New York Unions Show Strength

Recent walkouts have boosted labor's influence - for wrong reasons, some complain. A STRIKE A DAY?

THE US labor movement may have been weakened nationally, but in New York City unions are showing signs of new strength. The Big Apple has been buffeted in recent months by a continuing series of threatened, aborted, and actual strikes.

* Manhattan building service workers recently staged a 12-day strike that was widely honored by other unions to the point of preventing tenant moves and repairs. Residents filled in as elevator operators and mail sorters.

* A lengthy 137-day strike by nine New York Daily News unions was brought to a halt less than two months ago when British publisher Robert Maxwell bought the paper from the Chicago Tribune and settled separately with the unions.

* Though an increasingly important source of local revenue, no major Hollywood films have been shot in New York since last November because of a contract dispute.

* The labor contract covering 35,000 New York bus and subway workers expired April 30. Union leaders say they do not want to create ``unnecessary anxiety'' but that disruption of service is possible if talks do not progress.

In the city's public sector, where strikes remain illegal but where detours around such bans are often found, work stoppages have been threatened but largely averted:

Eager to avoid a teachers strike, New York Mayor David Dinkins, who relied heavily on labor support for his election, agreed last October to a one-year, 5.5 percent hike in wages and benefits. It was a move widely criticized as unaffordably generous and precedent-setting. The city reached similar agreements in January with the two largest municipal unions.

Mayor Dinkins, now facing a $4 billion budget deficit over the next 14 months, is currently pressing leaders of those same unions to compromise in the interests of city survival. He unveiled many of his planned cuts at a May 4 meeting with them in Gracie Mansion. He must submit his budget by May 10.

Many labor leaders still are smarting from the leaked release a few months back of a city memo to a bond rating agency that incorrectly stated that wage deferrals were being negotiated. Labor leaders want to be sure that the mayor has a clearly structured agenda and that others will also sacrifice.

However, since personnel costs absorb 80 percent of the city's budget, labor cuts of some kind are a given. The basic choice for the unions: accept wage and benefit cuts for all members or let the mayor begin layoffs, which would affect the newest employees and leave benefits intact.

``The unions are faced with an awful dilemma,'' says Herbert Bienstock, a professor of labor at Queens College. ``They won't make concessions easily, but ... if it's handled the right way, they will cooperate. They're not going to abandon the city.''

In the city's mid-1970s financial crisis the unions agreed to defer a recently won wage hike and allowed their pension funds to be invested in special bonds.

Some analysts think union leaders now would prefer city-ordered layoffs in part because they would not take as much direct heat from the broad membership. All leaders currently insist there will be no givebacks.

Whatever the eventual union role in the current financial crisis, experts see no diminution of union strength here.

The strongest recent labor growth in New York, as in most other major cities, has been in the public sector. Mr. Bienstock, former regional commissioner of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, says that well over one-third of the city's labor force is unionized, including virtually all public employees: ``New York is still very much a union town.''

Labor plays a key role in New York City politics.

``Unions are [about] the only serious organizing force at the city level that can deliver predictable votes, and they have tremendous clout in terms of affecting budget policy,'' says Ester Fuchs, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College.

Ken Margolies, director of labor programs in the New York City office of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says he thinks the Daily News strike is largely viewed by union leaders as a ``bright spot'' in terms of the broad cooperation it got from other unions. Some members of other unions even went door to door encouraging News subscribers to cancel subscriptions, he says.

``I think the strike rekindled some of the good feelings between unions,'' says Mr. Margolies. ``It sort of rallied and inspired people. New York labor got stronger this last year.''

Yet some experts argue labor got stronger for the wrong reasons as a result of the Daily News strike. They point to the city's failure to respond aggressively to complaints of harassment from vendors and nonunion drivers.

``The strike was an eye opener ... to the vigor of the city's pro-union stance,'' says George Sternlieb, founder of the Center for Urban Studies at Rutgers University and a professor emeritus there. ``You had a blatant acceptance of all sorts of illegal, dangerous, and criminal procedures.''

``I think in many cities there would have been a lot of people behind bars for the kind of things that went on,'' agrees New York University economics professor Dick Netzer.

Although it seems to some New Yorkers as if their city has at least one strike a day, the average - according to the latest available 1989 statistics - has been closer to one every two weeks. In 1989 59,000 workers struck in the city. The number of work days idle as a result was a 2.4 million. Yet total strikes in the city and state are far fewer than they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Still the choices ahead for both labor leaders and Mayor Dinkins will not be easy. Professor Netzer says Dinkins may now wish he'd been harder on unions from the start. ``I think it's going to be a very tough couple of years while all this gets sorted out,'' he says.

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