a crisis pendulum. When we dip down too low, we start to go back the other way. I think it’s beginning to happen now. A regrettably unadvertised fact was that Jaws II, Proposition 13-II lost in California. Kind of interesting. Some of my readings, in Prince Georges County in Maryland, where they presented Proposition 13 and services began to deteriorate, the most conservative citizens said, “Hold it. Our schools are going to go down. We’re not taking care of our poor. Maybe enough’s enough”. I think American democracy has a magnificent capacity for recuperation. I think we will. I think people can’t passively wait, but I believe this labor movement which I am part, good-thinking, decent people who understand this will move in that direction. And I think we will move in that direction.

Heffner: (not available)…throughout the country — and now let’s move away for a moment from your union – throughout the country, what role is labor playing in that reassertion of the American tradition, as you’ve described it?

Gotbaum: I think labor is going through an interesting transition now, with the passing of George Meany who was, you know, a giant in his own time. You have two young men, young relatively for the movement, with tremendous potential, Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue. I think they’re going through transition, they’re examining. I believe, as far as their philosophy and direction, they, they would agree 100 percent with what I just stated. In terms of ability to move in that direction, I think they want to move in that direction. The future will tell.

Heffner: Do you think there is a quest for social justice that it’s going to continue and blossom again, obviously?

Gotbaum: I think, without it, this United States is not the kind of America that I believe in, and that it is necessary for all leadership. That it is no accident that at the same time we became more concerned domestically and more selfish domestically, we also lost our position in the international arena. I think this kind of America that I believe in is the kind of America that will come about. Yes, I do.

Heffner: Thank you very much, Victor Gotbaum, for joining me today on The Open Mind.

Gotbaum: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”