The Velvet Glove and the Iron Fist

Janus represents a turn from conciliation with public-sector unions towards pure repression.

New York City public-sector workers marching in the 1950s. District Council 37

In the late nineteenth century New York City was covered in trash, ash, and horse shit. In addition to the dirt, garbage, and snow bedeviling New Yorkers today, the streets were strewn with mountains of cinders from innumerable coal-burning furnaces, and the excrescence of over two hundred thousand horses depositing sixty thousand gallons of urine and 2,500,000 pounds of manure onto the streets each day.

The dominant scientific theory of “miasma” attributed diseases like smallpox to airborne odors, and while the scholarly consensus was shifting toward the modern theory of germs, enthusiastic consensus remained that bad odors ought to be eliminated regardless.

Keeping the streets clean and unobstructed was paramount to public health, optimal circulation and consumption of commodities, and quality of life in a city where the rich and poor share many of the same streets. Street cleaning was therefore source of social power for the workers who could strike their tools and let the garbage pile up.

Beginning in 1888, New York sanitation workers did just that, embarking on a spate of successful strikes opposing speedup and late wages, and demanding a regular work schedule. Their struggle came to foreshadow the whole trajectory of public-sector unionism in New York City.

Between Tammany and Waring

In the wake of the sanitation workers’ strikes, and during a lull in Tammany Hall’s control of city government, a Colonel George Waring was appointed street cleaning commissioner in 1894. He’s now credited with transforming the Street Cleaning Department from an ineffective patronage machine into a modern city agency. As part of his scientific approach to urban administration, soon to become synonymous with the Progressive Era, Waring established an important precedent for municipal labor relations.

To ward off more strikes by street cleaners, Waring appointed what he called a “Committee of 41” — a group of employee delegates empowered to bring grievances before a labor-management tribunal. By turning his employees into managers, Waring was able to get them to reject grievances at the same rate their bosses had, while securing a wage cut and staving off nascent attempts at unionization. Instead of striking, workers would now manage each other, and mediate conflicts with the boss.

When Tammany retook the city in 1897, Waring was ousted and a more hard-nosed approach to labor discipline resumed. In the coming years, another spate of strikes rocked sanitation. They culminated in a 1911 strike that left garbage piled high in the streets, one strikebreaker dead, and all two thousand street cleaners ousted from their jobs. As historian Mark Maier argues in City Unions: Managing Discontent in New York City, this oscillation between velvet glove and iron fist has defined the city’s approach to managing public employees ever since.

The recent Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, depriving US public sector unions of the right to automatically deduct “agency fees” from the paychecks of non-members, represents a national shift away from Waring’s conciliatory approach, and a return to pure repression. A historical view of New York City public sector unionism helps contextualize the Janus decision, and what it means for the future of the class struggle.

The Little Wagner Act

Public sector unions evolved slowly in New York. Early city unions were organized as so-called benevolent associations, professional associations, and guilds, providing services like life insurance and political lobbying. The Transport Workers Union (TWU), established when subways were run by private companies, was allowed to continue organizing and representing subway workers after the city acquired the subway in 1940, making it the oldest and consequently among the most powerful.

But most municipal unions had to wait until the 1950s. That’s when Robert Wagner Jr, son of the New Deal senator central to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA, or “Wagner Act”), successfully campaigned for mayor promising “A New Deal for New York.”

Beginning in 1954, Wagner issued a series of executive orders he cleverly dubbed the “Little Wagner Act.” Echoing the NLRA, Wagner’s Executive Order No. 49 reads:

Experience has indicated that labor disputes between the City and its employees will be minimized, and that effective operation of the City’s affairs in the public interest will be safeguarded, by permitting employees to participate, to the extent allowed by law, through their freely chosen representatives in the determination of the terms and conditions of their employment.

The Little Wagner Act slowly and cautiously granted recognition to city unions as bargaining agents, established dues checkoff, and began to arbitrate rival claims to representation. These policies opened the door for the rapid growth of municipal unions like AFSCME District Council 37 (DC 37), and bestowed immense power on Wagner’s political allies in the TWU.

But unlike the NLRA, there was no act at all. Wagner’s executive orders were highly subjective in their interpretation, granting immense power to City Hall to shape the unions that emerged in this period.

The Little Wagner Act was designed to dissuade strikes and to leave city officials considerable latitude in tipping the scales towards their preferred union leaders. Wagner favored union leaders who could be persuaded to think of themselves as partners in government, or co-managers responsible for disciplining more militant ordinary workers. Thanks to the ad hoc nature of recognition under the executive orders, Wagner had considerable power to leverage those leaders over others.

As Maier puts it, “the city’s collective bargaining structure all but guaranteed that employees would be represented by a small group of union leaders minimally beholden to their rank and file.” In this way, the emergence of collective bargaining for city workers was an updated version of Waring’s Committee of 41. It was a time-tested strategy for fostering the appearance of independent, democratic unionism while evading its substance.

Shortly after Wagner left office, the Condon-Wadlin Act, which since 1947 had prevented public sector strikes in New York State under the threat of harsh penalties, was replaced by the 1967 Taylor Law. The latter still threatened penalization for striking (albeit lighter), while formally recognizing public sector unions. The leadership of municipal unions now had a seat at the table, and a lot to lose if workers got out of hand, in the form of stiff fines and even jail time. The implicit agreement buttressing Wagner’s recognition of city unions was now law.

“Responsible” Leaders

The period of Wagner’s mayoralty, spanning 1954 to 1965, is sometimes recalled as the salad days for New York City public sector workers. Yet as Wagner expanded the public sector immensely, creating hundreds of thousands of unionized jobs in city employment, signs of a looming fiscal crisis had already begun to emerge.

When the dam finally broke in the mid-1970s, the city’s new, unelected rulers dragooned pliant union heads like DC 37 chief Victor Gotbaum into service as lieutenants of austerity. Layoffs, wage freezes, and cruel speedups disguised as “productivity deals,” imposed with the full, if begrudging, cooperation of most city union leaderships, ensued. The result was that the fiscal crisis marked the beginning of “a long period of steadily declining living standards for New York City employees,” as Maier explains.

In the end, the city unions best positioned to resist this pressure were the police, firefighter, and jail guard unions.These were, not coincidentally, the unions where rank-and-file control was most strongly entrenched;where members were not afraid of taking direct action against the wishes of their elected leadership. The devastation of the city workforce in the mid-1970s threatened a rank-and-file rebellion against quisling leaders like Gotbaum and the giveback regime they helped engineer.

In response, the state legislature handed cooperative union leaders an additional tool to insulate them from rank-and-file rebellion: the agency fee. Long-sought by leadership, the agency fee guaranteed dues would keep coming no matter what union leaders did. Meanwhile, the undemocratic structure of unions like DC 37, the United Federation of Teachers, and the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association meant that leadership positions were often for life. Insulated from accountability to members, union officials were free to embrace the moderate, don’t-rock-the-boat approach preferred by their partners in management, who now included prominent emissaries of Wall Street.

What is the agency fee? A type of “maintenance of membership” provision, agency fees bind all workers in a particular shop to the union recognized by the state as their representative. While these provisions entered New York City municipal unionism in the mid-1970s, their history in the private sector dates earlier to World War II. During this era, the US government created a formula that funneled workers into unions and bound them there, deducting their dues automatically. In return, it secured the cooperation of union leaders, especially in enforcing the no-strike pledge.

By design, union security strengthened “responsible and cooperative” union leaders while reducing the ability of the rank-and-file to hold them accountable. Freed from the need to justify themselves to membership, union leaders like Sidney Hillman, Philip Murray, and Walter Reuther could embrace their role as partners in the war effort. “Sidney, I expect you to keep labor in step,” President Roosevelt told Hillman, whom he appointed to a series of government posts during the war.

The price for ordinary workers was high. Prohibited from striking and subordinated to increasingly powerful bureaucratic union leaders, workers in this period endured a wage freeze and incessant attacks on working conditions from the companies, who, as United Auto Workers militant Martin Glaberman put it, “never permitted patriotism to interfere with profits.” For Glaberman and other militants, maintenance of membership was a victory “for the unions but not necessarily for working people.” This is what was lost in Janus.

End of an Era

Make no mistake, the decision of Janus v. AFSCME is nothing to celebrate. It’s the latest ruling-class victory in a class struggle in which, most often, only one side is fighting. As members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the faculty and staff union at the City University of New York (CUNY), we have watched the forces of austerity dismantle a public university system on which working class New Yorkers, predominantly nonwhite and a plurality of whom are immigrants, rely for education.

Unfortunately, our union leaders mostly succumb to the velvet glove, eschewing militancy and direct action in favor of moral appeals to CUNY administration and the state legislators on whom the school’s budget depends. The result has been declining real wages, the effective privatization of large parts of CUNY, and a massive casualization of the workforce. At this point, more than half of all classes are taught by low-wage, precariously employed teachers the school derisively calls “adjuncts.”

If our union once benefited from compromises with city and state officials, the loss of the agency fee is a signal that this strategy is in the end self-defeating. We wonder how much worse things need to get at CUNY before we reclaim our right to strike.

Labor-management cooperation, however, has never been the only game in town. An alternative tradition exists in the United States; of rank-and-file militants organizing outside and within the legalistic union structure, using strikes and direct actions to confront the bosses head-on. The ongoing teacher rebellion is only the latest episode in a long history of unauthorized and often illegal rank-and-file initiative. This is a history of countless wildcat strikes, work stoppages, and formal organizations such as League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Johnson-Forest Tendency, and Sojourner Truth Organization.

At CUNY, we have built a modest contribution to this tradition, CUNY Struggle. We aim to build grassroots rank-and-file power that does not rely on the good favor of bosses or politicians. It is our conviction that the hundreds of thousands of CUNY students and workers, to say nothing of their families, friends, and neighbors, could form a tremendous power bloc capable of combating austerity. However, as long as unionism at CUNY is conceived in the old terms, of labor-management cooperation and lobbying supposedly sympathetic politicians, this potential remains dormant.

While we lament the sorry state of the class struggle which Janus represents, we join many others in arguing that it just might be the point zero necessary to throw out the old playbook and go on the offensive for a change. If the demise of the agency fee represents the end of an era, as we have argued, it can just as well be the beginning of a new one. Perhaps this time around we can hold fast to a little bit of received wisdom: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”