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Labor leader Victor Gotbaum dies; Brooklyn native helped NYC in 1970s crisis

April 6, 2015 By Jennifer Peltz Associated Press
Victor Gotbaum
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Victor Gotbaum, an influential New York labor leader from Brooklyn who both fought City Hall and helped it survive its 1970s fiscal crisis, has died, his son said Monday. He was 93.

Gotbaum died Sunday at his Manhattan home, Noah Gotbaum said. He said the cause of his father’s death hasn’t been determined.

As the leader of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ District Council 37 in New York, Gotbaum was the voice of the nation’s biggest municipal union when the city faced the threat of bankruptcy in the mid-1970s.

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“Victor Gotbaum was a true New York City warrior — a man of action who dedicated his life to organizing workers and improving their lives” but also understood the importance of compromise, Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

In 1975, banks were hesitating to keep extending the city credit because of big budget debt. Then-Mayor Abraham Beame called for laying off thousands of workers and canceling a planned 6 percent raise.

Workers pushed back: Sanitation employees struck, and police officers protested by blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. But Gotbaum felt the workers had more to lose than to gain if their resistance ended with bankruptcy.

“My attitude was that we would all go down together if we didn’t work this out,” Gotbaum told District Council 37’s Public Employee Press in a 2009 interview.

So he worked with state and city officials to strike key compromises. The raise was deferred, and the unions used pension funds to buy city bonds. The city ultimately avoided bankruptcy.

An intense labor advocate who didn’t shy from strikes and sometimes pounded tables when making a point, Gotbaum led District Council 37 from 1965 through 1987. His tenure “improved the lives of tens of thousands of city workers and their families” and defended public services for all New Yorkers, current District Council 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido said.

After getting a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University, Gotbaum worked for the Department of Labor, helped set up a labor education program in Turkey and worked for a meat cutters’ union and AFSCME in Chicago before returning to his native New York, according to his 2000 book, “Negotiating in the Real World.”

“From the beginning of my career as a labor leader, what I loved most were the negotiations,” he wrote.

While negotiating involved compromise, “I don’t think he ever compromised on issues he felt deeply about,” Noah Gotbaum said. “He was really on the side of the underdogs, always.”

Victor Gotbaum was involved in Democratic politics, including by serving as a New York state co-chairman of Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign. Gotbaum’s widow, Betsy Gotbaum, was the city’s elected public advocate from 2002 to 2010. Noah Gotbaum ran unsuccessfully for a City Council seat in 2013.

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