Worst-case Scenario

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There was a time when urban Americans weren’t afraid of terrorists, bombs, and poison gas. The worst thing that could happen in a city was a strike. Cities were unprepared for labor walkouts because nobody could tell who would strike or when and where. Mayors saw to it that they kept on good terms with unions.In spite of this, in June 1980 New York City was threatened with a general strike by municipal employees engaged in a bitter struggle with Mayor Edward I. Koch over pay raises. For a while it was touch-and-go, and there was much uneasiness at City Hall, where emergency plans had to be created very quickly. The newspapers published union press releases warning that a strike could disrupt the Democratic National Convention, to be held in Manhattan in August, and that was inconceivable.

The strike would include not only most nonmanagerial workers but also the rank and file of the police and fire departments and the city-run hospitals. Senior officers were expected to remain on the job. The transportation unions, which represented bus and subway workers, had negotiated their own settlements and were not expected to strike, but no one could be sure whether workers not affiliated with the striking unions would walk out in sympathy or refuse to cross picket lines.

At that time I was part of the small (two-man) section of the office of the director of operations responsible for ensuring that the city function in an orderly manner at times of crisis. The director asked me to work up a worstcase scenario for the mayor to help him prepare for the expected cataclysm. This was a standard tool used in emergency planning. It was to be a fictional estimate of what might happen if the strike became reality.

With fewer than 30 vehicles, it was possible to isolate the entire island of Manhattan.

Since New York had never experienced a labor action of such magnitude, I had little to work with. I combined what had happened in smaller strikes with incidents in other cities and some conjecture of my own. On June 4 I submitted my “scenario.” The director read it gravely and said, “I don’t think I’ll show this to the mayor just yet. He has enough to worry about.” The subsequent amicable settlement made it unnecessary for him to see it at all, and it vanished into a file cabinet forever.

This is what it said:

The strike was scheduled for July 1, a Tuesday, but the unions decided to wait until Thursday, the third. There were two reasons for the delay. First, Thursday was a pay-day, because the Fourth was a holiday. The workers wanted to pick up their checks before going out. Second, any job action during the evening rush hour preceding the Independence Day holiday would have enormous effect, probably more than at any other time of the year.

The unions’ threat to disrupt the August Democratic Convention turned out to be mere posturing. Union leaders had an important stake in the convention’s outcome and were not disposed to take any action that might favor anti-labor feeling among the delegates.

On Thursday morning wild rumors circulated about the city. The water supply was said to be tainted, possibly with LSD. Racial tensions were aggravated by word that black and Hispanic extremists were planning riots that, uncontrolled by the striking police, could overflow into middle-class neighborhoods. Militants were said to be distributing illegal fireworks to ghetto youth gangs so that they could “celebrate” the Fourth of July, with devastating results if the fire department was on strike. By late afternoon the city was in a state of near-panic.

On payday weeks, when Friday is a holiday, employee checks are distributed after 3:00 p.m., bank closing time, on Thursday. As soon as they had picked up their checks, the uniformed services and the nonmanagerial workers struck.

According to prearranged plan, drivers of large city trucks and heavy equipment proceeded to the 10 key points of entry and exit at tunnels and bridges. They abandoned their vehicles where they would block commuter traffic, removing or breaking rotors or other engine parts so that they could not be driven but would have to be towed away. Since no municipal tow trucks were available, a massive traffic jam collected in no time at all. With fewer than 30 immobilized vehicles, it was possible temporarily to isolate the entire island of Manhattan and place it in a virtual state of siege.

Simultaneously, operators raised the city’s 29 drawbridges and left, after removing or smashing vital parts. This not only caused additional traffic jams but also blocked part of the Seventh Avenue subway line at the 225th Street bridge.

With no police to direct traffic, a few enterprising motorists tried to avoid the jam by driving over sidewalks and the wrong way up one-way streets. Soon total disregard of traffic laws became general. Accidents increased the congestion. Some drivers abandoned their cars and tried to make their way to subway or train stations. All rail transportation sites were packed with mobs of homeward-bound commuters. Major corporations, expecting a strike, had reserved available hotel space for their employees in advance, and the end of the day saw people sleeping and eating in their cars, in parks, or anywhere they could find room.

In central Manhattan and in the shopping centers of the outer boroughs, idlers and teenagers, excited by the absence of police, smashed store windows and took merchandise from displays. The large department stores had increased their security forces, so looters did not venture inside, but display windows were quickly stripped bare. Soon large crowds, including many middle-class citizens, joined the looters. Streets were littered with shards of broken glass and lined with empty boutique and gallery windows.