The New York of 1979, much like the New York of mid-January 2013, was a city of unbused schoolchildren.
But the New York of 1979 — the last time the city’s school-bus drivers went out on strike — was also a city of unmanned elevators and untaken bets. It was a place permeated, if metaphorically, by the scent of spoiled milk and literally by the scent of unbarged trash, where Tiny Tim picketed with Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police officers, American Ballet Theater dancers walked the line on point in toe shoes, and umpires wearing chest-protector-shaped protest signs called strikes outside Yankee Stadium instead of inside.
Which is to say, there was a dizzying amount of labor unrest in those days.
From January, when the head of the cemetery-workers union went on a five-day hunger strike and hospital doctors ceased their rounds to protest closures, to December, when the Long Island Rail Road was stopped dead in its tracks and New-York Historical Society workers walked out (the museum’s director declared himself “personally distressed” by the job action), the city and region were in a near-constant state of partial paralysis.
When the bus drivers went out on Feb. 15 – like their current counterparts, they sought job protection — they were followed in quick succession by the milk drivers, the Off-Track Betting clerks, the tugboat operators, the Port Authority officers, the state prison guards and the apartment-building service workers. By late April, The New York Times was running a daily digest called “Updates on New York’s Strikes.” The bus strike lasted 12 weeks.
Josh Freeman, a labor historian at City University of New York, said that rather than wonder why strikes were so rampant then, “I would kind of flip it on its head” and note that since the 1980s, strikes “have gone down to historic low levels and stayed there.”
Before that, Mr. Freeman said, “a lot of unions were still confident and strong from the long post-war period when unions were very powerful, then in the 70’s they got hit by a lot of economic bad news” – inflation, stagflation, recession — and felt confident in their ability to fight back and make the best of the circumstances.
In fact, Mr. Freeman said, there were several points in the city’s history, just after World War II and during the Lindsay Administration, when New Yorkers endured multiple simultaneous strikes. “People weren’t exactly casual about it,” he said, “but it was part of the expected landscape.”
The 1979 cascade of work stoppages led to fits of occupational overlap. Sanitation workers hauled the trash that the tugboat barges would not, except when they declined to cross the building-service workers’ picket lines. Even as the state prison guards sat out on strike (their union chief took a busman’s holiday to Albany County jail on a contempt charge), city correction workers, who were not, ferried children with disabilities to school in Rikers Island prisoner vans.
The 1979 strikes could be vicious. A maintenance worker was stabbed to death for daring to cross a picket line at St. John’s University. School-bus drivers, some wielding bats and icepicks, smashed windows, slashed tires and surrounded vans carrying children who were emotionally disturbed, refusing to let the children get off and go to school. Someone cut a hole in the roof of a trailer full of milk at a Waldbaum’s supermarket loading dock on Long Island, poured in gas or oil and set it aflame.
The year ended on a few positive notes, though. The Long Island Rail Road began running again in time for Christmas, the ballet corps ended an eight-week lockout by agreeing to a contract that doubled salaries for some dancers, and on New Year’s Eve, a strike by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority toll collectors was averted.
The stage was set for the transit strike of 1980, which would bring the city to a screeching halt.