David Dinkins was elected the city's first (and so far only) black Mayor in 1989 in no small measure due to the strong support of its largest and most-powerful unions: District Council 37, the United Federation of Teachers and Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union.
While his defeat four years later in a rematch with Rudy Giuliani is most often attributed to the city's slow response to the 1991 Crown Heights riots, an overlooked factor in that narrow defeat was his loss of support—largely for other reasons—from DC 37 and the UFT. Local 1199 and its influential president, Dennis Rivera, remained firmly in his corner in the 1993 Mayor's race, but the relative lack of municipal employees the giant hospital workers union represented may have accounted for that.
A Pro-Labor Healer
Mr. Dinkins upset three-term Mayor Ed Koch in the Democratic primary just a month after a black teenager named Yusuf Hawkins was murdered by a member of a white gang in Bensonhurst, in a racially rooted case of mistaken identity. Despite the Brooklyn neighborhood having been a source of racist animus several times starting with school-busing protests 25 years earlier, Mr. Koch ignored that history, and his opponent was perceived by most voters as someone who would be less polarizing.
The then-Manhattan Borough President had spent years cultivating alliances with many of the city's unions—in contrast with the incumbent, who while being reasonable in contract bargaining gleefully ignored civil-service principles and taunted some labor leaders—and Mr. Giuliani, also a combative personality who like Mr. Koch primarily appealed to law-enforcement unions. Once Mayor, however, the trailblazing Mr. Dinkins frequently found himself at odds with former union allies, as well as with what had always figured to be a natural antagonist, the then-Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.
The erosion of his support among unions both large and small that had backed him in 1989 stemmed from a combination of bad luck, bad judgment, and his decision to side with his Human Resources Administration Commissioner against several unions over whether a civil-service promotion exam that produced few minority candidates for advancement should be honored, or scrapped in favor of greater diversity in an agency whose clientele was overwhelming people of color.
Bad judgment and bad luck came together for Mr. Dinkins over a five-day period in early October of 1990, his first year in office.
His Labor Commissioner, Eric Schmertz, had reached a tentative agreement with Teamsters Local 237 President Barry Feinstein calling for a 4.5-percent raise over one year, with the deal's unusually short duration owing to a tight budget situation. But after Mr. Feinstein asked that an announcement be delayed while he decided during a weekend that Yom Kippur—the holiest day on the Jewish calendar—Mr. Schmertz attempted to reach a quick deal on the same terms with UFT President Sandra Feldman.
She rejected the offer and demanded to meet personally with Mr. Dinkins. Mr. Schmertz had distinguished himself as an arbitrator, but he was a novice as a management negotiator and unaware of a cardinal rule among others in that line of work: you don't bring your boss into the talks until a deal acceptable to both sides has been reached and you simply need him to sign off on the terms.
The reason for not getting a Mayor involved earlier than that is simple: whether because of political ties or the sensitivity of those in the job to being browbeaten by union leaders who accuse them of not living up to their campaign promises, they are more susceptible to giving away the city's money than veteran negotiators who understand that being called names or accused of being tools of the business community go with the territory and will stand their ground.
Mr. Dinkins lacked that flintiness, and after Ms. Feldman asked how he could have pledged to improve education to help the city's children yet be unwilling to give her members more money than he had offered to a union representing security officers, housing workers, cooks and lawyers, he buckled and agreed to give the UFT a 5-5-percent raise.
A Police Class Delayed
That decision—which not surprisingly led Mr. Feinstein to walk away from the tentative Local 237 deal and demand that Mr. Schmertz give him a raise matching the UFT's—prompted howls of outrage from tabloid editorial writers who accused Mr. Dinkins of giving away the store in a time of fiscal austerity. Those cries grew even more frenzied when, a few days later, a bond-rating agency downgraded the city's credit. A day later, the Mayor had to announce that due to a weakening of the city's financial condition, he was delaying a police class at a time when New York was on its way to a record 2,245 murders that has not been eclipsed in the 30 years since.
In an attempt to minimize the financial damage done by the UFT deal, the administration a short time later announced that it would depart from the bargaining pattern that prevailed during Mr. Koch's 12 years in office under which civilian unions such as the UFT, DC 37 and Local 237 got essentially the same raises and uniformed unions got marginally more in recognition of the danger of their members' jobs. Instead, the pattern would be determined by how much the city was saving through recalculations of how much it had to contribute to each of its five retirement systems based on higher earnings for those systems than had been anticipated.
Using that formula, it decreed that no one would match the Teacher raise, and the variance in savings for the pension systems to which other city unions belonged led to those whose members were part of the Police Pension Fund initially getting slightly lesser raises than DC 37 and Local 237 did.
This was wildly unpopular among the labor leaders besides Ms. Feldman, and she too became disillusioned with Mr. Dinkins when, during subsequent bargaining on a longer contract, Labor Commissioner Jim Hanley—who replaced Mr. Schmertz when he was forced out by the Mayor over an ongoing disagreement with Budget Director Phil Michael—he insisted that a new deal would have to begin with an 18-month wage freeze.
Layoffs Also Intruded
That was a reflection of the continued budget problems that had led Mr. Dinkins to impose close to 2,000 layoffs, many of them affecting members of DC 37, which had played such a pivotal role in his 1989 victory. It pained him to lay off any employees, he made clear, but he had no choice.
The Mayor would clash again with that union over a promotion list for Supervisor 3 at HRA that included 456 white eligibles among the 671 who had passed the civil-service test for the position. HRA Commissioner Barbara Sabol was said to have pronounced the list to be "too male and too white," although she vehemently denied making that characterization.
But Charles Ensley, the president of Social Service Employees Local 371 of DC 37, which represented those in the title of Supervisor 3 and the lower title from which the promotions would come, insisted that she honor the civil-service merit system and promote from the list in rank order. He wasn't convinced that the racial makeup of the list was the sole reason Ms. Sabol balked at using it, pointing out that she apparently wanted to retain about 100 employees serving provisionally in Supe 3 jobs who hadn't passed the test.
But with the support of DC 37 Executive Director Stanley Hill, he forced the issue, and First Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel sided with the two black union leaders against the black HRA Commissioner. Ms. Sabol wound up prolonging the controversy, which got extensive coverage in the New York Post as well as this newspaper, when she opted not to follow straight rank-order in making promotions from the list.
Cost Dinkins Politically
She was able to do so without being forced out for her defiance of Mr. Steisel because Mr. Dinkins had created a chain of command that was bound to be problematic. First Deputy Mayor is traditionally the city's equivalent of a chief operating officer, but the Mayor had decided that on major decisions, final approval had to be given by Bill Lynch, the Deputy Mayor who was far better known for his strategy in getting Mr. Dinkins elected than for his management skills.
The festering controversy alienated Mr. Ensley to such a degree that he broke with DC 37 and refused to give the Mayor his local's endorsement for re-election. Mr. Giuliani made the most of the dispute, running on a slogan—"One City, One Standard"—that could have been crafted based on that battle over the Supe 3 list. When he defeated Mr. Dinkins in November 1993, he named the Local 371 leader as a member of his transition team.
(That alliance didn't last; Mr. Ensley soon parted company with Mr. Giuliani, with one reason being, ironically, that the new Mayor used not only provisionals in the Administrative Director of Social Services position that was one step up the civil-service ladder from Supe 3, in some cases he placed per-diem workers into that job.)
Mr. Ensley died in 2010, but Bob Croghan, the longtime chairman of the Organization of Staff Analysts, vividly recalled that battle in a Nov. 24 phone interview.
He said that Mr. Dinkins's election "was extremely welcomed by a whole bunch of us who did not think Ed Koch had done a very good job in a number of areas, from racial sensitivity to civil service and labor."
Cool to CS 'Reform Plan'
Mr. Croghan said he was the first union official who was given a copy of the new Mayor's civil-service reform plan, and "I said, 'You're essentially trying to create quotas in every single agency." He said Arthur Cheliotes, who for more than a decade had been president of Communications Workers of America Local 1180 and was further to the left than most union officials but was another merit-system champion, had the same reaction.
Mr. Dinkins viewed moving away from strict civil-service rules as a way to diversify city agencies, particularly in mid-level titles that were traditionally occupied by people who had passed competitive exams. Mr. Croghan said his response had been, "You're throwing out civil service that was invaluable to minorities over the years" because it sharply reduced subjectivity in making selections for those positions by requiring that agencies choose one of the three highest scorers on a list to fill every vacancy.
Both he and Mr. Cheliotes wanted Mr. Dinkins to succeed, and so "we didn't make a big issue of it, but when he took it to public hearings, it became embarrassing," Mr. Croghan recalled.
He began to waver, he said, when aides to the Mayor told union officials he wanted them to break with Mary Pinkett, the chair of the City Council's Civil Service and Labor Committee, because she was not sufficiently supportive of the Dinkins agenda.
This was surprising since Ms. Pinkett at hearings of her committee on more than one occasion would question mayoral delegations sent by Mr. Koch about the lack of people of color at the witness table, which often was populated by three or four of what she wryly referred to as "pointy-headed white folks."
Supe 3 Boiled Over
But the real breaking point, Mr. Croghan said, was the Mayor's handling of the Supe 3 dispute. He recalled patching up relations between OSA and Local 371 that had been ruptured years earlier over various internal battles.
He said of Ms. Sabol, "Who the bleep was she to just throw out the entire civil-service system in New York City? 'Too male and too white' was a basically racist position. I came back to having a close relationship with '371' because Charles was taking the position you can't divide people based on ethnicity."
Mr. Croghan claimed that during a meeting between the Mayor and Mr. Ensley, "Dinkins told Charles, 'Why are you fighting so hard for this? These aren't even your people,' " alluding to the fact that most of the candidates on the Supe 3 list were Jewish.
What the Mayor seemed not to grasp, Mr. Croghan said, was that Mr. Ensley regarded all his members, regardless of race, as "his people."
State Sen. Diane Savino, who at the time was a member of Local 371 who had become an activist when she was one of those scheduled to be laid off, confirmed Mr. Croghan's account. She said that dispute was the first real schism in Mr. Ensley's relationship with Mr. Dinkins, "who he considered not only someone he supported politically but a friend."
She recalled a Local 371 protest against Ms. Sabol's attempt to disregard rank-order in making Supe 3 promotions, saying, "It was mostly black women members who were marching. Some of them were on the list, but they were fighting for the civil-service system. It would've been easy for Charles Ensley, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, to look the other way and say it's time" to diversify the Supe 3 ranks. "But he understood that someday it could be another Mayor besides David Dinkins and the people who were being hurt by not using the merit system were likely to be black and Latino."
Frosty Dealings With PBA
The PBA and Mr. Dinkins were a bad match from the start—a union which at the time had an all-white board and a Mayor whose formative years as a young man were spent in Harlem during the 1950s, where one former top NYPD commander later described the department's approach to the community as "suppression."
Relations worsened over two very different events in 1991. One was the contract arbitration that led to the union being saddled with a lesser deal than its civilian counterparts, and a brief it submitted during that proceeding that seemed designed to infuriate Mr. Dinkins with the gratuitous observation that the city would have more money available for fair raises if it weren't spending so much on "welfare."
The other was the Crown Heights riots that August, when over four days of disturbances, 152 cops—the great majority of them PBA members—were injured trying to maintain order while sometimes being prevented from using appropriate force to deal with the youths roaming through the streets of the neighborhood, throwing rocks at cops, Orthodox Jews and stores in the wake of a 7-year-old black boy, Gavin Cato, being fatally struck by a driver in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher Grand Rebbe who ran a red light trying to keep up and lost control of the vehicle.
Mr. Dinkins in his 2013 autobiography, "A Mayor's Life," denied that he had either implicitly or explicitly ordered that the police "stand down." With co-author Peter Knobler, he wrote that he had upbraided his Police Commissioner, Lee Brown, for a too-passive response, particularly after, on the third night of the disturbances, the Mayor had bottles thrown at him as he climbed the steps of the Cato home to pay a condolence call.
But he was the man who had appointed Mr. Brown; he was also the man who relied so heavily on Bill Lynch—who had forged a political relationship during the 1989 campaign with racial arsonist Sonny Carson, who was believed to have imported to the neighborhood some of the young men rioting in the streets and subsequently declared he was "proud" of what they'd done.
The union's relationship with the Mayor was further poisoned in the summer of 1992 when, after a small-time drug-dealer in Washington Heights, Kiko Garcia, was shot to death by a police officer after he tried to grab the cop's gun during a struggle, arranged to have the city pay the funeral expenses as a way of calming the roiling neighborhood.
A City Hall Mini-Riot
Cops' anger over that move, which might not have been necessary if the administration had quickly released a police-radio transmission that made clear Officer Michael O'Keefe was in a life-and-death tussle rather than cold-bloodedly shooting Mr. Garcia, had been released to the media at the time, was cresting at the point that the PBA called a rally at City Hall that September prior to a City Council hearing on a bill to create an all-civilian Civilian Complaint Review Board.
No one expected the bill to go anywhere; Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr., a staunch supporter of police, was known to oppose it. The union gathering was viewed as a figurative show of force, but it went awry from the time that union delegates showed up that morning drinking beer from cans, with some in the crowd holding racist signs with messages like "Dump the Washroom Attendant."
They really went around the bend when a group of them decided to storm the doors of City Hall, creating the stunning sight of NYPD Detectives who comprised the security detail for the building frantically trying to keep the doors from being pried open by the overserved protesters. Some of the wayward cops then detoured to nearby Centre St., where they blocked traffic heading to or from the Brooklyn Bridge and harassed motorists who had the nerve to ask what they were doing.
Mr. Dinkins, who was not in the building when the officers had tried to force their way in, referred to them as "burned-out bullies with badges." The strongest statement from city government actually came from Mr. Vallone, whose car had been parked in the City Hall lot and had been damaged by cops who thought it would be a real kick to jump up and down on its hood.
No one thought that was the only reason the Council Speaker did what he did: move the CCRB bill from the dead-on-arrival pile to the fast track for passage later that fall—but it sure didn't help.
PBA Hit New Low
The following year, there was never any question that the union and its members were strongly supporting Mr. Giuliani's challenge to Mr. Dinkins, although it never formally endorsed him. The most-likely explanation was that the Republican nominee was concerned—although he denied it when asked about that theory—that if the PBA formally backed him, the Mayor's campaign would have aired a commercial showing the out-of-control cops at City Hall and Mr. Giuliani a couple of hours later exhorting them from a flatbed truck a block away while deriding Mr. Dinkins's conduct towards them as "bull----."
But the union ran a full-page newspaper ad in which it mocked Mr. Dinkins for speaking proudly of his past as a Marine when, in fact, he had never gone overseas during World War II.
It was a blatantly cheap shot from PBA President Phil Caruso, for reasons that had nothing to do with his supporting a candidate in Mr. Giuliani who had ducked the draft during the Vietnam Era by getting a Federal Judge for whom he had worked to write a letter on his behalf.
At a time when the U.S. military was reluctant to deploy black troops in battle (it wasn't clear whether it was because its commanders thought they weren't up to the task or were afraid that they would be proved wrong), Mr. Dinkins tried to enlist in the Marine Corps on six different occasions, being rejected for reasons ranging from "we have our quota of Negro Marines" to a specious claim that he had high blood pressure, until his persistence finally gained him entry.
The ad's mocking the Mayor for calling himself a Marine without ever being sent into a combat zone was nearly as ugly as a scene four years earlier that left Mr. Caruso on the verge of tears at its unfairness: a woman affiliated with Sonny Carson speaking against naming a Queens street in honor of an NYPD cop who had been ambushed by men assassinating him for a notorious drug-dealer, by falsely claiming that the officer had been asleep in his patrol car.
Didn't Get Their Wish
Mr. Giuliani narrowly defeated Mr. Dinkins that November, but the union's expectation that the new Mayor would treat them better at the bargaining table didn't materialize. He forced its members to accept the basic 39-month contract beginning with an 18-month wage freeze followed by 7 percent in raises at its back end that other unions had negotiated with Mr. Dinkins. In 1997—with Mr. Caruso by then having retired—the Mayor used an arbitration to saddle them with a two-year freeze upfront followed by 12 percent in raises over its final three years, which became known as the "Zeroes for Heroes" contract.
Oddly enough, and perhaps indicative of Mr. Dinkins's bad luck, the UFT, despite having a far-less-toxic relationship with him, followed a similar contract path.
Ms. Feldman, having benefited from the Mayor's extra bit of generosity when she called him out in 1990, could not wear him down for the next contract, eventually being forced to accept the same 7-percent raise over 39 months as the PBA. During the spring of 1993, the union ran ads excoriating him for playing hardball with it at the bargaining table, and, perhaps inadvertently, became one more union drawing votes to Mr. Giuliani without actually endorsing him.
Randi Weingarten, Ms. Feldman's general counsel and chief negotiator, who later succeeded her as both UFT President and later, as AFT President, argued Nov. 27 that her boss didn't run those ideas expecting that they could damage Mr. Dinkins politically.
"Sandy and Arthur [her husband, Arthur Barnes], were friends with the Mayor and his wife," she said. "Those ads were focused not just on David Dinkins but on trying to get the city to focus on schooling as a priority."
Once in office, Mr. Giuliani took a hard line with the UFT, which accepted a contract midway through 1995 that began with a two-year wage freeze because Ms. Feldman was reportedly convinced that if she didn't accept those terms, Mr. Hill at DC 37—whose members were much more vulnerable than Teachers to layoffs threatened by Mr. Giuliani—might settle for lesser terms in the final three years of a five-year pact than she secured and stick her with a bad pattern.
She was so busy trying to outmaneuver the Mayor that she took her eye off her members, who voted down the contract's terms. That didn't change much, because Mr. Hill hadn't waited on the outcome of the UFT vote before agreeing to the same components. His rank and file wasn't any more enthralled by a deal starting with a two-year pay freeze than the UFT's had been, but some of his corrupt allies got it ratified by stuffing the ballot box in DC 37's second-largest local. A few years later, that chicanery produced a string of indictments and criminal convictions by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.
That was one bad result no one tried to blame on Mr. Dinkins.
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