Skip to main content

Worst-case Scenario

June 2024
9min read

A never-before seen report shows just how fragile our great cities were—and are

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.

Within three hours the professionals had joined in. On Thursday evening there were 45 bank holdups. Armed and unarmed robberies, assaults, burglaries, rapes, and other crimes against people and property increased to 12 times normal by nightfall.

After dark the real trouble began. The looters had filled their pockets and departed, and now the crimes of vengeance started. The daytime amateur thieves had been a good-natured mob, but darkness brought out old hatreds. Snipers appeared on rooftops, firing at real or fancied enemies. Business rivals tried to smash or burn their competitors. The poor and unemployed committed random vandalism against what they believed to be the property of the rich. Black and Hispanic militants roamed the streets in search of white people or property to hurt or destroy, and white hoodlums looked for minority individuals on whom to vent racial backlash vengeance.

A crowed gathered at Gracie Mansion and another at City Hall to “get the politicians” who, they believed, were responsible for the troubles. They were beaten back by armed guards, hired from a private agency, before they could ever enter the buildings.

The mayor was surprised by the intensity of the rioting and looting. Advisers had told him that the city police strike of 1971 had caused no increase in the crime rate. But they had overlooked the fact that the 1971 strike took place in winter during a period of bitter cold. Also, striking policemen had reported to their precincts although they refused all patrol assignments. Criminals and honest citizens alike knew that they were on hand for emergencies. But now the precinct houses were locked. Some striking office had disabled police cars before leaving. A few surviving patrol vehicles, driven by senior-ranking officers, had managed to struggle through the less congested streets, but the men were reluctant to approach the rioters and looters, who greatly outnumbered them.

Early in the day an average number of fires had been reported. Citizens were able to manage the small ones without help, although there were reports of interference or harassment by striking firemen. By nightfall the fires had increased, aggravated by incidents of arson. Hoodlums and militants set abandoned buildings afire, and a number of suspicious blazes broke out in business areas where insurance settlements might outweigh falling profits. Some fires spread to neighboring buildings unchecked by nonexistent preventive action.

Many small government agencies and a few of the larger ones had reported that they could carry out essential functions using only managerial or professional nonunion staff. However, by day’s end, nonstrikers had realized that Taylor Law (the state mandate that bars strikes by public employees under threat of heavy fines for both workers and unions) penalties were small compared with potential losses at home to looters, burglars, or fires. Many of them announced to their superiors that they would not return to work until the strike was settled, however long that might be. They preferred to remain barricaded in their homes with reserves of food, water, and fire extinguishers. Thus, contingency plans for maintaining essential city services were rendered partially ineffective. The mayor appealed to senior fire officers to report for duty to drive engines and respond to alarms, but they refused to do so. Even if they had not refused, equipment would have had a difficult if not impossible task trying to get through the jammed streets.

Excited by strike reports leaking through the grapevine, prisoners in the city detention centers in all boroughs rioted, smashing their toilet bowls and setting mattresses afire. The few remaining supervisory personnel in charge were forced to unlock cellblocks and watch helplessly while prisoners, including those in hospital psychiatric wards, ran into the streets and disappeared.

It was now reported that maintenance and repair mechanics had walked out at the watersupply pumping stations, sewage-treatment plants, and garbage incinerators. Supervisors took over but could do little other than maintain the security of the equipment. The chief engineer reported to the mayor that he could not be certain the pumping-station equipment had not been tampered with. Teenagers, helped by striking firemen, had opened fire hydrants throughout the boroughs, and water pressure had dropped alarmingly. Consolidated Edison reported that the pressure drop had forced the shutdown of four boilers at its Hell Gate plant and that more trouble was predicted unless action could be taken soon.

10,000 tons of garbage accumulated, drawing sewer rats into streets and parks.

The city’s 13 sewage-treatment plants shut down when their 8,000 workers departed. It was necessary to dump untreated sewage into local waterways. By nightfall of the first day 300 million gallons had been discharged. New Jersey closed 2,880 acres of Sandy Hook Bay and the mouth of the Navesink River to shellfishing, and Nassau County banned shellfishing west of Oyster Bay. The entire shellfishing industry of the metropolitan area was shut down. Citizens now began to fear epidemics as well as violence.

The absence of Department of Sanitation workers had little effect on the first day, but as the strike continued, more than 10,000 tons of garbage accumulated, attracting sewer rats into streets and parks. Heaps of garbage rotted in the July heat. Particularly unpleasant was hospital garbage, much of which was infectious. Restaurant garbage piled up in reeking mountains as private carters refused to cross lines without police protection.

Eighteen hundred nonmedical workers left the municipal hospitals. These included practical nurses, technicians, guards, housekeepers, orderlies, food-service and laundry workers, and ambulance drivers and attendants. Nonemergency services were shut down. Outpatient clinics were closed. Friends and relatives of patients volunteered to help, but there was some violence when they tried to cross picket lines. Some were stabbed with hatpins when they tried to enter hospitals.

Several hundred nurses joined the strike. About two-thirds of the child health clinics were closed. There was an acute shortage of emergency room and obstetrical nurses. “Working papers” clinics and certain preventative services were abandoned, and venereal disease and immunization clinics were staffed on an emergency basis by doctors. Tuberculosis and dental clinic services were sharply curtailed. Some interns walked out with nurses and nonmedical staff. Hospital emergency duties were carried out by unassisted senior physicians.

The city’s 1,000 parks and playgrounds and 22 miles of beaches were unattended. The major problem was litter, since the 4,000-man recreation and maintenance force and 2,500 clerical-administrative workers were either on strike or honoring picket lines. There were a few drownings at swimming pools and beaches without lifeguards. Some managers trying to get to work were punched by pickets. Looters and vandals carried off or destroyed a number of rare plants in the botanical gardens, but fortunately there was time to lock the zoo animals indoors, as far away as possible from the public. Volunteers saw to it that they were fed and cleaned. The museums were protected by platoons of private armed guards, hired by wealthy patrons.

National Guard troops called in were of little use. The guard’s commanding general said that his men were not in uniform to break strikes and refused to let them perform any city services except security. Because very few of them had police or fire experience, the mayor insisted that they report to senior police officers rather than their own commanders. The general reluctantly agreed to this. To avoid injury to civilians, the guardsmen were also required to carry unloaded firearms. Inasmuch as unarmed guards were greatly outnumbered by those they were supposed to guard against, they were ineffective. Private hired guards were of considerably more value than National Guardsmen. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working with managerial staff, estimated that they could repair the drawbridges for full use in 12 hours.

At 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, after trying unsuccessfully to cope with increasing false alarms triggered by striking firemen, the mayor switched on the news and heard to his amazement that he was reported to have advised all managerial and professional employees to remain at home until further notice. He had also supposedly issued a warning against drinking adulterated city tap water. Neither of these reports was true. Technicians at the Municipal Broadcasting System, instead of walking out, had walked in and barricaded themselves at the WNYC headquarters in the Municipal Building. They had broadcast disinformation, and some of the media recipients, under pressure for “instant news” during the emergency, had not double-checked with the mayor’s office because the reports seemed to have come from an official city news agency.

The mayor tried to telephone the Emergency Control Center at One Police Plaza, where all strike news releases were supposed to be coordinated, but he was unable to get through. He discovered that another group of Municipal Building strikers had taken control of the Centrex phone system and neutralized all government office telephones of the 566 exchange.

In a few hours a relatively small group of people had brought the city to a complete halt.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.