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Steering a Tight Ship in a Sinking City

John DeLury

By Robert Decherd

"Does the smoke bother you?" a nattily-dressed graduate student asked, cigar in hand, as John J. DeLury settled into a chair next to him at an Institute of Politics seminar Tuesday night. "No, not at all," came the reply from the crusty New York City labor leader who has probably spent as much time in smoke-filled rooms haggling out contracts over the past 37 years as any man in the United States.

No sooner than he had uttered a response, DeLury dipped into his coat pocket and retrieved a plastic case containing five thin cigars of his own. Out of another pocket he snatched a gold lighter emblazoned with the seal of the New York Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association which he helped found in 1935 and has headed ever since. Carefully placing the lighter on top of the cigar case. DeLury sat back in his chair to field questions about his legendary career in New York City politics.

It is not often that DeLury ventures outside the city to talk unions with college students. The lure in this case was provided by Jerry E. Mechling '65, an Institute fellow who first encountered DeLury as an assistant to New York Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1967-68, then as an assistant administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency from 1968-71. DeLury came to Cambridge as a figure who has enjoyed no mean success at putting to practice the title of Mechling's seminar, "Getting Results--Skills for the Innovator."

Results are there for the taking in DeLury's mind, and he knows how to get them. "I run a tight ship," he proffered Tuesday night. "If I spend a dollar, I want two back--not for myself, but for the men in the union." Results? In the 12 months after he called a city-wide strike of the 11,333 members of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association in 1968, DeLury negotiated a 20-year pension plan and two contracts which netted a cool $5000 pay increase for each of those 11,333 men. A sanitation worker in New York City--"if you want to get me mad, call us 'garbage men'," says DeLury--currently makes $12,888 base salary, but throw in time and a half for the last four hours of a 36-hour work week on Saturdays, overtime in snow emergencies, and double time on Sundays and holidays, and you end up with between $15,000 and $16,000 a year.

DeLury is more than a negotiator, though, more than the president of an important independent union. As president of the NYUSA, he controls what is perhaps the most effective political organization in New York City politics today. Block by block, borough by borough, the sanitation workers are more tightly coordinated than any single interest group in the city. In the basement of the union building, there is a mailing machine which is plated for 250,000 current sanitation workers, retired union members, widows, families, ex-wives--as DeLury puts it, "everybody." Beyond the catalogue of the union family, the names are broken down in every conceivable political category, in congressional, judicial, senatorial and assembly districts. And when DeLury says the word, the votes pour in.

New York City sanitationmen follow DeLury's lead for, over 37 years, they have come to trust him; they know he will secure the best possible deal for them. The NYUSA is a "voluntary membership association" and yet all 11,333 sanitation workers belong. Even when there is some uncertainty, the members heed DeLury's advice. The best example of this faith is the NYUSA's support of Lindsay during his re-election campaign in 1969.

Lindsay had entered office on the wrong note in 1966 when he refused to negotiate with Mike Quill, the head of the Transit Workers' Union, who had been threatening a strike for 30 years but had always settled. Lindsay's recalcitrance led Quill to call a TWU strike, for which he ended up in jail. Quill then suffered a heart attack in jail, dying shortly thereafter and leaving Lindsay with a reputation as a silk-stockings man who didn't know how to deal with labor.

Not surprisingly, Lindsay's popularity among union men was at a low ebb during the period from 1966-68. When DeLury went to jail in 1968 for refusing to obey an injunction against the sanitation workers' strike, the prospects for Lindsay garnering even token labor support seemed slight. But Lindsay bent to DeLury's demands in 1968, conceding two pay hikes and the pension plan following the nine-day strike. So when it came time for Lindsay to run again in 1969, the sanitation workers fell in line behind DeLury; in point of fact, the NYUSA was among the first unions to support Lindsay's campaign.

"Sure, a lot of the men didn't care too much for Lindsay," DeLury said Tuesday. "But 97 per cent of these guys are high school graduates. They may hate the man, but they're going to vote where the bread and butter is. In terms of dollars and fringe benefits, Lindsay gave them more between '66 and '68 than anybody before him. Now Bob Wagner--and no one else, really--got down to it with the workers, but he wouldn't give them the benefits. Lindsay did. I put more people in the field for Lindsay than anyone else; there are 11,333 men in my union and they all vote. They know it's the only way they have to be heard."

Since 1968, DeLury and Lindsay have been on relatively friendly terms, and DeLury is presently campaigning for Lindsay in his Presidential bid. Still, he has some biting words for the mayor, with whom he associates a major long-term crisis for sanitation workers. It was in 1966, the year Lindsay took office, that DeLury says the esteem of sanitationmen "vanished." "I don't know why," he said. "The first real corruption in the department surfaced then, but that was just the beginning." The incident between Lindsay and Quill, coupled with two serious scandals--one involving extortion and another a $50,000 contract arranged with the Mafia by then Water Commissioner Jimmy Marcus--had what DeLury calls "a very devastating effect on the morale of everyone in the department."

"After that," DeLury says, "we had a new commissioner once every three months, and the commissioner became a simple figurehead. Thank Christ they have the union there to keep the department going."

One important consideration for DeLury in calling the 1968 strike was the self-respect of the sanitationmen. "Even now we're regarded as second-class citizens, though I don't believe it. But then we were really fighting for respect. Nobody can give respect--you gotta prove respect, get back in the public esteem. I still remember when the strike was called--half past four in the morning on February 4, 1968. Sure, I thought '68 could be negotiated, but they wouldn't give on just $25 more. Lindsay didn't know, nobody knew, what would happen when the sanitation workers went on strike. I don't really think anybody expected how effectively it would shut down the city."

Effective, in the sense the sanitationmen's nine-day walkout was effective, is perhaps an understatement. As the garbage piled higher in the streets, DeLury's bargaining hand grew stronger. But that little episode also got him sent to jail--"not for striking," he reminds, "but for criminal contempt." "They turned loose 10,000 men on the streets, and yet there was no damage, no violence. There was a major crisis," he recalls with a quick grin.

The 1968 settlement may have proved satisfactory to DeLury and Co., but it was irksome to the city's police and firemen whose contracts were also being negotiated at the time. The city was trying to keep the sanitationmen within the bounds of 30-month contracts agreed upon by the police and firemen. DeLury balked, going after a 27-month contract instead, with more benefits and overtime provisions. He defends his position by saying that his men "do a production job--we don't wait for a panic button to respond." "The whole complement of sanitationmen is out on the streets every day. It's constant production work; a sanitation man walks an average of 14 miles a day, doing a job that has the highest rate of injuries in the United States next to logging."

DeLury is very big on the injury rate, which stems partly from accidents caused by carelessness on the workers' part but also from equipment malfunctions. This emphasis is characteristic of his concern for the members of his union. He is no outside union representative, the agent of an association of workers; he is the very personification and embodiment of that association. He first started the union, he says, because "I couldn't tolerate the condition under which honest men in government were being used by politicians for their own ends and at the workers' expense." He left Wall Street during the Depression to become a sanitation worker. After one day in front of a Brooklyn incinerator, he was ready to go back. But a Wall Street croney told him "not to turn yellow," to go back and give the job a chance. "It was the best advice I ever got," DeLury now says.

If DeLury is a union spokesman in the truest sense, then he is also the union leader extraordinaire. "My problems are like a big family. I spend most of my time settling personality clashes and personal problems," he said. But he also plays a cagey game with city hall. Take a recent dispute over route changes to handle peak periods better: "If the city wants route changes, then we'll give them to it. But we want something in return; our production increased 10 per cent last year and 9 per cent the year before that. We are the only municipal department that can show productivity, and they don't want to recognize it because they know I'll ask for more. But I'm a reasonable man. You can't fight something that's right, but you can bargain for it." DeLury smiles, pounding the table for emphasis.

New York has offered DeLury the job of sanitation commissioner more than once. His response to why he didn't take the job is typical: "What? Do you think I'm crazy? I'll never work for a boss; I answer only to my membership." Nor has his experience offering suggestions been very encouraging. "Sure I gave the city an idea once, and I got clobbered by the public for it," he says, referring to the time when he suggested that his men go on at 6 a.m. to take advantage of the less congested streets, thereby increasing production. The problem was that on his schedule, lunch breaks came between 10 and 11 a.m., and the populus didn't cotton to the idea of seeing their tax dollars parked outside restaurants at 10 a.m. eating lunch. So it was back to a 7 a.m. workday.

Most innovations that come from the other direction--from the city--are met with skepticism by DeLury. But once convinced that an idea has some merit, he accepts it for a few mild concessions. The most frequently cited instance of this is the introduction of plastic bags, which he calls "the greatest thing that has happened in sanitation in my lifetime." The impetus for plastic bags came primarily from the business community, but once he saw the importance of the change, DeLury also backed the move. After being persuaded (and getting appropriate compensations for the union). DeLury fell in line; now he notes that the bags have cut back on injuries 40 per cent.

The current controversy in New York centers on the efficiency of the municipal sanitation force as opposed to private cartmen. DeLury counters that private cartmen are a "single operation," collecting high-mass garbage from restaurants, industries, and the like. His men, he says, not only have the more time-consuming job of collecting lighter-mass rubbish--which has to be compacted over and over again to equal the mass of one load of garbage--but they are also responsible for street cleaning, snow removal, and disposal operations. "I'm a great guy for studies, though," he says, willing to take on a comparative pilot program between the two to prove his point.

Another hesitation about the provate carters is their oft-mentioned, but unproven, connection with the Mafia. When DeLury is called on to broach that subject, he demurs by saying, "That's a very dangerous question for me to answer." In fact, Tuesday night he let slip for the first time that he has had a bodyguard, supplied by the city, ever since he received a death threat last October. "The FBI calls and says I must have a bodyguard, and I have. It's that simple," he said.

Despite his age, there is no indication that DeLury is on the way out. If anything, his position is stronger than ever, and it is clear that he already has in mind a new tact of negotiation.

"What I don't know, I hire the brains to tell me, and they do it," he said Tuesday. "I've got the brains. I have the most competent staff in New York City. Now we take every occupation and every wage in the country, and we evaluate them. We look and we see that we don't want to be known as teamsters anymore; I want to be an 'operational engineer'. What does a tractor driver get, for instance? All you can visualize when you hear 'sanitation worker' is this guy throwing trash in the backs of trucks. What you don't realize is that there are compressors and hydraulic snow plows on these trucks. This is a highly specialized, mechanical operation, and we should be paid accordingly.

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