New York Unions Show Strength Recent Walkouts Have Boosted Labor's Influence - for Wrong Reasons, Some Complain. A STRIKE A DAY?

Article excerpt

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. …