What do you get for Xmas for a mayor who literally has everything? Especially one who prefers to buy whatever he really craves himself—e.g., four more years in City Hall for $80 million. The only thing he still wants, as the New York Times editorial endorsing him exalted a couple of months ago, is to be remembered as “the greatest mayor” ever. So maybe a crippling strike is his partridge and pear tree, his chance to dazzle history.
If the first four years of Mediating Mike were any indicator, he was the perfect guy to guide us through this transit tumult. He’d just been re-elected with unprecedented black and labor support, and Transport Workers Union leader Roger Toussaint may be the city’s most prominent Caribbean American, a particular stronghold of Bloomberg voters. He’d also already demonstrated his guile in handling the explosive yet eloquent Toussaint in December 2002, when Toussaint told him to “shut up” during the last TWU negotiations. “This is New York,” Mediating Mike, brand new to the job, replied, “people say things all the time.” The saber rattling subsided and no strike ensued.
In fact, recalls Bloomberg aide Bill Cunningham, the mayor personally called Toussaint a few months later and asked him to repeat his shut-up shriek from the audience during the annual Inner Circle spoof sponsored by the city’s press. Toussaint agreed initially to stand up and silence Bloomberg when he sang off-key on stage, but ultimately backed out, Cunningham says. Mediating Mike also invited Toussaint to his East 79th Street home for dinner, one of hundreds of seducing tête-à-têtes the first-term mayor arranged with just about everybody in town he thought could be a problem. Toussaint was an unusual Bloomberg quarry since the mayor has no direct business with him; the TWU’s contracts are negotiated with the MTA, an accountability-avoidance authority that the governor anoints. But Bloomberg was wise enough to know that Toussaint was uniquely positioned to hurt him and his city.
That was then, though, and this, unfortunately, is now.
photo: Kate Englund
There are signs that a new Mike Bloomberg climbed up on that victory stage November 8. The first news accounts on how the strike was settled indicated that it was he, not the governor, who was calling the shots on the pension issue that both provoked and ended the strike. And Toussaint, who suddenly had no access to City Hall, had to find two labor leaders who, unlike him, had endorsed Bloomberg to approach the mayor about pulling pensions off the state’s table in favor of savings on health care costs. When an initially resistant Bloomberg flinched, the MTA simultaneously fell in line.
What the stories didn’t say was that if Toussaint hadn’t been one of the few labor leaders to endorse Fernando Ferrer, and the only one to hire Ferrer’s campaign manager Roberto Ramirez as his consultant-lobbyist, he might not have needed comforting intermediaries to get to the new Mad Mike. Similarly, if Toussaint hadn’t also backed Carl McCall against George Pataki in 2002, he wouldn’t have needed a pipeline to the governor either. Had Toussaint climbed aboard the labor bandwagons for Bloomberg and Pataki, pre-strike conversations at the top would’ve presumably come naturally. And if the mayor was, as the evidence suggests, helping to drive MTA pension demands, hoping to set a precedent for his next round of city bargaining, direct talks with Toussaint would’ve opened his eyes to TWU resolve on the issue.
Of course, it shouldn’t have required that. The mayor could’ve simply recalled his own recent experience. He settled election-year contracts with eight major unions—corrections, police, sergeants, firefighters, fire officers, sanitation, teachers, and District Council 37. Early in the negotiations, the city tossed out pension changes at DC 37’s Lillian Roberts, perhaps the city’s most compliant labor leader, and she said no. City labor was willing to “sacrifice its unborn” by lowering salaries for new hires but drew the line at future pension reductions, and Bloomberg understood that so well that not one of his $1.2 billion worth of 2005 contracts has a meaningful shift in it about pensions. Not only did the mayor never even try to get his unions to boost their pension contributions or retirement ages, like the MTA did, he agreed to set up a labor-management committee to jointly seek a way to move teachers’ retirement age from 62 to 55. Ironically, and unnoticed in the press, the committee was meeting while the mayor and MTA were insisting the TWU go in the opposite direction.
Mad Mike went much further, though, than simply trying to use the transit talks to stake out a new, post-election pension position. He made himself a tabloid mayor in the red-meat tradition of Giuliani and Koch, as if Rupert Murdoch and Mort Zuckerman were now a part of the governing coalition assembled by his 2005 campaign. He called Toussaint et al. “thuggish” in the same Post that branded two workers pictured on the cover “rats.” The next day in the Post the Mayor derided them as “frauds,” and the paper put a theoretically jailed Toussaint on its cover and called the TWU “union jerks” in another screaming headline. He was just as in step with Zuckerman’s expensive imitation, the Daily News, which editorialized up front: “Throw Roger From the Train.”
Press secretary Ed Skyler was reported to be so delighted with these tabloid trashings of the union that he brandished them at City Hall as if they were his own releases, even though the Post made no distinction between Toussaint and his rat members. City operators on 311 greeted callers with the same constant logo as Fox News: “illegal transit strike.”
As instantly gratifying as feeding the tabloid beast can be for a mayor, headline writers and historians rarely share the same perspective. Especially when the Brits and Aussies who dictate our front pages have no sense of the city’s racial and labor histories or sensibilities. As far as our tabloid titans are concerned, when they can’t titillate, they’d just as soon inflame. Anything for a quarter or half-dollar. We’ve had mayors who governed by tabloid, thought in headlines and sound bites, and imagined every day was a new one, as if nothing they’d spit out the day before would wind up staining them. One of them, Ed Koch, said in 2002, when a transit strike threatened, that he’d talked to Bloomberg and that Mediating Mike said then: “The bridge was yours. I’ve got to find something else.” Instead, when the strike came this time, Bloomberg became Koch, another Brooklyn Bridge bullhorn of bluster. If Bloomberg wants to mimic Koch, so will his history.
Murdoch’s tabloid precursor William Randolph Hearst famously told the illustrator he sent to Cuba to depict a Spanish-American War that hadn’t started yet: “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” Presslords are still furnishing any war that will sell a paper, and the politicians who actually wage them do so at public peril.
We don’t need a mayor to be mad for us. We can do that ourselves. We need a mayor to be practical, conciliatory, and competent, averting disasters rather than exacerbating them. That’s who Mike Bloomberg was and hopefully will be again. There is no rationale for treating striking public employees as if they are terrorists and refusing to negotiate with them, as Bloomberg and Pataki opined, contrary to what both were actually doing and what every mayor and governor before them actually did. Toussaint was not the grinch who stole O’Reilly Day. He was doing what many labor leaders in this town have done before him, including MTA member Barry Feinstein, whose teamster local once shut down the city’s bridges.
Bill Cunningham, the mayor’s former communications director, who’s still operating out of the Bloomberg campaign headquarters, expects the outrage over Bloomberg’s thug remark to fade. “If the mayor could see humor in being told to shut up,” he said, “I don’t think anybody should make a big deal out of him using a word like ‘thuggish.’ It’s not the way he normally speaks but this was not a normal situation.” As the trains and buses get back to normal, let’s hope Mayor Mike, who’s switched to welcoming transit workers back, does the same.
Research assistance: Erin Donar and Michael Mitchell