• U.S.

New York: Fragrant Days in Fun City

5 minute read

For New York City’s 8,000,000 ad versity-tempered citizens, the sanitation workers’ strike was merely a nuisance at first. By the end of last week, it had turned into a genuine crisis. Nearly 100,000 tons of uncollected garbage lay in noisome heaps on sidewalks and in doorways. Trash fires flared all over town. Rats rummaged through pyramidal piles of refuse. Public-health authorities, warning of the danger of typhoid and other diseases, proclaimed the city’s first general health emergency since a 1931 polio epidemic.

The confrontation between Mayor John Lindsay and the Teamster-affiliated Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association had been abuilding for months. The mayor thought that he had a tacit understanding with Union President John DeLury for a reasonable settlement. The city was willing to give an annual increase of $350, plus fringe improvements, to the 10,000 workers who now receive $7,956 after three years’ service. But DeLury, apparently unable to sell those terms to his men, demanded $600. After sporadic negotiations, the union staged a wild rally at city hall two weeks ago, virtually forced DeLury to call a strike. Said he, ducking an egg thrown at him: “I accept the motion to go-go-go.”

Immediate Rebuff. Next day, the strike was on. Refusing to knuckle under to what he called “blackmail, brute force and muscle,” Lindsay fought back as best he could with legal action and calls for unity. He was determined to bring order into the city’s chaotic labor relations and to counter the threat of public strikes that, though banned by state law, have been used to win fat contract settlements. “Now is the time and here is the place,” he declared, “for the city to determine what it is made of.”

Lindsay had DeLury jailed for ignoring a court injunction issued under a new state law, but this merely solidified the union. The mayor’s pleas for help from other city employees were immediately rebuffed. On the strike’s seventh day, Lindsay was forced to turn to his fellow liberal Republican, Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The mayor wanted the National Guard called in to clean up the city, and Rockefeller was the only man who could do it.

Rockefeller’s relationship with Lindsay has never been more than coldly cordial, but even if it were warm, it is doubtful whether Rockefeller would have agreed to mobilize the Guard. The Governor has considerable rapport with labor, and particularly DeLury’s union, which strongly supported him for re-election in 1966. Though he insists he is not a presidential candidate, he was loath to become a strikebreaking Governor (though such stern action would probably have helped among conservatives, who most distrust him). There were also material arguments against calling out the Guard: the cost to the city would have been far more than a contract settlement; the troops’ effectiveness would have been limited by lack of training; and most persuasive, the city’s million-member Central Labor Council might have called a general strike.

A Little Blackmail. Rockefeller, with control over the Guard his trump, seized the initiative from Lindsay by taking over the negotiations. He named his own mediation panel to supplant the mayor’s and treated the outlaw union with unwonted deference. Rockefeller’s mediators proposed a pay increase of $425. The union accepted immediately, and the Governor hailed the proposal as “fair and reasonable.” Lindsay rejected it out of hand. Though the difference over wages had become seemingly insignificant, Lindsay was determined not to reward the strikers with a figure above what the union leadership had been willing to accept earlier. “A little blackmail,” he said, was still blackmail.

For nearly 48 hours after Lindsay’s veto, the impasse persisted, and 20,000 more tons of garbage piled up in the city’s streets. While Lindsay enjoyed considerable moral support for his stand, the city’s three major daily papers attacked Rockefeller. Even the New York Times, normally a Rockefeller supporter, flayed the Governor in uncharacteristically harsh terms, indicting him for “sabotage,” “appeasement,” “bad politics and bad government.”

Ultimatum. By the weekend, the fight was clearly lost. Parts of the city were reeking, and Lindsay could do nothing except stand on principle. At the end of the strike’s ninth day, Rockefeller announced a settlement that was really an ultimatum to Lindsay. The union agreed to send its men back to work immediately in exchange for the $425 pay raise that Lindsay had earlier rejected. The city would either agree to pay it or the state, by means of a special measure that Rockefeller will request of the legislature this week, would assume temporary control of the Sanitation Department and fulfill the new contract terms—with city funds.

New Yorkers were doubtless relieved that their latest crisis had eased before turning into an outright calamity. But in the long run, Rockefeller’s solution seemed to offer little consolation for a city already traumatized by excessively high taxes and strike-happy unions. As written by Rockefeller, the moral of New York’s latest step toward chaos seemed to be that it pays to strike.

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