Lindsay, Quill, & the Transit Strike
On November 3, 1965, the day after New York's mayoralty election, Mayor-elect John V. Lindsay received a telegram, one among many, of “sincere congratulations” from the late Michael J. Quill, president of the Transport Workers Union, AFL-CIO. Along with the telegram, Quill sent a copy of the 76 proposals his union planned to submit to the New York Transit Authority for a new contract covering the roughly 35,000 workers who operate the city's buses and subways. Included among the 76 were demands for a four-day (32-hour) work week, a 30 per cent wage increase, a half-pay pension after twenty-five years of service, and six weeks of vacation after a year on the job. (“We wished to remind him of our very modest requests,” Quill said upon release of the telegram to the press.) The mayor-elect was also informed of the union's “long-standing commitment with the membership to live up to our traditional slogan of no contract, no work” on January 1, 1966, and he was invited to name a representative to sit in on the negotiations between the union and the Transit Authority.1 The mayor-elect did not reply. The next day the union presented its demands to the Transit Authority. Chairman Joseph O'Grady, declaring himself “flabbergasted,” estimated that these demands would cost the Authority $250-million over two years. “There isn't enough gold in Fort Knox to pay this bill,” he told reporters.
Thus far, the pattern was in perfect accord with what New Yorkers had come to accept as standard transit repertoire. “The script,” as knowing New Yorkers were wont to call the biennial go-around between the TWU and the Transit Authority, with City Hall as a backdrop, was distressingly familiar—so much so that many New Yorkers hoped the new mayor would tear it up, or at least refuse to play his assigned role; some even hoped that Lindsay would call “Quill's bluff” no matter the cost. And indeed, as November wore on with Lindsay still silent, it began to appear that the mayor-elect was writing a new part for himself. On November 18, a little querulous and possibly nervous at the lack of response from the mayor-elect, Quill sent him another telegram. “We need from you less profile, more courage,” it read.
Several days later, union leaders and Transit Authority officials met again to act out another traditionally obligatory scene. TA Chairman O'Grady now estimated TWU's demands at $680-million (a figure that stuck) and pronounced them “stratospheric.” The union leaders sulked; they left the meeting in silence.
Meanwhile, the old administration in City Hall was preparing to step out of the cast altogether. The Transit Labor Panel, appointed by Mayor Robert F. Wagner in 1963 to assure labor peace on the subways, resigned. All three members—Theodore W. Kheel, George W. Taylor, and David L. Cole—indicated that they wanted nothing to do with the impending transit snarl. And in the background the mayor and the mayor-elect engaged in a kind of pantomime, each trying to suggest that the other was responsible for settling matters.
At the end of November, just before going off for a short vacation in Puerto Rico, Lindsay drew up a list of ten possible mediators for the TA-TWU negotiations. It was the mayor-elect's first mistake, giving the old pro Quill exactly the sort of opening he used to love. For while Lindsay's list included such eminent personages as Dr. Nathan Feinsinger, Archibald Cox, Ewan Clague, Clark Kerr, and James J. Healy, it most conspicuously did not contain the name of anyone remotely familiar with New York City transit and its labor problems. The most noticeable omission from the list was Theodore W. Kheel. The mayor-elect apparently saw in Kheel only a member of the old cabal—Quill, O'Grady, Kheel, and Wagner—which had been fixing behind-the-scenes transit labor deals for over a decade; Kheel's very real ability as a mediator, and his thorough knowledge of the ways of transit labor relations counted, it would seem, for little in Lindsay's eyes. But whatever the reason, the word from Lindsay's quarter was: “No deals, no Kheel.”
Somebody should have reminded the mayor-elect that Mike Quill once spent an entire year getting rid of an impartial arbitrator named by the Republicans so that the position could be secured for Kheel. I do not mean to imply in any way that Kheel ever weighted his decisions in favor of the union as a result of this favor. But it is a simple fact of New York politics and of the history of transit labor relations that both sides had come to place a great deal of trust in him. Kheel was the broker who arranged trades under which the union got security and the Authority got greater efficiency and labor stability. In any event, when two parties to a conflict believe that one man above all others would be useful in working out a solution, it behooves the third party to the conflict to give some thought either to changing their minds, whether by force or by reason, or to acquiesce. Lindsay did neither.
November ended with Lindsay and Quill trading verbal blows. Lindsay declared his willingness to meet with Quill, but said, “Mr. Quill hasn't even taken the trouble to call me. He's not doing his people any good with his pyrotechnics on television. I'll meet him around the clock—on the subways, anywhere.” The mayor-elect then went on to spell out his strategy, or at least what he thought his role ought to be: “In a problem like this,” he said, “I think it's the role of the mayor-elect to act as a catalyst on this, urging both sides to get down to the issues as soon as possible.” He then charged Quill with not bargaining in good faith. “He wouldn't be in a position to know,” Quill shot back, “because he hasn't attended any of our sessions.”
“There is absolutely no progress in the talks,” Quill announced at the beginning of December. He then invited Lindsay to meet him “at whatever time and place you designate.” Asked if he would meet with Quill, Lindsay replied, “There must be some demonstration that he intends to bargain in good faith.” It was at this point that the list of ten proposed mediators was released to the press. If the mayor-elect thought he was pressing Quill and the union into the collective-bargaining lists, he could not have been more mistaken. What he was actually doing was giving Quill what the union leader most wanted—an excuse to break off talks and apply pressure on Mayor Wagner. Perhaps Wagner could make Lindsay see the point: the absolute need for at least one man “who understood transit” on any mediation panel invited to sit in on the dispute.
When Lindsay repeated his plea for a “demonstration in good faith” in bargaining, Quill chose to take this as an affront to his honor: “Nothing goes on until he [Lindsay] withdraws his statement.” Quill followed up this threat of a stall with the announcement that the union would strike on December 15, “just in time for the Christmas shopping rush.” Without batting a blue eye, Quill denied bluffing and denied that the move was calculated to pressure Lindsay into naming Kheel as a mediator. “Lindsley,” as he insisted on calling the mayor-elect, was “an ungracious sour-puss. Let him run the trains and buses. . . .” Quill dared the TA to seek an injunction and threatened to go on a hunger strike if arrested.
If Quill and Lindsay had really wanted to meet, of course, they could have found a way; instead they obligingly threw obstacles in each other's paths. Meanwhile Wagner, who knew a cliffhanger when he saw one, began to get a little worried: he wasn't about to have a December 15 strike on his hands, and he approached Kheel behind the scenes to ask if he would serve on a mediation panel. Kheel said he would do so only if invited by both Wagner and Lindsay.
At the end of the week, Quill called off the December 15 walkout. His announcement followed the naming of a three-man mediation panel consisting of Nathan Feinsinger (professor of law at the University of Wisconsin and permanent arbitrator for General Motors and the United Auto Workers), Sylvester Garrett (permanent arbitrator for U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers), and . . . Theodore Kheel, permanent arbitrator for New York City Transit. Quill, who now magnanimously averred that he was not “wedded to Kheel,” had outfoxed “Lindsley.”
The next two weeks were given over to assorted maneuverings. Lindsay conferred with the mediators for ninety minutes, and Dr. Feinsinger was chosen as chairman of the panel. “Our aim,” he told newsmen, “is to get a mediated settlement as soon as possible and to avoid another cliffhanger.” The mediators began a series of meetings, clearly exploratory, hoping for a break somewhere. Mayor Wagner, continuing to extricate himself from the proceedings, requested state aid, a plea rejected by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, who said that transit was “a city problem.” John J. Gilhooley, the Republican member of the Transit Authority, charged that Wagner was “playing politics with the [15-cent] fare”—something, of course, no Republican would do. Quill, always happy to supply a reason for the lack of progress, charged that “outside meddlers, meeting secretly, have been slowing down negotiations.” The union negotiators introduced economist Leon Keyserling as their consultant. His economic analysis in support of the union position, and his suggestion that the city make proper use of its tax resources, were ignored by everybody. A few days before Christmas, Mayor Wagner entered the talks for the last time. He said a strike would be “intolerable” and urged “a speed-up of negotiations.” He, too, was ignored by everybody. On Christmas eve, Quill dispatched a special holiday greeting to the public: “We wish the people a Merry Christmas, but we're very sorry we can't wish them a happy New Year.”
On Monday, December 27, Lindsay met separately with the mediators (thirty minutes), the Transit Authority (one hour), and the union (twenty minutes). In his first direct participation in the dispute, Lindsay told the parties there must be no strike and asked for a “fair, reasonable, and equitable settlement.” The next day the Transit Authority announced plans for a no-strike injunction against the union. Quill reiterated his willingness and that of his associates to go to jail. On the next-to-the-last day before the strike, the union negotiators walked out on their talks with the TA, vowing they would not return until Lindsay came in on a continuing basis. In response, the Transit Authority began a “sit-in” to dramatize its willingness to negotiate.
But the Authority's gesture, in truth, was an empty one. As John O'Donnell, the TWU attorney, observed after the strike: “Never in O'Grady's history did he ever give out one dollar unless he was certain the TA could meet it out of revenues, or offset it from another source, namely City Hall.” Earlier in December, O'Grady had announced to all who wanted to listen, and particularly for the benefit of the mayor-elect, “With our present financial position, we face the necessity of either a fare raise or getting money from governmental sources to avoid one.” By law, the Transit Authority must meet operating expenses out of operating revenues; only capital costs may be subsidized by the city. Riding on each fare, according to TA estimates, is a two-cent deficit. The overall deficit for the current fiscal year is expected to exceed $60-million. Governor Rockefeller had already refused to advance the city money to save the 15-cent fare, even though, facing an election next fall, he is reportedly anxious to hold the fare to fifteen cents. The TA, faced with a wage increase, possessed only one source of revenue within its own power—the price of a token. As O'Donnell told me, “If you think a Democratic controlled Transit Authority is going to relieve a Republican mayor-elect of the responsibility of a fare increase by raising it themselves, you're crazy.” So long as the mayor-elect chose to keep silent on the question of finances—and up until December 31 he made no mention to either the mediators or the Transit Authority of financial assistance—the TA had no option but to remain silent itself.
On the morning of the 31st, Mayor Robert F. Wagner left for an Acapulco vacation with his wife and two sons. At Kennedy Airport, he told reporters, “This is Mayor-elect Lindsay's show now. I'm just a tourist.” By that Friday afternoon Lindsay apparently realized that if he wanted action at the bargaining table before the subways and buses stopped rolling, he would have to indicate to the Authority that some money would be available. When he did so is not exactly clear, for the day's events remain hectic and uncertain, even in the minds of direct participants. Lindsay spent part of the afternoon at a joint meeting of the mediators, the Authority, and the union leaders. Quill, by all accounts, was especially vituperative, caustic, and needling. “He wanted Lindsay to walk out of that meeting,” I was told by someone who was present, “but I must say Lindsay handled himself well.” Quill called Lindsay a “pipsqueak” and a “juvenile,” hurled an obscene Yiddish epithet at him (brogue and all), shouting that he “wouldn't take bubkes” from anyone like Lindsay.2 According to some accounts, Lindsay was “seething but restrained,” contenting himself with the remark: “Well, Mike, I hope you will be more respectful of my office when I become mayor.” When Lindsay indicated he had to return to City Hall for his swearing-in as mayor, Quill told him, “You can get any kind of a judge to come up here and swear you in. There's enough people here to swear in anybody.”
At City Hall, some forty relatives and friends and about thirty reporters attended the 6:00 P.M. swearing-in of the new mayor. Pale, disturbed, and solemn, Lindsay said, “Ours is a proud city. It should be a proud city and that is why I look forward with pride to being its mayor.” Lindsay then borrowed fifteen cents from a reporter to make the traditional payment to the city on the signing of the Book of Office. He made no mention of the transit crisis. At 6:56, he left for the Americana Hotel, where the transit meetings were being held, arriving at 7:15. At 7:45, Justice George Tilzer—declaring that “If the fear of God was as great as that of Quill and his union, we would have a better world”—issued an injunction against the TWU.
Some time on friday afternoon Lindsay had assured the Transit Authority that some money—$7-million was the figure later leaked to the Times—would be made available to help the TA out of its financial bind. The Authority then worked up a $25-million package, including a 3.2 per cent wage increase for each year of a two-year contract. The offer was built on the Presidential guidelines for non-inflationary wage settlements based on an average yearly increase in national productivity of 3.2 per cent. It was considerably below the $38.6-million settlement of 1963. The $25-million offer was given to the mediators at eight o'clock, New Year's eve.
Two hours later, in the presence of the mediators and the mayor, O'Grady announced to the union negotiating team that the Authority had given the mediators a “fair, equitable, and substantial offer,” but that he would not present it to the union until the TWU reduced its demands. The union team caucused for ten minutes. Quill asked for a dollar evaluation of the offer. O'Grady replied, “We won't tell you until you reduce your demands.” “This sounds like What's My Line,” Quill snapped back. “We won't play a hiding game.”
Lindsay then instructed O'Grady to state the offer, and much against his wishes, O'Grady did so. There was a loud hoot of laughter from among the members of the union negotiating committee. Quill waited until it died down, and then said: “You made an offer. I don't reject it, but I will suggest that my committee turn it down. We will discuss it and give you an answer at ten o'clock in the morning.” Quill rose to go. Someone said, “Wait a minute, Mike. Do you mean you've postponed the strike?” Quill looked owlishly at the speaker: “Oh, no. The strike is on.”
Shortly after midnight Quill told reporters that he was going to bed and the TV audience that the strike was on. When somebody handed him a paper he said, “If this is the injunction, I might as well go all the way,” and tore the paper up. He denounced the TA offer as “Operation peanuts.” At 5:00 A.M., Saturday morning, the transit system began to shut down; it took three hours and two minutes for the last train, the IRT Seventh Avenue express, to roll into the 241st Street station. Later that morning, inaugural ceremonies for the 103rd mayor of New York were held on the City Hall steps beneath a coffin-gray sky, before a crowd of 2,500 people. Lindsay, in his inaugural address, blasted the walkout as “an unlawful strike against the public interest . . . an act of defiance against eight million people.”
What Lindsay had on his mind that dreary Saturday is anyone's guess. The union people I have talked with all believe, to quote one of them, that “Lindsay was convinced that Quill and Wagner, between them, had built up wages and working conditions to a level that could not be justified.” Most of them also believe that Lindsay thought the strike would evaporate over the weekend. An unnamed Lindsay aide was quoted as expecting a one-day strike (“Let them flex their muscles a little,” he reportedly advised the mayor). Feinsinger also, as he told an interviewer several days later, thought “. . . that if a strike were called at all, it would end after the first two days, which would be before the first full working day.” What those who held such views were saying was that the strike had been called by Quill to embarrass the new mayor. Quill's obvious zest for political needling gave credence to this interpretation. What it overlooked, of course, was the economic interest of Transit Authority employees, of whom there were some 32,600 in TWU and another 1,800 (mostly in Staten Island and part of Queens) in the Amalgamated Transit Union; about 3,000 employees of the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority were also involved. Once they were out, it would take more than the $25-million offered by the Authority to get them back.
Quill's blustering style colored and indeed over-whelmed everything, even the case that could be made for the economic demands of the union. Later in the negotiations, Douglas MacMahon, who replaced Quill as the chief negotiator, effected a kind of modest rescue by stressing the “inequities” between what transit workers and other city employees earn for the same work. At the time of the strike, “bus maintainers” (The TA euphemism for mechanics) were earning $3.46 an hour, as compared with $4.80 for auto mechanics working for the police, fire, and other city departments. The Transit Authority motorman was being paid $3.46 an hour; the same job on the Hudson Tubes pays $3.95. “A maintenance electrician for the New York Times and the Daily News, handling 220 volts,” Quill once pointed out, “gets $4.07 an hour, and a 37½-hour week, with four weeks vacation after one year, while a Transit Authority electrician, handling 21,000 volts, gets only $3.46 an hour.”
But even these “inequities” do not tell the full tale. The “modest but adequate” budget of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics calls for $6,900 in annual earnings for a family of four living in New York City, and $7,900 a year for a family of five, assuming the children are under 13; when children are older, the budget calls for another $1,000. Now the average basic annual earnings before taxes of all hourly-rated Transit Authority employees for fiscal 1965 was $6,299 or about 8 per cent below the “modest” budget. That was the average. But railroad clerks, car cleaners, porters, and platform men—who comprise roughly 32 per cent of the TA workforce—averaged $5,500 a year, well below the budget. Bus operators—17.6 per cent of the workforce—averaged $6,071 a year, not a munificent sum for skilled work. As one bus driver told me, “Look, I drive a 20-ton vehicle for $129 a week after seven years. Most men who are driving a one-ton or a one-and-a-half-ton truck get more than that. And I carry people, not boxes.” Similarly, Michael Evans, an IRT conductor, told me, “I have four dependents and I take home a net pay of $90 a week. That's not much for the type of job I do. . . . We make less than sanitation men” (whose top pay is $3.59 an hour).
As Sidney Margolius, a consumer consultant for a number of unions, points out, if the average subway worker has a really large family (and many do), “he is pretty close to the poverty level as recently defined by the federal government.” Moreover, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' “modest but adequate” budget might more accurately be described as “shabby and respectable.” It allows the husband a coat every five years, a bottle of beer every other day, a new hat for the wife once every two years, two movies a month, and less than one egg a day per person. To be sure, a great many people in New York City are much worse off than the transit workers. But the latter are organized, they do steady work, they perform an essential function, and they are civil servants. By those standards, they ought to be among the best paid workers in the city. If they had been, there would have been no strike.
But there were other pressures on Quill besides those flowing from the economic plight of the TWU membership. Quill, for all his bluster, was anything but an “irresponsible” trade-union leader. An Irish revolutionary from County Kerry, his public style reflected the fact that the TWU was originally made up, as he once put it to me, of “a lot of young Irishmen who came over from secret organizations [and who] liked the secrecy and intrigue” [of building the union]. Flashing a smile, he added, “I liked it then. I like it still. It never left me.” There was always a tension between the Quill who would have loved to preach the socialism of James Connally, and the Quill who was the leader of anti-socialist Irish Catholic bus drivers and subway motormen. He resolved that tension, in part, and not entirely successfully, by playing the clown, the Finn MacCuhal of the city subways—like that Irish folk hero, crafty and brave as well as vindictive and generous. In that role Quill often angered his fellow New Yorkers and at times cajoled them, but he never failed to entertain them, even at the end.
But if Quill's style made him look “irresponsible,” his actual record as a union leader most emphatically did not. Thus, over ten years ago, he recognized that to secure some improvements he would have to trade off “savings” to the Authority. For example, TWU accepted a change in the sick-leave plan that eliminated payment for one-day illnesses. This meant a considerable saving for the Authority; in return the union secured an extension in the total number of sick-leave days allowed. At about the same time, the Authority also instituted a speed-up with the union going along in exchange for a guarantee that no man would be laid off because of automation; as a result, some 8,000 jobs have been eliminated through attrition over roughly the last ten years. Both moves, however, were initially very unpopular and the dissatisfaction culminated in December 1957 in an eight-day wildcat strike led by the motormen. For once in his stormy career, Quill was nonplussed; he joined with the Authority to break the strike. In the representation election that followed the wildcat, the Transport Workers Union barely squeaked out recognition. Such memories die hard, and it has taken the union a good part of the succeeding years to win back its members. Obviously, the union leadership could not settle for a “deal”—not once the strike had begun.
Lindsay, however, had much to learn about the pressures on Quill and his colleagues in the union leadership. On New Year's Day, the New York Times thundered editorially: “The immediate need is for a demonstration by Mr. Lindsay that the city will not capitulate to such tyranny by granting wage increases and other concessions beyond those justified by economic reality. The recommendations of the three expert mediators . . . represent the only dependable guidelines to a fair settlement. Anything more would be appeasement.” The mediators, of course, knew by then what the Times did not mention: that what was holding up any possibility of a settlement was the absence of any commitment on money in any significant amount from Lindsay.
The Times, along with most papers in the city, also called for enforcement of the Condon-Wadlin act. This 19-year-old law, more honored in the breach than the observance, forbids public employees to strike, and imposes stiff penalties on violators. Strikers must return to their jobs with loss of seniority and cannot receive any wage increase for three years. The city could not have enforced the law fully without making up its mind to break the union—and this it did not want to do. Nonetheless, acting under the law, the Transit Authority did secure an injunction barring the strike. (This move was all but mandatory. It also exerted pressure of a kind upon the union to settle, or so some people believed.) Over the weekend, Quill and the other leaders of the union were served with a court order, returnable on Monday at 2:00 P.M., requiring them to show cause as to why they should not be punished for ignoring the injunction. As it turned out, this was the only move of any consequence during the first weekend of the strike.
Monday was the first real day of the strike for most New Yorkers. Many, in response to Mayor Lindsay's appeal that only “essential” employees report to work, remained at home. (The mayor's urging that employers pay people who did so may have been taken as a guarantee by some; employer generosity, however, generally did not extend beyond the first day or so of the strike.) The Commerce and Industry Association estimated that Monday morning traffic was 23 per cent below normal and that only 800,000 of the 7.2-million people who normally enter the central business district each day showed up for work. The mayor set the tone for response to the strike by hiking four miles from his temporary quarters uptown to City Hall, leaving at 5:57 A.M. and arriving at 6:47 A.M. The walk, he said, was “good for the circulation.” Bicycle rental shops did a rush business. A 47-year-old Wall Street executive arrived at Grand Central Station carrying his daughter's dismantled bicycle. After assembling it, he pedalled to his office in 17 minutes. A 33-year-old maintenance worker from Astoria, wearing a black raincoat and a green beret, rollerskated from the Queensboro Bridge to his job at the Olin-Mathieson building in mid-Manhattan. Though traffic did move smoothly enough the first morning, it was at a slow crawl for the rest of the strike as New Yorkers doubled-up for rides, walked, or hitchhiked to work. Back at the Americana Hotel, around tables covered with green felt, men doodled—a skull and crossbones, a neatly lined ice cream cone, a fat X.
Tuesday opened with the announcement, heard by many over car radios as they inched their way into the center of the city, that Quill and the others had been found guilty of civil contempt and had been ordered to be imprisoned until such time as they called off the strike. Quill rose to the occasion as if the whole city had become the stage of the Abbey Theater. “We will continue in mediation until we are dragged from our seats,” he declared. “Then we will throw in our second line of leadership. The courts may have their finest hour, but they'll not break us one penny from our objectives.”
Shortly after eleven that morning, Quill arrived before the TV cameras for his confrontation with the city marshal. He was bundled up in a dark overcoat, his blackthorn stick hooked over a shaky arm; with bloodless lips and drawn face, he declared his defiance: “The judge can drop dead in his black robes. . . . I don't care if I rot in jail, I will not call off the strike.” Hotel tables broke under the weight of the scrambling cameramen. The marshal arrived, delayed by traffic, and Quill—along with eight other union leaders—went off to jail after being nearly crushed to death by the crowd. An irate lady spat at the car that carried him away. Once alone in the prison front office, Quill collapsed from exhaustion, incorrect use of the medication that had been prescribed for his physical condition, and heart congestion. On January 28, 1966, fifteen days after the end of the strike, he died of heart failure in his sleep.
The wisdom of jailing Quill has been much debated. There are those who think he ought to have been jailed earlier, and others who have taken the view that it is impossible to negotiate with a man in jail. Actually, though the jailing had rather complex effects, in the end it probably strengthened the union. The most immediate benefit was to rally organized labor—which had been very uncertain in its response to the strike—behind the TWU: New York, organized labor felt, must not become an injunction city. (The Liberal party unions—the ILGWU, and the Hat, Cap & Millinery Workers, were, of course, in the Lindsay camp.) Still, the support of labor officialdom did not necessarily reflect rank-and-file sentiment, and the involvement of the Central Labor Council ultimately complicated matters for the TWU. Harry Van Arsdale, the energetic CLC head, immediately set to work trying to free the strike leaders (all but Quill, who was then hospitalized). This did not especially please the TWU's second-line leadership, which told Van Arsdale in a stormy meeting that the slogan was “Lift the injunction,” not “Free our leaders.”
Given Quill's health, it is unlikely that he could have lasted out the negotiations had he been free to do so. Had he not been jailed and had he then been taken ill, there might have been a scramble among the remaining TWU leaders for the honor of settling the strike. As it was, the mission devolved upon Douglas MacMahon, Quill's very able lieutenant.
MacMahon had no sooner sat down at the bargaining table across from O'Grady than the Lindsay camp decided to revert to the old script. The new way of doing things—“collective bargaining” rather than “deals”—clearly was getting nowhere; perhaps it was time to open a few backdoors. On Thursday, Deputy Mayor Robert Price met secretly with Quill at his hospital bedside. Both denied making a deal, but one cannot help thinking of Quill's expertise at misdirection and Price's inexperience in labor negotiations. In any event, after this meeting Mayor Lindsay rejoined the negotiations at the Americana; suddenly the newspapers “glimpsed hope” and there was talk of a $40-million package in the making.
Lindsay now began maneuvering in earnest for money. He appealed to President Johnson for federal aid. The President responded by sending not money, but Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz, who was given a fast whirl around town before returning to Washington. But (as now seems clear) by the second weekend, Lindsay had the money he wanted. It was promised by Rockefeller, amounted to about $100-million, and was an advance on monies due the city under various tax arrangements. This “stop-gap” aid was aimed at maintaining the 15-cent fare until the merger of the deficit-ridden Transit Authority with the profitable Triborough Bridge Authority could be arranged (or, as cynics would have it, until after the 1966 elections). With the money still, as it were, hidden in his back pocket, Lindsay could feel a certain confidence when he announced that the two sides were trying for a settlement by Monday morning. Sunday afternoon, Lindsay summoned everyone to City Hall where sessions began at 5:00 o'clock. The old script, calling for a cliff-hanging wrap-up at City Hall, had at last been dusted off.
Bargaining, MacMahon told me after the strike ended, “didn't start until we went to City Hall. There we began to get some give and take. The Transit Authority stopped at a point, said there's no money. Then Lindsay stepped in, just as the mayor did in the past.” As the night wore on, a $50-million package took shape on the bargaining table. The Transit Authority offered a million dollars in 1966 and a million in 1967 to improve working conditions, provide all required uniforms, cover the benefits of a so-called “death gamble” pension provision (the making up of losses suffered by a widow whose husband did not retire when eligible), and it offered a 10 per cent wage increase. The wage offer was rejected, and then, apparently much to the surprise of both the union and the Transit Authority, Price tossed on the table a $500-a-year supplementary pension benefit. This was quickly snapped up by the union while the Authority boggled. (“That $500 benefit alone is going to cause Lindsay a lot of trouble when he comes to bargain with other city employees,” a union negotiator told me.) Lindsay then came up with a 15 per cent wage offer that would achieve a $4 hourly wage by July 1, 1967 for top-rated job classifications. “That,” MacMahon told me, “was bargaining.”
Nevertheless, at 6:15 in the morning, a haggard mayor faced reporters to announce, “We have recessed . . . until sometime after noon.” What had happened? The best explanation may be that the union negotiators, smelling victory, thought they could fatten the package a bit more. The union also had a noontime rally planned for the next day and perhaps believed that a demonstration of old-fashioned solidarity would help. (To have a strike without some such event would run counter to tradition.) In addition, the union was probably not unmindful of the political benefit that would accrue to Mayor Lindsay if he were able to announce a settlement from City Hall. After all, it was their script he had tried to ignore, and now that he had finally fallen into the part assigned to him, why should he reap star billing? Aside from all this, the union was unhappy with Lindsay's formula for the distribution of the 15 per cent increase (2 per cent January 1, 1966; 2 per cent June 30, 1966; 2 per cent January 1, 1967; and 9 per cent July 1, 1967)—the union wanted more up front and much less toward the end. It also wanted the $2-million in working conditions all in the first year.
Though MacMahon was privately optimistic, he remained a firebrand in public. On Monday he told some 10,000 union members, “I've never met such amateurs in all my life. I tell you it was a sad day when Bob Wagner left this town. This guy [Lindsay] doesn't know what the hell he is doing.” Lindsay was furious. “The government of this city,” he responded, “will not capitulate before the lawless demands of a single power group. It will not allow the power-brokers in our city, or any special interests, to dictate to this city the terms under which it will exist in New York.”
The next two days (Tuesday and Wednesday) were spent with both sides giving consideration to proposals from the mediators. Behind the scenes, mediators sought agreement from the union on a new formula and urged them to accept the “million-million” working conditions offered by the Authority instead of insisting on bunching up $2-million in one year. On Wednesday, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Democrat of New York, flew in from Washington for an afternoon meeting with Lindsay. He called the strike “intolerable” and “catastrophic,” and at a joint press conference with the mayor urged “the union as well as the Authority to accept the findings of the mediation board. There's going to have to be give-and-take on both sides. That give-and-take must take place today. The strike really cannot go on for another day.”
The Kennedy timing, as usual, was remarkable. That night the parties and the mediators got down to the business of wrapping up the settlement package and tying up loose ends. The panel came up with an acceptable formula—4 per cent on January 1, 1966; 4 per cent on January 1, 1967; and 7 per cent July 1, 1967, which established a top rate as of that date of $4 an hour. The union also accepted the “million-million.”3 At 1:35 A.M. Thursday morning, January 13, MacMahon announced that the union negotiators had agreed to the mediators' formula and would recommend that the union executive board approve it. The Authority announced its acceptance two hours later, and at 6:25 A.M., MacMahon made it official. Within minutes, subways and buses began to roll. Quill and his fellow prisoners were released later in the day.
The cost of the settlement has been variously estimated at anywhere from $43.4-million to $70-million over two years. If past experience is any guide, we can expect the settlement to cost out on the lower side. In 1959, for example, the settlement was priced at $35-million but actually cost $9-million; in 1963, it was priced at $36-million but actually cost $24.1-million; and in 1963 it was priced at $38.6-million but actually cost $33.8-million.4 The Transit Authority estimates that it lost some $15-million as a result of the strike; the Commerce and Industry Association came up with a total loss to the city's businesses of $l-billion (probably an inflated figure). The real losses, in a sense, were sustained by small businesses and by those cleaning women, maids, and other workers who could not get to work and could not collect unemployment benefits. How much that came to, no one really knows, at least not yet.
What, then, is one to make of the strike? President Johnson clearly does not think much of it, or of the settlement. Administration economists estimated the cost of the settlement as averaging out at 4.5 to 4.6 per cent a year, well in excess of the Presidential guidelines for non-inflationary settlements (3.2 per cent). While Lindsay and the city were still groggy, the President lashed out, denouncing the settlement as inflationary. Secretary of Labor Wirtz immediately backed him up, saying that the settlement “was unquestionably outside the stabilization anti-inflation policies.” Possibly the President was piqued at the fast shuffle given his envoy to the negotiations the previous week. But the President was also acting in response to certain practical considerations. The Council of Economic Advisors—and the President—have been under considerable pressure to revise the guidelines upward. The President, in effect, was saying that he wasn't about to do so (and he hasn't), and at the same time he was warning labor not to take the New York settlement as a go-ahead for other wage-demand programs. Actually, as Feinsinger was quick to point out, the guidelines do allow for additional adjustments to be made for “inequities or injustices.” “All the money items involved in the proposed agreement,” Feinsinger wrote in an analysis made before the final settlement, “are clearly within the confines of the “guidelines.”
Whatever the President's reasons for denouncing the transit settlement, it is not going to set a pattern for bargaining throughout the nation. It is, however, already giving rise to a host of legislative proposals to govern labor relations for public employees. The President himself has indicated that he will ask for legislation to “enable us effectively to deal with strikes which threaten irreparable damage to the national interest,” and New York State legislators are considering various bills aimed at “seeing that it doesn't happen again.” Two Lindsay Republicans in Albany, for example, so far without the backing of the mayor himself, have introduced a bill that would subject any striking public employee to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, while also imposing a fine of $200,000 a day against the striking union and $10,000 a day against union leaders. When one considers what the practical effect of such a law would have been, if implemented against TWU and its members in the last strike, one can only hope that the bill dies—and soon. As Condon-Wadlin so amply demonstrates, legislation banning strikes, even with stiff penalties, is useless. Mayor Lindsay did not need legislation to settle the strike. His problem, simply put, was that he could not bring himself to trust either TA chairman O'Grady or mediator Kheel enough to tell them that money was available, and that they could go ahead and settle. Kheel, who perhaps more than any other single individual brought about the settlement, wisely has warned: “No one should be misled in the belief that there is a single, all-pervasive solution to strikes. There is no panacea.”
Some form of labor legislation governing public employees may be politically inescapable, and a law that encourages voluntary methods for reaching an agreement would be the best of all possible legislation. Mediation can be encouraged, and fact-finding, in some instances, has much to recommend it. If there had been fact-finding in the recent transit conflict, for example, the workers' real case for wage increases and their grievances might have had the airing they did not receive.(In part, this was the fault of newspaper and television coverage which concentrated on the colorful to the exclusion of the pertinent.) But fact-finding has disadvantages: it delays a settlement, and it may underscore the financial woes of public agencies in such a way as to reinforce their refusal to concede to their employees' demands. The threat of a strike, or an actual strike, forces the agency to find money, a course it might otherwise evade successfully. Whatever pressures may be applied through the law should be on the parties to negotiate. They should not be encouraged to postpone the inevitable, which is the chief result of extended cooling-off periods and emergency hearing boards. Nor should they be encouraged to pass the buck, which is the chief weakness of arbitration. Arbitration is also ineffective as a strike deterrent: instead of official strikes, one gets wildcats (at least this has been the experience in New Zealand, where some form of compulsory arbitration has existed for nearly half a century). All in all, the trouble with putting the techniques for resolving labor disputes into the law is that the machinery becomes so inflexible and predictable that it discourages voluntary settlements.
If legislators must legislate, the best thing they could do is repeal the Condon-Wadlin act: a law that can be flouted with such ease is a bad law. But what is really wrong with legislating ways of averting strikes is that it by-passes the real problem (and the one underlying the transit strike in particular)—the financing of decent public services. The fare could be raised, but that, like the sales tax, would place the burden most heavily on those who can least afford it. In principle, there is no real reason why the subways and buses should not be treated as a free service, as the schools, and the police and fire departments, already are. Of course this would require a substantial revision of our present tax structure, and is therefore unlikely to come about. But that does not mean that the only answer is to raise the fare. As Mayor Lindsay points out, “I see no reason why the subway system should have to be on a self-sustaining basis. . . . I believe myself that the revenues from a reorganized transportation system ought to be free to be used for any part of that system by a new authority.” To that end, Lindsay has introduced legislation to reorganize the Triborough Bridge Authority and the Transit Authority into a single agency. The profits of one would then subsidize the other. This is the beginning of wisdom, a lesson learned from the strike. But it is only a beginning, for the New York transit strike was but one symptom of the general malaise afflicting all our cities.
1 The Transit Authority is an “autonomous operating agency” established by the State Legislature under the Public Authorities Act. The City of New York owns the property—rolling stock, tracks, barns, and so on—and leases it to the Authority on a long-term basis. Of the three men who run the Authority, one is appointed by the Governor and one by the mayor. The two appointees designate the third member who, under the law, must be chairman.
2 At a post-strike press conference, Quill stated, “I think Mayor Lindsay did everything he could, once he knew how serious it [the dispute] was. My previous statements about him were made in the heat of battle—under war conditions.” Taken together, the vituperation and the apology were quintessential Quill.
3 The money is to be used for improving working conditions, e.g., adjusting subway and bus runs, and providing an extra holiday or some other benefit. Those details are to be worked out in further negotiations between the union and TA management.
4 The difference is explained by some natural puffery. For example, the union estimates the cost of the “death gamble” benefit at $7—9-million, treating it as funded insurance. But in fact the TA will pay the benefit on a “pay-as-you-go” basis, which may keep costs down to as low as $2-million. The difference in past years also reflected the trimming of labor costs, cutting down of overtime, increased labor efficiency, and the like.