When the People’s Mayor Tackled Unions

Ed Koch remembers his first days as New York’s surprise mayor and his early confrontations with municipal unions.
  • Transcript


Question: What were your first thoughts when you were elected mayor?

Ed Koch: Well, I cannot tell you the first thoughts, but I can tell you this. I was very appreciative in every election that I've run in that people gave me a chance. I mean, when I ran for Mayor, there were outstanding people running. You had Mario Cuomo, Bella Absu, Kermin Bedio, Abe Beame, Percy Sutton. Those are five people who were highly regarded in politics in those days. Today, some of them would be perceived to be giants compared with those that are out there.

And I thought to myself, the people gave me the chance. Most people never believed I would win. I'm not in any way obligated to the forces that normally elect the mayor such as the banks or the real estate developers, or the unions, the municipal unions. And so, I'm going to do everything on the merits. I'm one of the few people ever elected who came in without obligations. And that's what I thought at the time. And I try to carry out that philosophy.

Question: What was your biggest challenge upon becoming mayor?

Ed Koch: Well, I believe that one of the great challenges was taking on the municipal unions who had enormous power and who exercised that power. It was in 1980 when the Transit Union engaged in an illegal strike, the Public employees are not allowed to strike in New York City and state. It’s something called the Taylor law which had punitive measures if they engage in an illegal strike. Oftentimes, the Mayor or the Governor of a particular city is reluctant to alienate the municipal union so they often don't seek to take those penalties after the strike is over. Not me. I said, “You will pay. We'll take every penalty possible and impose it on you that the law permits.” And in effect, I broke the strike. And I’m proud of it. I happen to be supportive of unions and believe that people should be unionized. And it's a shock and wrong that about 13% of American labor is unionized. Once it was a high of about 35%.

But I don't believe that people who are barred from union strikes so to speak, or striking should be in anyway coddled. They have violated the law; there are penalties. I don't think the penalties are enough. I'd have even greater penalties. And as a result of my attitude in exercising the powers that I did have, I caused the union to regret striking and they didn't strike for, I don't know maybe 20 years or so, then they engaged in another illegal strike, but that was somebody else’s' problem, not mine.

Question: Did you encounter opposition while building affordable housing?

Ed Koch: Actually, there was not opposition that I can recall. I decided that the city would have to go into the housing business simply because the housing normally built by the federal government and to some extent by the state government was not being built. The federal government was out of the housing business, the state government very little in the housing business. And so I decided that we would have to do something that city's rarely, if ever, did. And what we did was, was to use capital funds, actually a program that spent $5.1 billion. Over a ten-year period to build low, moderate housing at affordable rents. And we did it. In fact, the housing numbers are extraordinary. We built 250,000 housing units in my administration. A hundred thousand were new units. New in the sense of either actually really new, or rehabilitating an abandoned apartment house, of which there were many in the city at that time and building in effect, a new apartment. A new apartment, to my recollection, a two-bedroom apartment cost $100,000 to build. To build. And you could not expect low, moderate income people to pay sufficient rent to carry all the charges. So, they all had to be subsidized. But people have to have a place to live. And I'm very proud of that program. We really did a wonderful job.