Victor Gotbaum, 93, Dies; Labor Leader Helped Rescue New York City

April 6, 2015

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE

April 6, 2015

Victor H. Gotbaum, a shrewd and combative Brooklyn native who headed the nation’s largest municipal employees’ union for two decades and played a pivotal role in saving New York City from bankruptcy in 1975, died on Sunday evening. He was 93.

Mr. Gotbaum died at his home in Manhattan after a heart attack. His death was confirmed by his wife, Betsy Gotbaum.

As executive director of District Council 37 in New York, Mr. Gotbaum was one of the nation’s most prominent union leaders during a tumultuous time in the history of organized labor. To many in New York he was simply Mr. Labor, especially in 1975, when he clashed and then compromised with bankers, state officials and Mayor Abraham D. Beame in an effort to keep the city afloat.

That year, New York came perilously close to defaulting on its debt when several big banks threatened to close off credit unless Mayor Beame took draconian steps to cut the budget. The mayor soon called for eliminating 38,000 city jobs and denying municipal workers a planned 6 percent raise.

At first Mr. Gotbaum and other labor leaders denounced these demands, and nearly 10,000 sanitation workers walked off the job. Highway workers blocked traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway. Five hundred police officers blocked the Brooklyn Bridge, letting air out of the tires of some of the trapped cars.

The demonstrations were in keeping with Mr. Gotbaum’s reputation for action as well as words; in 1971, he led a strike that paralyzed traffic by leaving 27 of the city’s 29 drawbridges open.

Through intense negotiations, however, Mr. Gotbaum, as the main negotiator and spokesman for the city’s unions, succeeded in pressuring City Hall to soften its demands in a way that New York’s workers and bankers could accept.

Although he was known for his table-thumping, Mr. Gotbaum was a moderating figure during the fiscal crisis, helping to persuade other union leaders to compromise to prevent the city from tumbling into bankruptcy.

At the same time, his quick mind, piercing wit and salty language, laced with a classic Brooklyn accent, made him a colorful and kinetic figure — not to say a physically imposing one, with the blunt features of a prizefighter; dark, curly hair; and a 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame carrying, as one magazine put it, “a touch of flab that he nurtures with a taste for Danish and rugelach.”

In 1965, when Mr. Gotbaum first took the helm of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, it had 36,000 members. By 1975, thanks to his drive and organizing expertise, it was a powerhouse with more than 110,000 members. An amalgam of 60 separate union locals, it represented the city’s secretaries, zookeepers, social workers, accountants, sewage treatment workers, computer programmers and school lunch aides.

On behalf of his workers, Mr. Gotbaum used his acid tongue as a weapon against mayors.

He called Mr. Beame “a basket case” and Edward I. Koch “a baldfaced liar.” As for John V. Lindsay, whom he had once endorsed but later soured on, he said, “Everyone knows the Lindsay administration has been a disaster.”

By early 1975, bankers had grown troubled by New York’s $11 billion debt and feared that the city was becoming a miniwelfare state with 300,000 municipal employees, a million welfare recipients and free tuition at City College. Alarmed that the city could default on its short-term notes, major banks balked at underwriting new loans to help roll over the debt.

Mr. Gotbaum was convinced that the banks were betraying the city. He promptly led 10,000 workers in a protest at the headquarters of First National City Bank, Citibank’s precursor, denouncing the bank as the city’s “No. 1 enemy.”

Mr. Gotbaum even threatened to let New York slip into bankruptcy if Mr. Beame gave in to the bankers and demanded too much from city workers.

Mr. Beame was undeterred. To restore the confidence of bankers and creditors, he announced plans to eliminate 38,000 jobs and a planned 6 percent raise.

Labor’s vigorous reaction — the sanitation workers’ walkout, the demonstrations on the Henry Hudson Parkway and the Brooklyn Bridge — startled and angered many New Yorkers, and frightened city officials, bankers and even some union leaders.

Mr. Gotbaum ultimately concluded that a confrontation that led to bankruptcy would hurt not just the city’s residents and reputation, but also its municipal workers, by voiding their contracts and threatening their pensions.

He went on to help forge an agreement on the painful steps needed to put the city’s financial house in order and to restore creditors’ confidence. To do that he worked closely with Deputy Major James Cavanagh, the union adviser Jack Bigel and, most prominently, Felix G. Rohatyn, the investment banker who was chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, a state agency that sold bonds to help the city avoid default.

Mr. Gotbaum persuaded the others to accept an important compromise that he proposed: a partial wage freeze instead of a full one, in which lower-paid workers would not lose their whole 6 percent raise, and a guarantee that the lost raise would be paid back in 1978.

Mr. Gotbaum won the respect of many on the other side of the table. Indeed, he and Mr. Rohatyn developed a strong friendship.

“I trust him, he trusts me,” Mr. Rohatyn told The New York Times Magazine in 1978.

“He is somewhat volatile, but so what if he bangs on the table? So does my son. I would make Victor Gotbaum the executor of my estate and the guardian of my children.”

But the praise was not unanimous: Some business leaders derided Mr. Gotbaum for demanding too much for municipal workers, while some labor advocates attacked him as being too conciliatory with the banks and City Hall.

In any case, the fiscal crisis was not over. Even after Mayor Beame ordered many cost-saving measures, the credit markets continued to give the city’s bonds the cold shoulder.

With bankruptcy again a possibility, Mr. Gotbaum, the teachers’ union president Albert Shanker and other municipal labor leaders allowed their unions’ pension funds to buy more than $3 billion in city bonds. This helped avert bankruptcy and save municipal workers from even worse layoffs and wage concessions.

Mr. Gotbaum made it clear that he had to wield his power carefully.

“We could stop the collection of millions of dollars a day, turn off the water supply, pull out the ambulance drivers, leave Coney Island without lifeguards,” he said. “We could rape the city. To me this would be disgraceful for any union to do it. I never think there’s validity in destroying the city. I really believe that a union has a responsibility to the public.

Victor Harry Gotbaum was born in the East New York section of Brooklyn on Sept. 5, 1921, to Harry Gotbaum and the former Mollie Bernstein. A midwife delivered him on the kitchen table.

Coming of age during the Depression, he began working at 13 as a cook and soda jerk for $6 a week. Soon he showed a bent for labor activism while working at a plant that made cardboard frameworks for pocketbooks. His father was the plant’s manager.

When young Victor learned that he and the other white workers were making $10 a week, while the plant’s two black workers were earning $8, he protested to his father.

“I went in with the other guys, all of us,” he said in a 1978 interview. “I said: ‘Papa, I don’t think we’re going to work. I can’t make more money than them.’ I was going to walk off the job. He raised them $2.”

Mr. Gotbaum graduated from Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, and at 19 he took a job at an uncle’s printing shop.

Drafted by the Army in 1943, he served as a radio operator and machine-gunner. He rose to the rank of sergeant, landed in Normandy two weeks after D-Day and earned six battle stars as he crossed through France, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia and Germany.

In August 1943, he married Sarah Cohen, a social worker who had been his childhood sweetheart. They had four children and for many years lived in Scarsdale, N.Y., while Mr. Gotbaum kept an apartment in New York City. They divorced in 1975.

In 1977, he married Betsy Flower, who had been Mayor Lindsay’s executive assistant for education when they met. Betsy Gotbaum was the city’s public advocate from 2002 to 2010.

Mr. Gotbaum graduated from Brooklyn College in 1948, having majored in political science. In 1950, he obtained a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University and was hired to lecture in political science at Brooklyn College.

He was subsequently a foreign affairs officer in the State Department and a program officer at the Labor Department. In 1954, in Ankara, Turkey, he taught union leaders there about collective bargaining.

He seemed to find his calling, in organized labor, in 1955, when he was appointed assistant director of education for the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in Chicago.

From 1957 to 1964, he headed the Chicago district council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. At one point he was the only leader in Chicago’s central labor council to oppose endorsing Mayor Richard J. Daley: He was outvoted 400 to 1, he recalled.

Then it was on to New York, where in 1965 he was appointed executive director of District Council 37. He transformed it into a muscular union, helping to organize 22,000 workers at the municipal hospitals.

Under Mr. Gotbaum, District Council 37 was one of the first unions to declare its opposition to the Vietnam War, and it established a college, affiliated with the College of New Rochelle, where 500 workers studied at night for bachelor’s degrees. The union also provided its members with personal counseling and legal services.

“The union thinks of the union member’s needs as a whole man, not just as a worker,” Mr. Gotbaum said. “Our responsibility doesn’t end at the job site.”

After retiring from District Council 37 in 1986, at age 65, he founded the Center for Labor-Management Policy at the City University of New York. He was later director of the National Center for Collective Bargaining at Baruch College.

In 1993, Mayor David N. Dinkins appointed him to the city’s Board of Education.

Besides Ms. Gotbaum, he is survived by his sons, Joshua, Irving and Noah; a daughter, Rachel Gotbaum; a stepdaughter, Katherin Barr Hogen; eight grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.

In 2007, in a case that drew national attention, Mr. Gotbaum’s daughter-in-law Carol A. Gotbaum, Noah’s wife, died in police custody at a Phoenix airport on her way to an alcoholism treatment program. She had been arrested on disorderly conduct charges after arguing with airline workers about a missed flight. An autopsy found that she had accidentally strangled herself with her shackles.

Mr. Gotbaum was the author of “Negotiating in the Real World: Getting the Deal You Want,” a 1999 book published by Simon & Schuster.

Mr. Gotbaum urged workers to be as restless as he was. “Our people always ask, ‘What have you done for the worker lately?’” he once said. “I hope we always have that attitude, that workers are never satisfied. We tell them never to be.”

Originally published by The New York Times