Herbert L. Haber, 89, Dies; Negotiated in Era of Strikes

January 28, 2014 | Students

By PAUL VITELLO

January 27, 2014

Herbert L. Haber, the chief labor negotiator for the City of New York from 1966 to 1973, when strikes by transit workers, firefighters, the police, teachers and garbage collectors tested the balance of power between the city and its municipal unions, died on Jan. 20 in Auburndale, Mass. He was 89.

The cause was heart failure, said a niece, Jane Stein.

Mr. Haber was head of the Office of Labor Relations, established in 1966 by John V. Lindsay, the newly elected reform-minded Republican mayor, to consolidate the collective bargaining system and to fulfill a campaign promise to end what he called “the back-room deals” that defined the city’s relationship with its unions.

Under Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Mr. Lindsay’s Democratic predecessor, contracts had been negotiated by a grab bag of city officials, including the mayor himself, the city budget director and the heads of a dozen city agencies. The process had spawned 300 union contracts, and each expired on a timetable independent from the rest.

Mr. Haber’s new agency reduced the number of union bargaining units and contracts to 90, established a rolling timetable of expiration dates — a calendar that is still in place — and professionalized the city’s dealings with the representatives of its 300,000 unionized workers.

During his eight years as Mr. Lindsay’s labor leader, Mr. Haber served as a kind of smokejumper in chief for a city ablaze in labor unrest.

When firefighters staged work slowdowns, patrolmen called in sick by the thousands, or incinerator operators, sewer workers and bridge tenders walked off the job, he received the first phone call.

He cajoled, threatened and bargained with representatives of city doctors and nurses who threatened to walk off the job in 1967 and 1968; welfare caseworkers who struck for three days in 1967; sanitation workers who went on a nine-day strike in 1968; and police officers who staged a wildcat strike that lasted six days in 1971.

A lawyer and former arbitrator with a dozen years of experience mediating labor disputes for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Mr. Haber said he often felt like a mountain goat, “leaping from crisis to crisis.”

“Almost every day there is a crisis somewhere, a crisis that City Hall doesn’t even hear about, but I hear about,” he said in a 1971 interview with The New York Post. For him, he added, “the abnormal is the normal; I eat a lot of Gelusil.”

The atmosphere of unrest had been set months before Mr. Haber arrived, when 33,000 members of the Transit Workers Union began a 12-day strike to greet Mr. Lindsay’s inauguration as mayor on Jan. 1, 1966.

Mr. Haber, appointed that July, entered a fray that was bigger than anything he or Mayor Lindsay could fully control, said David P. Lipsky, the Estabrook Professor of Dispute Resolution at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

There was a near-perfect storm of coinciding currents, he said — the rising power of municipal unions, the city’s declining prosperity, the ’60s zeitgeist, and the visceral distrust between union leaders and a patrician Republican mayor — contributing to the events that earned New York the nickname “Strike City,” during the Lindsay years.

Labor historians are divided over which side prevailed. Municipal labor contracts negotiated by Mr. Haber and his staff raised average salaries for city workers by 45 percent. A federal survey showed average public-sector wages nationwide rising during the same period by close to 60 percent.

“Haber deserves credit,” Professor Lipsky said. “He held his own under considerable pressure.”

Herbert Lawrence Haber was born in the Bronx on Aug. 6, 1924, one of two children of Morris and Shirley Haber. His father owned a series of small millinery and garment-production businesses.

After graduating from Evander Childs High School, Mr. Haber attended Brooklyn College, then transferred to the University of Colorado, where he received his law degree.

After leaving the Office of Labor Relations in early 1974, he worked for 35 years as an arbitrator in private practice.

He is survived by his wife, Doris Gelman; two daughters, Nancy Haber and Cally Haber, from his first marriage, to Helen Leikind Haber, who died more than 30 years ago; two grandchildren; and a sister, Lucille Shenkin.

Mr. Haber was not always treated kindly by union leaders and their members. His office and home in Manhattan were often the target of picketers. Striking welfare workers once barricaded him in his office.

In January 1971, while negotiating a new contract with the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s union — and with their nine-day strike of 1968 still a bitter memory for city officials — tensions between Mr. Haber and the union president, John J. DeLury, led to a breakdown in talks.

With heavy snow in the forecast, Mr. DeLury sought to reassure New Yorkers that the streets would be plowed, regardless.

“Now God has spoken and we want to respond to God,” he said outside the room where talks had reached an impasse, “even if we don’t respond to Haber.”

Mr. Haber and Mr. DeLury eventually reached an agreement, though not until 10 months later.

Originally published by The New York Times