THANKS, VIC. WE WILL MISS YOU.
Please excuse the briefest of sentimental moments on our part. Vic Gotbaum died last week, ending his monumental stream of contributions to American labor unions, and we want to help folks remember what he accomplished. Vic was a machine gunner in WW II, a towering peace advocate during the Viet Nam war, and by most measures he saved New York City. After the war he got a master’s degree from Columbia, taught in a labor education program for union leaders in Chicago, and became President of New York’s AFSCME Council 37, growing it from 37,000 to over 110,000 members during his term. But as he said often, “From the beginning of my career as a labor leader, what I loved most were the negotiations.” Some said watching him bargaining was like watching “a prizefighter” when management turned down his first few attempts to be reasonable. Others remember how quick-witted and sarcastic he was with government leaders overly impressed with themselves. We like to think it was his Brooklyn roots. As a teenager he organized the African-American workers in his dad’s own plant to demand the same wages as white workers—and won. He later fought the established leadership of the AFL-CIO which backed the Viet Nam war, harassed those pushing for women’s rights, gave only token support for civil rights progress, never saw the value of labor always speaking first for the oppressed, and, in general, turned an entire generation of citizens off about unions, not to mention the growing number of immigrants. But the battle he will be remembered for most was when NYC was on the brink of bankruptcy and the mayor demanded huge concessions from the city unions. When other union leaders shut down the city’s bridges and encouraged lawlessness among citizens, he pulled the rug out from under them as well as concessions out of each of them. Armed with that power he backed the Wall Street bankers into a corner where they coughed up money that the mayor and governor could not get out of them for the city. If you remember the financial catastrophe that George Bush left us in 2007, double that and you can understand what a gift Vic gave America in that single week. He also left professional negotiators a wonderful booked filled with his best bargaining war stories, namely, “Negotiating in the Real World.”